Helga Pakasaar is one of BC’s most important curators. Working at Presentation House Gallery since 2003, Pakasaar has presented some of the world’s most celebrated photographers. On Saturday (Nov. 18), the gallery’s new $18 million building in North Vancouver opens to the public. The glamorous waterfront space, now called The Polygon Gallery (recognizing major funder, the developer Michael Audain’s Polygon Homes), is nearly five times larger than the old Presentation House Gallery. While the expansion allows for more ambitious exhibitions, the curator is just as inspired by the gallery’s airy, glass-wrapped main floor, which is certain to draw significantly more casual foot traffic than the old gallery did (if it even ever did). More diverse publics allow "for more expansive projects," says Pakasaar.
A few days before The Polygon Gallery’s grand opening, Pakasaar answered our questions about the new gallery and about her career and life.
What most appeals to you about the work you do? Engaging with artists and helping to generate cultural developments.
Behind every great artist is a great curator. True or false? False.
Is curating an art form? No, but it does require creative thinking akin to making art.
Writing well is a necessary skill for an art curator. What are three other key skills? Ability to interpret artists’ intentions and the histories of visual art; attention to detail; imaginative troubleshooting.
The Polygon Gallery's main floor is transparent from floor to ceiling on three sides of the building. How has the space influenced your curatorial work? Firstly, it is very welcoming for people who might not necessarily be gallery goers, like casual passersby. I can’t help but imagine setting up conditions that animate the dynamic between indoor and outdoor space—works seen at night that entice you inside at a later date. It’s exciting to think about how to animate the fluid spatial conditions that defy clear inner/outer thresholds.
The Polygon Gallery recently hosted an art auction fundraiser. What was the most memorable moment? When the guests entered the exhibition gallery installed with amazing artworks and were jaw-droppingly impressed.
The new gallery's inaugural exhibition N. Vancouver is “the organization's most ambitious project to date,” says your website. What makes it so ambitious? It is a large group exhibition that spreads throughout the gallery as well as outside, for which we have commissioned 15 artists to produce new works. The size and quality of the new facility allows for expansive thinking.
Briefly, how did you get your start as a curator? I had a job at Nova Gallery, a commercial gallery on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano, where I first got to see every kind of photograph, from historical to contemporary, and rub shoulders with living artists.
What do you most look forward to? So many previously unimaginable potentials such as our first public lecture by the London curator, Vali Mahlouji, about recent Iranian cultural history, coming up on Tuesday, November 28, that will take place in a beautiful customized room with a view onto the Vancouver skyline—such a great change!
What’s the most exciting thing happening in photography right now? Responses to the impact of digital image culture.
What do you look for in a work of art? Intelligence and integrity
What is one of the most moving works of art you’ve seen recently? A very long vitrine filled with pages that catalogue information about the people who died trying to cross the Mediterrean to European shores by Banu Cennetoglu. This work was also circulated as a newspaper supplement.
What does your perfect day look like? Sleeping in, followed by a swim in the ocean, then a film, capped by dinner with friends.
What is your advice to young curators in the early stages of their careers? Follow your nose, your intuition, and push the boundaries of what exhibition making can be.
Best advice you’ve been given? Stay out of “it”.
If you could invite anyone from the past or present to dinner, who would it be? My deceased father.
You get three words to describe yourself — what are they? A dreamer, loyal, diligent.
What would be your dream curatorial project—or if there were no limits, what kind of exhibition would you present? A fluid exhibition that continually evolved for a year that includes historical and contemporary art and non-art and live performance.
What is the most important issue facing the arts and culture sector today? To be relevant and responsive to global politics.
Biggest accomplishment? Still doing what I love to do.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? A Trump free world.
Cell phone cameras. Good or bad for the photographic art world? Good.
Pet peeve? Cell phones on the table during meetings.
What are the three main reasons you are an art curator? It continues to be a challenge—it’s not something you can figure out; visual art offers unique perspectives on the world. It helps us see things differently. I love working with artists to realize their vision.
What is your favourite thing in your home? A decrepit wooden prayer chair.
Name another curator or art gallery you admire. The Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland.
What do you think about most often? The news.