On The Bookshelf: How to make a museum … or an art gallery

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Judith Nasby’s Making of a Museum explains how the Guelph Art Gallery came to be

Some of you may not have visited the interior of the Guelph Art Gallery. But because of Judith Nasby’s vision, I’m pretty sure you’ve experienced The Canadian Beggar Bear. This striking sculpture that stands on Gordon Street just outside the gallery usually has several creative costume changes per month and if you’re anything like me, you smile every time you walk past.

Passing by is what artist Carl Skelton had in mind when he gave permission for the bear to be decorated as his fans see fit.

The Sculpture Garden, which houses The Begging Bear and other installations, has been built over years and is a superb example of the importance of public art.

Judith was director and curator of the gallery for 45 years and The Making of a Museum is a collection of her memories. His memories are imbued with humor and great affection for all involved in the evolution of a collection that began on the indescribable walls of Creelman Hall and ended in a charming, light gallery designed by Raymond Moriyama.

The road to the Guelph Art Gallery required Byzantine negotiations with the Upper Grand District School Board, the City of Guelph, the County of Wellington and the University of Guelph. I tire of thinking about all the necessary bureaucratic meetings. Fortunately, Judith has kept these details to a minimum.

She did, however, bring to life some of the many important supporters and patrons who believed in the importance of art. What started as the Ontario Agricultural College is now a prestigious university with a renowned art gallery. Many of these early teachers insisted that “aggie” students be exposed to art and music. Ah, the wisdom of the past …

The past has allowed Judith and her team to do what would never be sanctioned today. Once back in the 1970s, Judith was able to build up a collection of promising and now famous New York photographers. She thought the college would buy the collection, but when they didn’t, she and her husband had to take the photos back to New York City in their rented station wagon. The only place they could park for the night was in a dark underground parking lot. They stepped back into space and crossed their fingers that the photos were there in the morning. These photos are now worth hundreds of thousands.

Other escapades like the cigarette girls at the Guelph Spring Festival openings and the subsidies from the cigarette companies add color to the times and make you realize how much that has changed, for the better in this case.

Judith and her team decided early on to set themselves apart by focusing their collection on contemporary Canadian and Indigenous art. That’s how cunning she was. She didn’t need the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tell her how important Indigenous art is. She understood it on a visceral level.

It would make a perfect gift for anyone interested in art, local history, entrepreneurship, and courage! There are some great plates in the book, but damn it, just go visit the gallery. You will not regret it. And thanks to Judith and her team for never giving up on their vision.


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