The new director of the Art Gallery of Swift Current (AGSC) has a strong connection to rural Saskatchewan and a commitment to arts education and community outreach.
Heather Benning was appointed the gallery’s new director on July 1 following the retirement of Kim Houghtaling, who held the position for 25 years.
Benning had been the Acting Director since May 6 and, for the previous three years, she was responsible for curatorial projects and gallery programming.
She recently told the Prairie Post it was fantastic to receive the nomination and she is really happy in her new role. There were no real surprises at the post after more than a month in the post.
“I think part of it is because I’ve been here for almost three years before taking on the new role,” she said. “I guess I talk to more people in a day than I could have imagined and there are quite a few emails to get through, but I kind of knew it was going to happen. The transition was therefore perfect.
She was already familiar with Swift Current when she joined the art gallery three years ago, as the AGSC held an exhibition of her work in 2016. Her decision to accept the position of curator in 2018 resulted in was influenced by its strong commitment to rural Saskatchewan.
“It was a good job in the arts, and it matched my desire to work in rural Saskatchewan and help develop art and artistic practices for rural Saskatchewan people,” said she declared. “Often the rural is neglected and I wanted to continue working in this space and defending rural communities. “
She was born and raised on a farm near Humboldt in central Saskatchewan, and her background has had a major influence on her art.
“I’ve always believed strongly that you could work with what you know and your experience, and that’s my experience,” she said. “It’s also something that keeps bringing me back to Saskatchewan. I have lived for years in Scotland and Nova Scotia and have continued to come and return to Saskatchewan.
She graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2004. She continued her education in Scotland, where she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in Sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh , in 2009.
Her work as a practicing artist has been varied and multidimensional, and she has received numerous scholarships and awards. She was shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award, a prestigious award for young contemporary artists in Canada, and she is the recipient of a Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. She won two prizes at the London International Creation Competition and has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Imperial Tobacco Canada Foundation.
“For me, art is a way of communicating and conveying a feeling or an idea that I can’t find words for,” she said. “This is kind of how I start with my projects, if there is something that I want to talk about or that I want to communicate, then my next step is how to communicate it or how to get that point across. “
Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across Canada and abroad, and she has produced several large-scale installations in situ. The doll house is probably one of his most well-known large outdoor art projects, in part because of the way it ended.
She converted an old abandoned farmhouse near Sinclair, Manitoba into a full-size dollhouse. The north-facing wall has been replaced with plexiglass to allow people to see the interior, like a real dollhouse.
After six years, the house became structurally unsafe and she decommissioned work by burning the house down. She created a short film in collaboration with Vancouver filmmaker Chad Galloway to record the end of the project, which was screened at several film festivals in different countries.
“With projects like The doll house I was talking about the end of the family farm and the development of agribusiness, ”she said. “It made sense and worked well for what I had done, which was to take an abandoned farmhouse and restore the interior to the date of abandonment, then leave it as a grave to be visible in a vast empty field where everything but the house was demolished. It was a topic of conversation there and it was also appreciated by the community. So I start with this idea and then work my way to an end goal . “
She still plans to create art projects, but expects it to likely take longer due to her new responsibilities as Director of AGSC. She works in collaboration with her sister Sheri Benning, who is a poet. They recently produced a short film titled Winter sleep in partnership with filmmaker Chad Galloway, which has been screened at four film festivals.
Benning mentioned that she attended the ceramics classes presented by AGSC, because it is a relaxing thing to do at the end of a long day at work.
“I guess my expectations of getting things done as quickly as possible have now relaxed and I’m not forcing myself to do it,” she said of her new approach to creating art. “I sort of make art for the sake of doing it and will take contracts if the time is available. Ultimately though, being an art gallery manager and providing direction to the art gallery is a great project that I’m very happy to take forward.
Her previous professional experience includes teaching at different universities and galleries. She has also held artist-in-residence positions at the University of Regina, the Norfolk Arts Center in Ontario and Redvers, Saskatchewan.
She has used her time at Redvers to develop arts education programs for adults and children, and she has put together a highly regarded guest lecture series that has brought renowned practicing artists to the community.
She has also worked with CARFAC Saskatchewan as an artist mentor, which has given her many opportunities to travel across the province to engage with rural artists to offer constructive criticism and advice.
“It’s something you also do as an art gallery manager in a rural community,” she noted. “You are sort of the first point of contact for local artists and you have to be available to them as well. “
She felt that her varied background and experience would be a real advantage in her position as Director of AGSC, which will require oversight of activities ranging from conservation to programming.
“As an artist you become a bit of a jack of all trades, especially when you are a freelance artist, because you take on a lot of contracts,” she said.
She believes that art and artistic creation are very important and relevant to society, and that an art gallery plays a key role in creating bonds in a community between people and art.
“Art has always been a way to keep records and to reflect,” she said. “Art is for the community and art galleries are for the communities they serve.
She felt that arts education programs are an important part of an art gallery’s role in a community, as they provide a way to bond with people.
“Arts education is what can get people into a gallery door,” she said. “I understand the gallery can be intimidating at times if you’ve never been to a gallery before.”
Benning noted that she was around 18 before she first visited an art gallery, but as a child she took ceramics and other art-related classes.
“It’s a way to bring people into your spaces and it’s also a way to increase our visual education for the community,” she said.
She added that it is the responsibility of an art gallery to be available to the community and to reflect the community as well.
“He has to provide services to the community, and we do that by offering as many courses as possible,” she said. “We have to think about the community, then also reflect the community through what we bring, and then expose the community itself. So we have to show the community to the rest of the arts. These are all kinds of mandates that I have planned and put in place, and I am delighted to continue moving forward.