Gilles Hbert joined the Art Gallery of Alberta at a defining time for both the institution and Edmonton arts. His next step is to make sure the pride of the Prairies isn't lost on the nation.
By David Berry | December 1, 2010
Photography by Bluefish Studios; Styling by Nikolas Syhatheb, The Modest Kingdom
The Look: Hugo Boss suit from Macy’s; Versace Shirt and vintage silk monogrammed scarf by Currie from Derks Formals; Bracelet from Crowley’s Jewellers and Goldsmiths
Gilles Hbert has a fantastic sense of timing. When he took over last October as executive director of the Art Gallery of Alberta, just before the ribbon was cut on its dynamic new building, he arrived during one of the biggest surges in interest and support for the arts Edmonton has ever seen. And he’s fully aware of it.
“I knew that this was a place that was making a statement in support of the arts, which wasn’t happening anywhere else,” says Hbert, whose role at the AGA is to ensure it has a vision – and can enact it. His responsibilities range from approving exhibitions to finding financial support from public and private sources.
Hbert was born in the Manitoban francophone community of St. Boniface and raised in Vancouver. He returned to his home province in the late ’70s to study film at the University of Manitoba, then worked in Toronto for six years before going back to hone his craft in Winnipeg’s visual arts scene. He recalls it as a place of almost limitless opportunity, which let him grow from an installation and video artist to a respected curator of galleries in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Windsor. Hbert feels that, in Edmonton, he’s in a place that’s in the process of identifying itself – a challenge he relishes. “There’s such an amazing pride of ownership here and a drive to build, support and sustain.”
Considering you weren’t familiar with the city until recently, was there anything that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I didn’t know there was a river. I didn’t know there was so much green space. I still can’t believe how much green space there is in the city. I have to tell you, I think the perception in most of Canada is that Edmonton is like Calgary and all Alberta is like Calgary.
Which is your go-to Christmas movie?
13%Miracle on 34th Street
20%A Nightmare Before Christmas
4%Jingle All the Way
Why do you think that sort of perception persists?
People from the East think that the Prairies are all flat and everyone is a farmer or that everyone comes from an agrarian background. All those kinds of myths – and I think we’re all susceptible to that kind of thinking – need to be changed.
What are your early impressions of Edmonton’s arts community?
Really, I have never seen such a level of community support in terms of individuals who take part in activities. This is my sixth Canadian city, from Saskatoon to Windsor, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. It’s fantastic. The municipal support for the arts is probably the best in Canada. It seems the AGA building is a real statement of that support.
What do you think this is saying to the community, to have this space here?
It’s huge. It allows us the capacity to present local artists – of Edmonton and Alberta – within a broad national and international perspective of both historical and contemporary artists. All of a sudden, we’re programming in ways that are drawing people to us, in a physical and symbolic sense.
What’s your favourite aspect of the building?
That it’s a meeting place; that it’s open in that way, with this grand architectural gesture at the front of the building. And the gallery spaces themselves, which are remarkable.
How much is the art gallery’s new agenda connected to this space? Could you have accomplished what you want in the old building?
Everything we do in this building – tours, workshops, programs, but, most importantly, exhibitions – is really there to support the institution. We’re here because we’re a museum; we’re not here because we’re a great building. The great building helps us be a great museum.
One thing that comes up in your background a lot is the idea of balancing worlds: a francophone in an anglophone environment; going from artist-run centres to a large institution; this is a meeting place and a gallery space.
I like that collision in a sense of different influences and worlds and perspectives. I like operating in those areas. For me to go meet an executive at a major international company, I get a different kind of satisfaction out of doing that than I would when I go to an opening or meeting with an artist I know and respect. But either of those in isolation wouldn’t be that interesting. It’s the fact that I do both that I find fun, and that’s what keeps me going.
The Look: Bow tie, suit, shirt and vest from Hugo Boss; Versace Scarf from Derks Formals; Vintage glasses by Bausch + Lomb, 1952
Does that also carry over to your style?
In terms of how I dress, it’s very much like how I work. In university, I really embraced thrift store clothing in the ’70s. And I continue to wear that clothing, although the balance has shifted a bit. I’ve been wearing gabardine overcoats from the ’40s for 35 years. But I might do that with a Hugo Boss suit underneath now. That’s that operation in two different spheres at the same time – that balancing thing I find interesting.
What was it that shifted you from vintage clothing to something more contemporary? Was it just that you were no longer a starving artist?
It’s not that I only wore vintage because I was poor, so much as I only wore vintage because I thought it was interesting. And yeah, sure, financially it worked, but it was also a very personal thing. I still look for vintage clothes. A major form of entertainment for me is to go to antique malls, and that combination of history and sense of design really appeals to me. Though my suits now are generally new.
When you’re looking at something contemporary, are you looking for things that hearken back to that old style?
What I try to do is mix it up. I like to wear new things that have a bit of a twist. Maybe a twist on something that’s happened before, but more just in terms of something unusual or that I haven’t seen a lot of.
Do you have particular designers that you go to for that?
Sometimes. I like Paul Smith, and Hugo Boss has some great stuff, absolutely. But I don’t seek out a designer so much as try to take it all in.
The Look: Vintage coat by Felshire Tailors, 1955; Ted Baker Hat, Versace scarf, Haband tie from Derks Formals; Sean Jean suit from Macy’s; Bracelet from Crowley’s Jewellers and Goldsmiths
That’s interesting because when buying vintage clothing, it’s almost as much about the experience of looking for things as it is about wearing the clothes.
Oh, yes, it’s all part of it. Although I can get into ruts where I’m always going for the same thing. I’ve really got a thing for Bostonian shoes because I think they’re such a standard that you can really play with it.
You’ve only mentioned suits, but do you ever dress down? What do you wear to the antique malls?
I may not wear a tie, but I might still wear a suit. I feel very comfortable wearing a suit. I basically don’t have a weekend wardrobe. I might wear jeans and a suit jacket or sports coat.
What’s your favourite thing to put on?
Coats. I have quite a collection. I’m always open to a really great overcoat.
Did that influence your decision to come to a cold Prairie town?
It does give me an excuse to wear them an awful lot.
Museum: Tate Modern in London, Guggenheim in New York
Alcoholic drink: Scotch in the winter, vodka in the summer
Comfort Food: When I’m good, yogurt; when I’m bad, peanut butter