Chet Greason, Gazette staff
After almost six years spent emphasizing the “public” aspect of Stratford’s public gallery, executive director Zhe Gu is moving up, set to fill a similar role with the province as visual arts director with the Ontario Arts Council.
“I’ll be overseeing policy settings, grant programs, and outreach for galleries across the province,” explains Gu, whose new job will entail overseeing the more than 80 public galleries in Ontario, including Stratford.
“So I’ll still see the gallery from a distance; there will still be a close connection,” she adds.
Gu, who has an extensive background in visual arts, including a degree from the University of Waterloo, says she’s always been fascinated by the process artists go through when creating their works.
An artist herself, working mostly with oil paints, Gu says her decision to focus on public galleries was based around her desire to ensure other artists’ social contributions were awarded the recognition they deserve.
“I value what artists provide; how they enrich the community by telling stories. I thought, what are avenues and ways to celebrate what artists do? Public galleries. They provide the public with a way to interact with artists.”
This interaction between local artists and the public, especially students, tops Gu’s list of accomplishments during her tenure in Stratford.
The gallery boasts extensive educational programming, including an after-school art club for teenagers and a program that allows young children and their guardians to bond by creating art together.
“We really tried to ensure (Gallery Stratford) is accessible to children of all ages and skill level,” notes Gu.
She adds that exposing young people, as well as the general public, to works done by local artists helps to create an important connection.
“For the younger generation, when they see established Stratford artists doing well, it tells them that they can do it too,” she says.
Also on her list of accomplishments is a new LED lighting system that not only provides better lighting, but a reduced ecological footprint as well; a gallery budget that has been consistently balanced; and the expansion of the gallery’s permanent collection, which now includes newly added works by photographer Edward Burtynsky and electronic media artist David Rokeby.
In a press release announcing Gu’s departure, gallery board president Barb Vallis thanks the outgoing executive director for bringing renewed financial health to the organization.
“As a public gallery, Gallery Stratford always requires funding from various levels of government, and access to those precious dollars is dependent on high standards of operation as dictated by the granting agencies.
“Ms. Gu maintained careful vigilance during her tenure, resulting in the high regard in which many funding organizations currently hold Gallery Stratford,” Vallis adds.
The process to fill the vacancy left by Gu began in May and candidates are currently being reviewed. Gu’s last day in Stratford is June 30.
“The entire community in Stratford has been incredibly supportive,” she says, adding the level of support exhibited by residents, businesses, and local government will provide “a wonderful opportunity for whoever comes in.
“I just want to give a huge thank you. It’s been an honour,” she adds.