INTERVIEW WITH THE ESKER FOUNDATION
Arts Community Spotlight highlights interviews with icons of Calgary’s Cultural arts community and gets personal on their journey, story, challenges, goals, and other aspects.
Esker Foundation connects the public to contemporary art through relevant, accessible, and educational exhibitions, programs, and publications. We had the opportunity to interview Naomi Potter Curator and Director of the Esker Foundation to talk about the organization's role in Calgary's art community, the challenges and achievements, how the journey of building this institution has been, and how they are facing the future in supporting newcomers and immigrant artists.
Our talk with Naomi Potter was very candid and open, she shared with us so many rich stories about the foundation, starting with the vision of its founders Jim and Susan Hills and how special the project is on many levels.
We would like to know a little bit more about the history of the Esker Foundation.
Esker foundation turned 10 in June 2022. We opened in 2012, it is an incredibly special project, for many reasons, but I'll kind of start at the core: Jim and Susan Hill, the founders.
They had the vision to create this. And it's unique on many levels. Probably first and foremost is the financial model. They did consider a standalone building, initially, to house the gallery, but recognized quite early that the standalone building would be quite expensive to run. You're also limited by how much revenue you can generate from that building. So why not create an alternative kind of model? Which is what they ended up doing. They took an entire city block, and built one enormous building, and the gallery is but one tenant.
So the family is incredibly generous. Not only have they built the building and the gallery, but they continue to give back. A portion of the revenue that's generated from the building goes into a trust fund, essentially. And we pull our operating budget out of that, which is incredibly nice. The building is really our trust fund. Which is quite interesting.
The building is… The best way to describe it is unique, but also really smart in terms of what it allows the gallery to do.
Very clever. They built the building and created a kind of microsystem and synergy among the tenants to keep the traffic flowing, a win-win strategy that generates revenues to maintain the gallery, allowing them to have economic independence and focus their work on making the gallery accessible and making people excited about art.
How does the Gallery work?
Most private foundations generally come out of a collection. Jim, in particular, kind of realized, I think, quite early that while his collection is interesting, it's also limited. And if the Esker Foundation was simply to revolve around a collection, that would get pretty boring. So wouldn't it be smarter not to have a collection and build a facility in which you can borrow from any collection in the world?
The choice that he wanted to go forward with was to take advantage of other institutions' collections. Because there are, there's so much to pick and choose from. So, our exhibitions are temporary. They just come in for a period of time, sort of three to five months, and then they go back either to their collection or the artists. We work with public galleries, we work with private collections, we work with other institutions, and artists.
Another interesting story that Naomi Potter shared with us was about the name of the foundation, Esker referring to a geological formation, a long ridge of gravel that you can see if you drive out to the Rockies. She said:
“...these ridges that were formed during the Ice Age, when the ice started to melt, left these kinds of bridged winding pathways through the landscape. And it's often kind of cited as, you know, not the most direct way to get from A to B, but often the most scenic because you're above, and I think it is similar to how we experience contemporary art and how we learn. No one learns the same. No one experiences Contemporary, the same way. There are lots of paths and lots of ways to get from A to B”
What have been the challenges and lessons learned during these last 10 years?
Private foundations do not open very often in Canada. So there are not many examples. My offer letter was essentially a blank slate, this is a blank. Here's the space. What should we do? Some pressure. You know, I come from the public museum art world. So, having to kind of undo my ways of thinking about how an institution should be built, was probably my most challenging thing. And I've said from the beginning, how do you build an institution without being institutional? And I really think that that is very much grounded in how we work here. We try to make it simple to limit bureaucracy, limit the number of meetings, limit committees, and subcommittees, limit red tape, all the things that somehow make institutions really non-responsive.
Because it was new, the galleries and public institutions that we now borrow from, or artists we work with, initially, they said, well, we don't know who you are, we don't know what this Esker foundation is. So, you really need to do some work and make sure that you build up trust and reputation and we had to build our reputation in the art world.
So, I kind of pivoted and said, Okay, we're just going to work directly with artists to gain their trust. I really think our reputation was built one artist at a time. It was kind of funny thinking back to that now. It was a very tactical and smart move, at the time. It wasn't about being tactical or smart. It was like: “Oh, my God, I have so much space.”
What have been the achievements?
Many little achievements, that kind of create a really lovely large pile of just being proud of all the things we've supported. Proud moments of every time we open a new exhibition, and the public comes in and sees it and says, Oh, I thought the last exhibition was my favourite, but it’s actually this one!
Being super committed to the artists and the work, and us as a team working really well together. And doing the best possible version of this exhibition with this work and these artists at this moment.
As an organization that plays a major role in the art community in Calgary, how does the Esker Foundation support newcomers and immigrant artists?
I was thinking about this before you came. And I think it's what we offer to anyone. Which is, it's free to come here. Parking is free. Tours are free. So, anyone can come and listen to me or one of my other curators or colleagues speak about the work, family program, baby program, workshops for adults, sort of accessibility to not only what's on the wall. Knowledge, education, learning, meeting new people, coming to a workshop, and meeting others to network like that.
