Preserving an ancient culture

Passion for Asian Art keeps curator on the job for more than 30 years

Barry Till

Ask Asian art expert Barry Till about the best thing he ever found in China, and he’ll probably tell you it’s his family.

Till met his wife Paula there when he was a student and the couple eventually adopted their daughter Jasmine from China as well.

“It’s a kind of mini-United Nations,” he jokes. Paula is originally Dutch and Till grew up in Saskatchewan.

It’s a far cry from small-town Saskatchewan to China, but Till, who has been the Curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the past 30 years, heard the call of the ancient world early. “I always loved ancient things … I loved museums ever since I was young,” he says.

Till’s eyes light up as he talks about the gallery’s Asian art collection. It’s one of the best in the country, he says.

Till should know. He earned a BA and Masters in Far Eastern Studies at the University of Saskatchewan before attending  England’s prestigious Oxford University to study for a Doctor of Philosophy. While at Oxford he won a scholarship to study in China. He spent the next year in Beijing and two consecutive years in Nanjing studying and learning Mandarin. In Nanjing he was the first foreigner to be selected as a model student. “San hao xue sheng – it means to excel in the three aspects – study, sports and attitude.”

While studying in Saskatchewan, Till knew his future path would go one of two ways, toward being professor or working in a museum. His years in China solidified his path toward working with, and helping to preserve the culture he has come to love.

There are more than 8,000 pieces of Asian art in the gallery’s collection – some 42 per cent of the total collection. “It’s not size, it’s the quality or the craftsmanship we look at for the value,” Till insists. The most intricate are paintings on pieces of ivory as small as a grain of rice. Then there are large paintings valued in the millions.

Till’s fancy though, is taken by the tomb figures, small replicas of people and animals made of terra cotta clay. “It shows what they thought they needed in the next life,” he says. “Horses, dancing girls, servants, guards or warriors, even camels and foreigners in case they needed to trade anything.”

One of his favourite pieces is a horse that is currently on display with the Enduring Arts of China, which runs until May 6 at the gallery. “It’s well crafted, a perfect horse with great expression on its face – it’s quite intense. From a variety of angles it’s very interesting to view,” he says.

Along with finding items for the gallery’s collection, Till gives tours in the gallery and lectures about the exhibits. He also spends hours immersing himself in the details of each piece.

“I like to talk about art, especially the art history aspect of it … if you focus on the blood, sex and gore, people find it very interesting.

“I always tell the truth,” he adds. “I just concentrate on the more exciting parts.”

Over his 30 years at the gallery he built the Asian collection from a small, mostly Japanese grouping to what it is today mainly through donations. “A lot of people collect Chinese art and will donate it,” he says. “We borrow objects and once (the owners) see how much it’s appreciated and feel it will go to a good home, they will donate it.” Art from Tibet and South East Asia has added to the growing collection as well.

“I’m very pleased to be located in a small place with pretty much free rein to do my own exhibitions,” he says. “That’s probably what’s kept me here.” Putting together exhibits and catalogues every three or four months also keeps him satisfied. “I’m constantly reading. I’m forced to learn more all the time. It’s becoming a challenge, learning more and more – but it keeps the old brain going.”