Tourism officials in Barbados market their island as “Distinctively Charming”.
But when Mary Bradshaw was weighing the option of a Barbadian internship against one in Whitehorse, she opted for the distinctive charm of the Yukon.
“I figured, ‘Oh, I can live anywhere for six months, and it’s the same time zone as where my family is, so what the heck?’ In typical Yukon fashion, here I am.”
That was nearly 10 years ago, not long after Bradshaw received her master’s degree in museum studies from Newcastle University in northern England. Although she grew up in the small Vancouver Island community of Tofino, her introduction to Whitehorse was eye-opening.
“I had been living in London at the time, and I remember walking down Main Street the very first weekend I was here, and it just seemed empty,” she recalls.
“At the same time, it was kind of like the landscape from home. You clearly knew you were back in Canada, but the trees were smaller. I definitely felt this weird in-between-ness to begin with.”
Her position as art gallery assistant at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC), however, afforded little time for culture shock.
“My very first thing, we jumped right into installation for the Three Rivers show, which was a really big show for YAC,” she recalls.
“I had certainly never worked with 10 artists at a time before. It was exciting, but oh, my goodness… I mean, it was such an important show for the Yukon, and you could feel that,” she adds.
“I got that immediate click that this is the right place, and this community gets it, which was amazing.”
That internship led eventually to Bradshaw’s current role as curator of YAC’s Public Art Gallery — not a career dream she could have recognized as a young girl.
“I don’t know if the word curator even existed in my world,” she admits.
Still, art was her favourite class in school, and she enjoyed hanging out at the traditional longhouse in Tofino where prominent B.C. artist Roy Vickers maintains his Eagle Aerie Gallery.
Later, at the University of Victoria, she pursued a degree in art education.
“I’m not an artist, but I love art. I love working with artists, I love talking about art. That’s why I went into the art education side,” she says.
“I was actually trained to become a high school art teacher. Then I realized I wouldn’t actually like teaching art in a high school setting. That’s when I went back to do my masters, so I could focus on the museum and gallery side.”
For Bradshaw, a curator’s job means much more than just positioning paintings tastefully on empty walls.
“In a lot of ways I hope to be a bit of a bridge between the art and the public, and even a bridge for artists coming in and displaying their work,” she explains.
“How can we help facilitate this in an interesting way for them to think about their show? And then, in turn, be able to help interpret it and be a bridge for folks who are coming into the gallery.”
That even goes to the basic level of writing the short descriptions that accompany art exhibits.
“You never want to dumb down the information, but you want to make it as clear and accessible to the public as possible.”
After nearly a decade averaging 14 or 15 shows a year, Bradshaw’s enthusiasm as she approaches a new exhibit remains as strong as when she worked on the Three Rivers project back in 2004.
“Every time, I’m like a kid in a candy store. And I know when the show’s coming, I know all the works, I’ve approved them all,” she admits.
“Yet I can’t tell you how excited I am to actually pull them out and see them, and work with the artist to see exactly where we’re going to put them, and then welcome everybody in. I love that.”
As with any arts administration job, though, being a curator has its mundane side.
“There’s a great deal of paperwork – budgets, reports, interim reports, grant applications, all of that,” Bradshaw says.
“I know it’s important, and it’s definitely part of the gig, but there are times you just want to tear your hair out.”
Despite the frustrations, Bradshaw relishes helping Yukon artists get exposure at home and abroad, and introducing Yukoners to what’s happening elsewhere.
A case in point is next year’s show from the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, which will also include mementoes of break-ups contributed by Yukoners.
There’s also the ongoing lure of a “wonderfully supportive” community.
“I think you could walk into any Yukoner’s home, and it doesn’t even matter if they classify themselves as an art lover, they’re going to have original art on the wall,” she says.
“That’s really the thing that keeps blowing my mind and keeping me going.”