Art Gallery of Swift Current in the spotlight

Kim Houghtaling, the director/curator at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, is a shortlisted nominee for the 2019 Saskatchewan Arts Awards.

The leadership role of Kim Houghtaling to promote the arts and other cultural activities in the Swift Current region has been recognized with a nomination for a provincial award.

He has been the director/curator at the Art Gallery of Swift Current (AGSC) since 1996. He is a shortlisted nominee for the 2019 Saskatchewan Arts Awards in the category for individual leadership.

“It's a huge honour to be nominated by your peers for a leadership award,” he said. “Knowing that you had a positive effect in a leadership role in culture for your community and province is really rewarding. It's a great compliment.”

The Saskatchewan Arts Board established these awards in 2016 to celebrate the achievements of individuals, groups and organizations in all arts disciplines. There are six award categories and winners receive an award sculpture and a cash prize.

The award category for individual leadership aims to recognize and celebrate an individual who demonstrates leadership and commitment to the advancement of the arts and artists in the province through exemplary management, presentation, production, distribution, marketing, research, collection or curatorial practice.

Houghtaling was born in in Prince George, B.C., and grew up mostly in Peachland, which is in the Okanagan Valley. He completed a diploma in fine arts in nearby Kelowna and then moved to Saskatoon to do a bachelors degree at the University of Saskatchewan. Over the next seven years he got involved with the city’s art community and also met his wife at university.

He started his career by working for art galleries, but then moved to Edmonton when he had the opportunity to do postgraduate work at the University of Alberta under the guidance of English-born abstract sculptor Peter Hide and the legendary British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro.

Houghtaling worked at various art galleries in western Canada after the completion of his master’s degree. He was responsible for collections management at the Burnaby Art Gallery, and worked as curator and collections manager at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie. He was an exhibition coordinator with the extension program at the art gallery in Edmonton.

“I like visual art, it truly interests me, and I like art galleries,” he said. “I go to them when I'm on vacation. I go to them whenever I get a chance, because I like how they work, I like making shows. Early in my career I was going to be just an artist. I never thought I would be a curator, but being able to become a curator has been a great benefit, because now I work with so many other people's art that I really enjoy. I like thinking about it and talking about it.”

He enjoys being the director and curator of an art gallery in a city the size of Swift Current, because it provides him with opportunities to be involved with projects that might not be possible elsewhere.

“I could do things here, and so we are always working on projects and events and exhibitions,” he said. “You're always creating something new, you're doing something special each and every project, and so it's never boring. In fact, it's way too ambitious, the amount of work you can end up doing because of the projects you put yourself into. I guess I like that too. I like working lots and so I think that's part of it as well.”

His family’s move to Swift Current in 1996 happened at the right moment. He and his wife were happy to return to Saskatchewan and Swift Current was a good place to raise their children.

“Initially I thought that I definitely want to see a few things through for five years, get the gallery back on track, and develop a strong relationship with its community and its city so that the support is there and that there's a mutual respect,” he recalled. “We were able to do that in five years, but five years in we were just getting started and nobody wanted me to leave yet. So we stayed and we kind of fitted in.”

He became the AGSC director and curator at a significant moment. The gallery nearly closed just before he started, because it lost a major federal grant, but a decision was made to give it another try and they appointed Houghtaling.

“I really honestly looked at it and thought if this can't work, I have to be really professional about it and say this can't work,” he said. “There's too little money in this business to support places that really shouldn't be operating, and I had to be honest about it and just shut it down if it needs to be shut down, but the truth is, a year into it we found there were lots of folks interested in art programming. The artists certainly still wanted to have an art gallery, and the province was very interested in still having a good art gallery in this part of the province.”

He found a lot of support in the community for an art gallery and the City of Swift Current was also on board with the idea of keeping the gallery open.

“The City was very encouraged that we could possibly make a go of it and they did a couple of things that improved our incentive,” he said. “We were able to start a bit of revenue earning and fundraising through our art classes and programs, and very rapidly we went from nearly being broke to tens of thousands of dollars of self generated resources and there came a bit of a positive energy around the gallery and so that got me quite inspired.”

He realized that a public art gallery is a cultural institution and the most important thing it can do is to demonstrate to a community how wonderful their culture is. He therefore focused on developing and implementing various arts activities to engage people and to encourage audience development, and the gallery became a resource hub for the arts and other cultural activities in the region.

Several of the current high-profile events in Swift Current had their origin in activities that took place at the AGSC, including the Windscape Kite Festival, Blenders concert series, and Long Day’s Night Music Festival. A youth group that was part of the art scene at the gallery evolved into the Southwest Cultural Development Group that revived the Lyric Theatre.

““So I never did leave,” he said. “It was just one project after another that gave us optimism and hope that Swift Current could do a lot, because everything we could offer and everybody we could help just kept growing and growing.”

The gallery’s visual art program also continued to develop and it has hosted more than 150 professional exhibitions of provincial, national and international artists. It has implemented various arts activities, including different ceramic, drawing, painting and sculpture studios. It offers more than a dozen art classes per season, from weekend workshops to eight-week-long courses.

“There was a couple of art classes when I started and we increased that program significantly,” he said. “We've had an ongoing program of art education, which gives people a real hands-on engagement and makes them more interested in visual art.”

The AGSC added more art installation space when it started to use a wing of the H-Hut at Kinetic Exhibition Park, which has become the West Wing Gallery. It is the annual venue for the high school art show and the Southwest Open exhibition, which provides an opportunity to amateurs and aspiring professionals in the region to display their work.

More recently the AGSC has started to use the second floor at the Dixon Community Centre, which was previously a school, for various art activities.

“That was a great opportunity as well,” he said. “Again, it's part of our plans to expand, because of the growth needed in culture to do with the gallery. The studio program that we have done in a very makeshift way were moved to some of the classrooms in the Dixon Community Centre. … We have four studio classrooms there and two prep labs for collections management. So it worked out wonderfully.”

Houghtaling believes an art gallery functions as a literacy service in a community to promote cultural literacy among residents.

“Visual art is the oldest recorded language that we have, and all symbols, including written English, are visually based,” he said. “When folks come to the gallery, we give them access to really good quality examples of visual art from across the country and beyond sometimes, and especially focusing on our region and our province. … So I think that we provide access to examples of visual art and visual culture, but we also do things to enhance their experience.”

Houghtaling is one of four shortlisted nominees for the 2019 individual leadership award. The other nominees are Jennifer Matotek, the director/curator of the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, as well as Saskatoon’s Joel Bernbaum and Heather Morrison, who have been nominated jointly for their partnership to found Sum Theatre. The 2019 Saskatchewan Arts Awards winners will be announced during an awards presentation at the Frank and Ellen Remai Arts Centre in Saskatoon, Nov. 4.

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