The ins and outs of Curating: What it means to be a curator and the growing public art collection

Stacey Koosel

Dr. Stacey Koosel visiting the Sncewips Heritage Museum in Westbank First Nation

Curators acquire, exhibit, interpret, maintain, and protect objects of historical and aesthetic importance primarily in museums, galleries and collections. Curators are responsible for the safety, maintenance, conservation, and proper presentation of artworks, as well as research, presentation and interpretation of artworks.

Dr. Stacey Koosel and Ryan Trafananko are the curator and curatorial assistant of UBC Okanagan Gallery, and are responsible for the display of artwork on and off campus, as well as the management of the public art collection. While we enjoy the works that are displayed around campus and in the community, we may lack knowledge on how they came together and were collected.

FCCS Communications Assistant, Eun Jee Lee, asked Dr. Stacey Koosel and Ryan Trafananko some questions about their process of obtaining art works for exhibitions, the growing public art collection and the upcoming gallery space in the downtown building.

When starting up a new exhibition, what inspires you? Is there a central theme you like to go off or is it based on the work that has been collected?  What is your process like when putting up the works to be exhibition ready? 

Ryan Trafananko

Ryan Trafananko in the Public Art Collection vault, UBCO

RT: In terms of the process of installing an exhibition and the steps that go into that, there is a lot to consider. Once an exhibition is developed conceptually, and the artworks for display are selected, there are logistics to work out in terms of any necessary loans, contracts, shipping etc. in order to get all the artworks on site for display. The exhibition space needs to be prepped, walls are patched and painted. Works are then hung, and often moved and rehung, as once they are in the space plans can change. Informational labels and vinyl are added to the walls to provide context, and lighting is adjusted accordingly. The process as a whole is quite exciting because spaces literally transform from a blank white cube into something completely different.

SK: I believe that good exhibitions are immersive experiences that communicate to us on multiple sensory levels – lighting, sound, room design, didactic material, even colours and fonts help set the scene and tell the story.  Artists are communicating narratives, emotions, concepts, research and experiences, and as a curator my role is to lay the groundwork like stage design to support their vision, as well as playing a producer role – bringing together artists, spaces, funds and cultural communities. For an exhibition of artworks that physically already exist, I take inspiration from a particular artwork – and can pull concepts from that. For an exhibition where works do not exist yet, for example commissioning new artworks – I take inspiration from conversations with the artists during the creative process. For group exhibitions, I’ve been inspired by music and literature – and have taken group exhibition titles from song lyrics or literary references that convey the emotion and intention of that particular exhibition.

I heard that the downtown campus is going to have another gallery space; could we get more information on what the gallery space would be like and what type of works will be put up etc.? 

SK: Everyone I talk to is so excited to finally have a dedicated professional university art gallery in the Okanagan!  It’s in its early stages, as construction is planned to begin in 2022 for the building to open in 2025 in downtown Kelowna, 550 Doyle Avenue. The gallery will host a variety of exhibitions with diverse programming, for example we will be able to borrow important artworks from other institutions, and introduce new artworks and artists to the Okanagan. The gallery will prioritize local Indigenous art, and will act as a platform to bring together the community – with performances, talks and events. Galleries are public facing institutions that strive to be relevant and support their own communities, while being part of international cultural networks. I’m very excited to see what the future brings with the new downtown gallery space.

On that note, how do you go about collecting art works? What is the process of collecting works like? How has UBCO’s public art collection grown the past couple years?

RT: Artwork comes to the collection primarily through donations. In order for an artwork to be accepted into the collection it must be reviewed by the Public Art Advisory Committee, who vote to accept or reject the proposed artworks. This ensures that the artwork meets our collection mandate and is relevant to the Public Art Collection. Once approved, the artwork can then begin the process of becoming part of the collection. We physically receive the artworks and place them in the Vault (collection storage) where they are catalogued in our database. In terms of growth, the collection is approximately 750 artworks and counting. Additional works are added through donations and more recently commissions.

SK: Susan Belton was the curator before me who retired, and hats off to her for amassing such a large artwork collection mostly based on donations! There was a good portion of work that UBC Okanagan inherited from its predecessor Okanagan College – we find lots of works with the Okanagan College collection accession stickers on them. Recently we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with donors at the university to commission new works. For example, the Okanagan School of Education commissioned a new painting by Syilx artist Sheldon Louis, and donated it to the Public Art Collection. The School of Engineering has also commissioned a 14 Not Forgotten outdoor memorial sculpture by Syilx artist Krista Belle Stewart and Secwepemc artist Tania Willard, which will also be donated to the Public Art Collection. Besides new commission donations, we also receive donations by philanthropists, collectors, and artists themselves.

How do you go about putting up works around campus – what is your process like when choosing what work is appropriate for what place?

RT: How we go about displaying art around campus is changing. This fall we introduced a formal request process should a department on campus want to request artwork for display. Interested parties fill out a request form to begin the process and then we provide a curated list of options based on what’s available in the collection. Our focus is on requests for artworks that will be in areas accessed by as many people as possible, in order to make the collection itself more accessible.

SK: To follow up on what Ryan said, it’s nice being able to share the Public Art Collection on campus, but we are also tasked with protecting and preserving the works. Recently we noticed some artworks were becoming damaged by natural light and humidity, and we had to move them. So we have to tread a fine line between conservation and presentation, keeping artworks in a humidity and UV light controlled environment – and being able to display them in public places.

How can the general public learn more about the gallery and it’s art collection? You recently created a new database for the Public Art Collection and a new website for the gallery, can you tell us about this project? 

RT: Over the past six months in my role as Curatorial Assistant I have overseen the migration of our Public Art Collection to a new cloud based, digital database called PastPerfect. This means that our collection now has a new home online. People can use this site as a resource to access individual artwork data and images. Additionally, there is a random images feature on the new site so you can easily browse the collection and all the interesting works it is composed of. Currently, we are working on adding additional images and tagging collections of artworks (ie. student works, Indigenous, etc.). In addition, we have launched a new website for the UBC Okanagan Art Gallery . It features information about upcoming exhibitions, artist talks, events, publications, information about the permanent collection and much more.


This summer the UBC Okanagan Art Gallery hosted the first artist in residence with Vancouver based, Carrier Wit’at artist Whess Harman. Their exhibition in FINA Gallery, Lossy: How to Save File for Future Transmission ran from June to mid-September. The final part of their artist residency project, Being Gooz! a 144-page publication, launched this October. Plans are set for summer 2022 for a another artist residency in collaboration with the Alternator Centre for Contemporary art. We also look forward to upcoming exhibitions on campus and in the community including an exhibition curated by Stacey Koosel at the Vernon Public Art Gallery, featuring new acquisitions to the public art collection, entitled Ramble On, which will be on view from January 13 – March 9, 2022.

In addition to being the curator at UBCO, Stacey Koosel also teaches curatorial studies and art history courses at UBC Okanagan and the University of Alberta, she is currently teaching an Indigenous Contemporary Art course at the University of Alberta.


This post was written by Eun Jee, an Art History and Visual Culture major in FCCS. Eun Jee is currently working this fall as the Communications Assistant as part of the UBCO Co-op program.