My Arts Internship Award was generously funded by The Gary Leslie Ruby Estate and provided me with the opportunity to intern at the McGill Visual Arts Collection. I am a 3rd year McGill Anthropology student in the Faculty of Arts. Without a definitive career path, my interests in history and the arts prompted me towards the Visual Arts Collection, where I hoped to learn and gain hands-on experience in a museum. Moreover, there is quite a lot of overlap with my studies in archaeology and working within a museum collection.
The McGill Visual Arts Collection (VAC) cares for over 3500 artworks across all of McGill’s campuses in over 90 buildings. Interning at the VAC allows one to undertake a broad range of responsibilities such as making condition reports, moving artworks, conducting surveys, giving guided tours, and researching the collection. The collection is constantly expanding and thanks to the generosity of donors, has grown to include more art from diverse and international artists. Interns thus gain a lot of experience with collection and conservation practices as well as a collection management software: CollectionSpace.
The interns at the VAC undertook many duties during this past summer. With two other interns and our Collection Manager, we attended the 2023 MMFA conference: Quand l’art contemporain transforme le musée. It was a terrific experience where we learned about the challenges that come with the acquisition of contemporary art. This includes artworks with performative aspects, such as Francoise Sullivan’s Rideau Sonore, NFTs, and living artworks. Presentations were given by researchers, conservators, and artists, all providing different perspectives affiliated with museum settings. Moreover, we were privileged to see Ojibwe artist, Maria Hupfeild present and reactivate one of her artworks. The piece, Jingle Spiral, touched upon issues concerning the use and ownership of objects or artworks that are inherently performative, but also remain framed within a museum setting.
I would also like to underline a tour I gave along with Jocelyn Campo and the assistant curator, Dr. Michelle Macleod. What was initially our largest group yet, consisting of staff from University Advancement, ended up being one of the best and most rewarding tours. I had only managed smaller tours beforehand and found myself nervous at the prospect of engaging with twenty other people, especially ones in charge of gathering funds from donors. Nevertheless, it really gave us a nice boost of confidence, and prepared us to lead tours on our own, without Michelle, moving forward.
One of my favorite experiences involved researching the university’s extensive art collection. My summer internship came at a time where the VAC incorporated many new collection management procedures. I found myself deep diving through archives, sometimes trying to find artists or provenance. For example, many of our Japanese woodblock prints lacked information. Though work remains, we’ve managed to decipher a few Japanese seals to date and attribute them correctly. We also have artworks that had not been seen or taken out of storage in many years, and thus had no recent images and/or lacked information only available in-person. It was not uncommon to find myself with more questions than I started with, and though frustrating, not all could be answered. Nevertheless, it was a great way to get acquainted with various artists and an artwork’s history, as well as contributing to the collection’s knowledge for future generations.
This internship has also radically changed my relationship with the university. If anything, it has made me appreciate the campus and my connection with McGill more than any of the last two years have. Unlike other internships that were mostly focused within a designated location, having artworks in over 90 buildings means that we get to travel everywhere, including to campuses in Mont-Saint-Hilaire and in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellvue. Moreover, employees from every department can ask for artwork, and this movement from building to building has us meet and discover different places, as well as establish contact with different departments and university staff.
Lastly, motivated by what I learned at the VAC, I have taken more courses in art history and Indigenous studies in my next semesters. I have also begun to pay more attention to the artworld in everyday life. What to some can be challenging, the VAC’s multifaceted role provides invaluable experience that interns will take with them well after their studies.