Absolutely Fabulous: Jeffrey Spalding and Halifax

An art museum or gallery is a minor miracle, especially here in Atlantic Canada. There is always something else considered more deserving of the public or private funds needed to keep a gallery or museum going, and art is rarely on the top of to-do lists.
Add to those realities the fact that, here at least, public galleries are tasked with missions and mandates that far outstrip any public funding, and you understand why I call them minor miracles.
On Oct. 14, Canada lost one of its most persistent and successful miracle workers when Jeffrey Spalding died at the age of 67. Many people in Halifax will remember Jeffrey from his five eventful years as director and chief curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Jeffrey had many roles in the Canadian and International art world, but it may well have been in Halifax that he wrought some of his most powerful miracles: exhibitions like Rodin, Quilts of Gee’s Bend, and the Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World (who ever thought that we would see mummies in Halifax?), plus a major acquisition program that saw the AGNS collection more than double. That all added up to an overall elevation of the AGNS into one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Canada.
I worked at the gallery during those tumultuous and exciting years, and I know first hand how the national reputation and scope of the gallery expanded under Jeffrey’s watch. “Fabulous” was his favorite description, summing up his passion, enthusiasm, and willingness to imagine the previously unimaginable. Jeffrey’s tenure at the AGNS was, by anybody’s definition, fabulous.
His ascension to the directorship of the AGNS (only the second director in its history), was actually a return. In the mid-1970s, Spalding was the gallery’s first stand-alone curator (founding director Bernard Riordon was also a curator).
In 1978, he moved to Calgary to take a curator’s job at Glenbow Museum, but it was in 1981 that he made the move that would single him out as one of the most innovative and unorthodox curators in the country. From 1981 until 1999, he was director/curator of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery.
In that role, amidst his curatorial projects and art history classes, he created one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary international art in Canada. He was so successful at securing donations of art that the university eventually had to build a separate building just to hold the collection.
In 1999 he took on the Directorship of the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala Florida, moving from there to Halifax in 2002. Contemporary, historical Canadian, American, and European art, plus ancient art, folk art, and world cultures: all were part of Jeffrey’s vision for the kind of art museum Nova Scotia deserved.
It was an expansive, and expensive, vision that, ultimately, Nova Scotia didn’t want to pay for. Jeffrey always pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and was always willing to take the hits that came with moving institutions into areas that they weren’t sure they wanted to be in.
He used to tell me that his goal was raising the level of the galley, so that it would be judged on that basis, and not slip back to being something provincial or sedate. He hated things to be quiet and comfortable; he would risk all to keep things interesting.
Jeffrey worked tirelessly, and incessantly. It was as if he knew that he had to outpace his critics (who were often his own staff and his bosses) to achieve great things before they caught up with him. He certainly did that.
He was a museum director the likes of which we will not see again. I followed him as director of the AGNS and I certainly was never able to buck the system the way he could, though I made my own mark (and always received proud congratulations from Jeffrey for my successes).
One thing I learned form him (among many) was to spend time in the gallery, to see how visitors were responding to the exhibitions.
One time, in the Rodin exhibition, I came across a woman standing in front of one of those fabulous sculptures, quietly weeping. She turned to me and said, “I never thought I’d live to see this in Halifax. Here, of all places.” That she did was because of Jeffrey’s vision, and just one of Jeffrey’s minor miracles.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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