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Bye, RMG

Gallery curator retiring after helping to define the art and culture landscape in Durham for 28 years

After 28 years as curator for the RMG, Linda Jansma will be retiring this spring. She believes that the ongoing collaboration with the community at the gallery will only mean bright things for the future of art in Durham. (Photos by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

At times, life-altering moments are tiny; nuances suggesting nothing of the eventual life changing effects.

In fact, sometimes we barely even notice those moments when they happen, like the tiniest subtlety in a beautiful painting.

Linda Jansma, the soon-to-be retired 28-year curator of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, knows all about these things, both in paintings and in life, as it was a small push from a high school art teacher that set her on a career path that would see her define the foundational years of Durham’s largest art gallery.

Finding the path

The life-altering nudge for Jansma came from local artist Jane Eccles, her high school art teacher.

“She was the one, when I was in upper year that she said, ‘you’re an okay artist, (but) you’re not that good,” Jansma says with a laugh, adding that Eccles then suggested she use her love for not only art, but specifically art history, as a springboard for post-secondary education.

“I didn’t even know that was a possibility,” Jansma says.

From that point on the door was flung open.

Jansma went on from high school to study art history extensively in her post-secondary years, earning her undergraduate diploma at Queen’s University. From there, she hopped across the Atlantic Ocean to earn her master’s degree from the University of East Anglia in England.

And despite the years spent studying, the uncertainty that fills any young person’s life was still very much apparent.

“Even then, I didn’t know what I was going to do with that,” she says.

What could one do with a degree and a master’s in art history?

However, during the production of her master’s thesis, a trip inside the Birmingham Museum of Art would open her eyes to the possibilities ahead.

“I had to go into the vault and look at drawings. So, they gave me some white gloves, they sat me in front of these drawings…and they left.”

It was there, among the preserved relics of art created long ago, images of the past preserved on canvas, paper and cloth, that Jansma was able to get a glimpse of her future.

“I thought, oh my goodness, I can actually do this for a living. That’s when it was like, okay, now I know what I want to do.”

Returning home, Jansma began a series of jobs that took her across the spectrum of the art world from the public to the private. She spent time volunteering with the Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and at the Station Gallery in Whitby. This was around the same time that the Robert McLaughlin Gallery as we know it today was being constructed in Oshawa’s downtown.

From her volunteer efforts, Jansma went on to secure work for a commercial gallery and small frame shop, which allowed her to do rotating exhibitions of local artists, and she also worked as the curator for a private collector in Toronto.

It was in 1989 that she would join the RMG and find the place where she’d spend the majority of her career.

Hired as an assistant curator and registration officer, it was in 1994 that Jansma would be named curator.

She hasn’t looked back.

Opening the doors

Traditionally, art galleries have been pretty intimidating places. Vaults of respected pieces of art that required a special language, a special set of skills to be able to understand.

“There was a reverential kind of feeling of going into an art gallery,” Jansma says. “Not that we set it up that way, but I think people felt intimidated coming into an art gallery.”

The method of delivery also did nothing to help the closed feeling, with art galleries basically showcasing the work, placing their research on the wall, and expecting you to “get it”.

The remodelled building, designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson, is a lot to take in when you stand before it, the grand facade is enough to push anyone into the realm of shyness. Interestingly, it’s an ironic concept for an architect known for his love of natural light and the absolute open and bright concept inside the gallery.

However, the arching glass window of the front looms over a large set of double glass doors that betray little of what lies on the other side.

Can you just walk in? Do you need to pay? What do you do in there? What do you wear? Can you talk?

Over the last 10 years, Jansma and staff at the RMG have made it a priority to open those doors as wide as possible, through events like RMG Fridays that bring a social setting and music into the gallery. The event sees hundreds of people milling inside the gallery with drinks, laughter and art on the first Friday of every month. There’s also the community collaborations that see the RMG breaking down the silo walls and working to create exhibitions with local artists and community organizations. It’s a constant focus, Jansma says, and is probably the biggest change she’s noticed over the course of her career.

“I think there’s the difference, we’re now a more open place,” she says. “It’s not a matter of us saying we’re the experts, here you go. We’re not doing that anymore. It’s how can we work together to show some awesome art or to have some amazing performers.”

And in her years at the gallery, Jansma has curated over 100 different exhibitions and has worked to showcase a wide collection of the RMG’s growing collection.

If she had to pick a favourite, well, that would be a tough call.

One that perhaps sticks out the most was the immersive exhibition, Polarizer, by Samuel Rob-Bois that came to the RMG in 2009. Part of the exhibit involved the construction of a long, thin, completely enclosed corridor that lined the long 77-foot back wall of the RMG’s gallery space. Patrons walked through the corridor in complete darkness, rounding a corner to see a thin line of illumination ahead before walking into a room of blinding light.

For Jansma, who suffers a bit of claustrophobia, the exhibit was a bit much.

“It was just one that was so visceral for me,” she says.

However, in terms of highlights, she says she would have to go with the celebration of the RMG’s 50th anniversary in 2017, which she says was “so memorable on so many fronts.”

The gallery kicked off the year by showcasing 74 regional artists on the gallery walls.

“The entire space was filled with the talent of regional artists, and the opening reception will not soon be forgotten,” Jansma says.

There was also the work involved in the Jock MacDonald Evolving Form exhibit, work through which Jansma was able to bring some never-before-seen pieces of the painter’s early work back from Scotland to showcase on the walls of the RMG.

Her research and writing for the exhibit earned her the prestigious curatorial writing award from the Ontario Association of Art Galleries.

Looking ahead

The eventual decision to step aside was not an easy one for Jansma, but one that she felt came at the perfect time in her career.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision,” she says. “You kind of have to know when to step back and when to hand over the baton.”

For her, it was about going out on a high note, and with a newly developed strategic plan for the gallery and some exciting exhibitions slated for 2018 and 2019, she felt now was the time.

For Jansma, the future looks bright. While she plans to stay on in a part-time capacity on a project basis after her retirement in May, she also plans to continue her work of teaching English to refugees here in Durham.

Leisure will also be in the near future for Jansma as she plans to spend time with her two sons, and travel with her husband, who is also retired.

“He wants to put the bikes on the back of the car and just go. No destination, just go,” Jansma says.

And what does the future of the RMG look like?

“It looks like the door being even wider open than they are right now,” Jansma says. “It looks like us connecting to the community in a variety of ways. I’m really excited about the future of this place.”