I visited the Art Gallery of Windsor for the first time after working there for four months. Here is what I learned.

Thanks to Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island for this photo!

By Abbey Lee Hallett, Audience Engagement Coordinator at The Art Gallery of Windsor

Starting a new job in a work-from-home capacity was a little weird. Starting a new job when I’d never been inside the gallery in which I was employed made things a little weirder.

Don’t get me wrong: I felt — and still feel — incredibly grateful and privileged to have the ability to work from home. Simultaneously, I remember experiencing total confusion trying to order photos of artwork for a virtual exhibition tour, and having no idea whether I was ordering the artwork backwards, forwards, or completely at random — for I had never seen the exhibition space. This is why, when a task arose that required my presence in the gallery — pre-lockdown — I jumped at the chance. Here are some things that I learned, as an AGW staff member, from my first visit to the AGW:

Don’t connect with an artwork through a digital image? Don’t give up on seeing it in person!
By the time I’d visited the AGW for the first time, I’d seen countless artworks in the Gallery’s digital Collection Search, but I had never seen any of the works up close. While I imagine that a preference for in-person viewing of artworks is not an unpopular one, I was staggered by how much more vividly I connected to some artworks in person as opposed to online. One example of such a connection was my experience viewing Rebecca Belmore’s “Untitled (A Blanket for Sarah)” in-person as opposed to online. When I saw the work online, I viewed it as a series of panels with pine needles on them. In-person, however, I was able to view the precision with which Belmore would have had to painstakingly weave each tiny needle into its place within a massive series of panels. Witnessing the time that Belmore had put into this project, up close, gave me a feeling of awe and reverence that I will never forget.

Rebecca Belmore, Untitled (A Blanket for Sarah), 1994, pine needles through nylon screening, 12 panels, 71.0 cm x 71.0 cm

If you’ve been lost in the gallery, you’re not alone — staff members get lost too!
I knew that the AGW was massive before going in, but upon actually coming face-to-face with the building, I was shocked by its enormity. Looking up at its tall stature and angular planes, I felt about three feet tall.

It was then that I remembered I had no idea how to actually get into the building. I walked around the building twice before I found fellow staff member Tom Primeau, who I followed (at a safe distance) like a magnet to avoid getting lost.

Despite this magnetism, I still managed to get lost in the Chimczuk Museum on the first floor upon leaving, and — on my second visit — got stuck between two locked glass doors within the gallery and had to be rescued. If you’ve ever been lost in the AGW, fear not: it happens to all of us, even the staff!

The AGW building can be intimidating…
Don’t get me wrong: I was incredibly awed by the views and the span of the AGW during my first visit, and loved the amount of light that the building took in off of the riverfront. That said, the enormity of the building gave me the sense of being physically small. By the time I’d gotten lost and encountered some artwork that I, even as a staff member, was not familiar with, I was feeling smaller and smaller — a feeling that does not always endear one to the place in which that feeling is had.

…But the staff and online programming can help things feel more familiar!
I wrote an earlier article about feeling anxious in art galleries — a feeling that has not entirely been squashed — but by the time I had left the AGW to return to my home office, I did not feel that anxiety. Why, you ask? Two reasons: getting to learn from Tom Primeau, and having had experience with the AGW’s digital programming.

Attending the Gallery for the first time with a staff member like Tom who affirmed my questions, helped me when I got lost, and was open to sharing his knowledge quickly made the space feel warm and cozy, despite its massive size! Further, having had experience facilitating — and attending — digital programs with the AGW prior to visiting for the first time made me feel like I was meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen in awhile: the Gallery was different in layout than I had imagined, yet familiar after having seen, and presented, various artworks in a digital format. Having seen the pieces in a virtual format made them all the more exciting to see in real life.

All of that said, I hope that my experience reminds you that whether you’re an art aficionado or an art rookie, you are welcome at the AGW — virtually for now, and in person when it is deemed safe!

The Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) is a non-profit public art gallery known for its cutting-edge contemporary art program and Canadian art collections.