We have a volunteer program. We're always looking for new volunteers. That's a really good way to start. To start just to get involved in watching and to listen, to work on language skills, to connect with others who have similar lived experiences or hobbies or, you know, I think art is one of those things that connect people. Art connects people in many ways. It's like encouraging people to come here for the first time so that they have a positive experience and that they'll come back. And they'll see us as a safe place to come and learn, a safe place to come and question, a safe place to come and ask questions, and finally a safe place to come and be an artist without judgement.
Esker foundation supports the Immigrant Art Mentorship Program (IAMP) at ICAI. What does the foundation think about the program?
Mentoring opportunities are so critical. So, so critical. What I would say is, someone who finds themselves in a senior position in the local visual arts community, now often mentors. At my time I didn't get that. I think I'm from a generation in which it was like, everyone keeps his things very close, and doesn't share opportunities. So, I think mentorship just across the board is important. It just makes you feel like regardless of where you are in your path, you see others who may have similar life experiences, or barriers, or family or whatever it is succeeding, it's like you see these models of success. I think it's also important, mentorship offers unconventional pathways and unconventional ways to feel like you succeed, or have community.
You don't feel like you're alone. You actually have people you can lean on and call to and even if it's not an art question, but you know, it's like, Who do you trust? People that you can lean on when you need help.
I think with visual art, there is no right path but there is your path, and you're gonna get to where you're going. It's just kind of being brave enough, to put one foot after another, and also see really diverse. You know, when I meet students, I often say there are 10 of you. Nine of you won't be practicing artists. One of you will be a practicing artist, two of you will work in the arts sector, one of you will make a lot of money and will support artists, and three of you will just bring your family to every art gallery and enroll your kid in every kind of visual art experience. I think mentorship is kind of similar. it's a necessary support network.
How does the Esker foundation see the cultural and artistic industry in Calgary now?
I think Calgary is a visual art community quite small, but quite mighty. We have a very long history of artists-run centres. And I think that's really incredible that they continue to produce really evocative and interesting exhibitions and continually evolve and change and shift depending on where artists are and where conversations are.
We have some, you know, big institutions that have really large collections that have continued to kind of be a foundation of the community for a long time. And then we have a sort of Contemporary Calgary which is interesting, because its roots are historical. And I think that that makes it an interesting sort of beast. It is both. But it's really important that they succeed, because the success of all, whether it's the Glenbow, Contemporary Calgary or any of the other art centres, their success means we all succeed. And I think it's important to always keep that in mind. We complement each other, and we all do really different things.
We need to bring in exhibitions that sort of challenge artists, but at the same time, can also introduce someone to contemporary art, if maybe they haven't been there before. Yeah, and I think everyone does that in different ways. I think our biggest challenge in Calgary is larger political challenges in terms of the city, and province, and recognizing visual art as being an important part.
How is the organization facing the future?
It's really important to be prepared to reevaluate every five years. That's the way to do things. I mean, we just finished ten and we did a lot of reflecting leading up to that. Unfortunately, COVID-19 kind of got in the way of a lot of plans, so we've kind of stepped back. How many programs do we produce in a month? What are our goals and how much do we want to do? I don't actually want to grow. In some sense, eight staff is enough.
I think we are right now reevaluating because I think we're proud of the work we've done in the last ten years. But what do we want to achieve in the next five? And for me, that really actually means honing back down to Jim and Suzanne. And kind of re-engaging in them and saying, okay, we've done this for ten years. What do you think? If you could choose if you could refocus your priority or refocus, you're kind of your vision for what you want this place to be. What is that? Because ultimately, as a private art foundation, it is their vision.
It's not just a job for me, actually. It's really a kind of commitment to a relationship project that is long-term. I think of going back and being able to take the last ten years and reflect on those and then sort of refocus. What the core is for the family, and then how we as a staff sort of realize that core and then the impact that has on the community.
Any advice for the artist?
Don't make it for anybody else. Okay? Make the work for yourself. It has to come from the heart. Go into your studio and a studio can be anything, it can be a laptop, it can be a couch, it can be a kitchen table. It's about spending the time that you need to think and to get to that place as an artist. So you really just have to make your way and people will be drawn to the work.
And I think the second thing I would say, even for emerging artists: not everyone will love your work. What you do is not for everyone. But there's someone who will connect with that.
Be excited about it. So say you do a studio visit with a curator and there's no spark, that's okay. Because if they don't have it, they're not going to do that work for you.
Artists need to be kind of selfish, to make the work and also they need to find their community and know that will support them. Because it's tough. You know, unfortunately, art is one of those things that you do from your heart and your gut. But then you kind of put it out there for scrutiny and critique and acknowledgment. It's quite a brutal industry.
So that's why I always say, you have to do it for yourself. It has to bring you joy.
It was a pleasure to talk with Naomi about the Esker Foundation and how the institution has grown and built its reputation and success over the last 10 years. We wish them well in the future! Thanks, Naomi for your time and Esker’s support of the IAMP program at ICAI!
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