an unexpected curator

an unexpected curator

Barbara Cohen tells us about her path with unexpected turns to becoming a curator. ‘Placement’, an art jewellery exhibition presented by Co-Adorn Art Jewellery Society at the VisualSpace Gallery is her latest curatorial work, in conjunction with Kye Yeon Son. The exhibition is on view from August 20 to September 8, 2020.

Barbara wearing a necklace by Ela Bauer

Montreal born artist Barbara Cohen attended Sheridan College School of Design in Ontario where she majored in textiles. In 1979 she moved to Vancouver and eventually transitioned to focus on body ornament. Creating jewelry offered an intimacy and commitment to refinement that spoke to her sensibilities. Using materials out of context is a consistent aspect of her work. She has been widely exhibited and published both nationally and internationally, won awards and is included in the permanent collection in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 


” I care about art, I care about introducing others to art and I care about promoting artists.

Since 2014 I have curated 12 exhibitions. With it being such a highly specialized field, it hadn’t occurred to me to call myself a curator for the first show that I organized. After my premiere exhibition ‘Fanfare’ in 1992 at the then relatively nascent Crafts Association of BC (now CCBC), it was someone else who insisted that I was, in fact, a curator.

The word ‘curator’ comes from the Latin word curare which means ‘to take care’. Today we know of a curator as a person who selects content for presentation or someone in charge of a collection at a museum or gallery. My motivation for mounting the shows that I have reflects well on the word ‘care’. I care about art, I care about introducing others to art and I care about promoting artists. As an added bonus, I enjoy creating spaces. 

Metalmorphosis, 2019

challenging spaces

Creating the actual set up requires spatial understanding and sensitivity. I try not to crowd the work and instead display it in such a way that each piece gets the attention it deserves. Well before arriving at the gallery, groupings are arranged, rearranged, and arranged again, over, and over until it meets my aesthetic standard.

In 2013 I was approached by the gallery committee at Circle Craft to curate an art jewelry exhibition of my choosing. I immediately envisioned a national sculptural ring show which would allow me to include as many as 100 pieces by 27 artists in Circle Craft’s limited window ‘gallery’ area.

Although planning a space ahead of time can be difficult, the challenging ‘gallery’ in Circle Craft inspired my clear vision of narrow white shelves from the onset for the overall look of the exhibition. Without cases, the issue of theft also needed to be addressed. The trade off that I had to make resulted in securing the rings down with fine wire which meant they could only be tried on once the show was taken down.

More recently I have needed to adapt a space with limited resources. At the VisualSpace Gallery, I designed an inexpensive way to display my next few exhibits. I don’t remember how many hours I rolled ideas around in my head to finally arrive at scored foamcore to create shelves that seem to float with the aid of discreet metal brackets.

Revealed, 2018

curatorial inspiration: ‘Seeing Red’ & ‘HANmade’

After Ring::Reform, I was asked to curate three other shows of my choosing. Rather than only focus on jewelry, I included other mediums as well. Ideas for shows are sometimes inspired by a piece that I’ve seen, a specific artist I want to show or an idea that I have and would like to see realized. My focus is always to bring a high level of work to my exhibitions.

The CCBC invited me to curate an exhibit for June 2017. It was after purchasing a bold red necklace by artist Ella Bauer from Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h in Montreal (where I used to sell my own work) that I decided to title the show, ‘Seeing Red’, stipulating that each jewelry piece needed to have some amount of the colour red in it.

Seeing Red, 2017

It was a luxury to now have locked cases to work with, but since necklaces would be shown on the wall, theft was still an issue to consider. This led to me design half circles to hold each one. Several attempts were made before specifically sized drilled holes and inserted cut bobby pins successfully secured each piece. Only a specific sized ‘key’ could release them.

After many successful exhibitions, Noel Guyomarc’h contacted me asking if I could design a show of Korean art jewelry that he had already curated and exhibited in Montreal. With the support and available gallery space, the CCBC offered to host it. Given the level of artistry and craftsmanship, each piece was a thrill to unpack, however it was a cow gut teal coloured necklace that helped inspire my next designed space.

With the gallery being divided by a narrow jutting wall creating a less inviting alcove, I brought attention to that area by echoing the colour of the gut necklace and painted a large rectangle backdrop. With what turned out to be a very bold statement, my next focus was how to integrate the other side of the gallery when I realized that the necklace alone was not strong enough. After considering many different ideas, painted frames and the title background finally brought it all together.

HANmade, 2020

Whether it be a painted wall or frame, or foamcore shelves, each show helps inform the next. As well planned as each exhibit is, last minute changes are sometimes necessary once I get into the actual space which creates unexpected challenges. However, whatever the challenge is, my love for creating spaces and presenting art remains firm.

learn more about barbara's work