Hey, look, it’s been ten years since I graduated high school. Look at that. Time flies.
This post isn’t really about graduation decennials, though. This is about quitting my longest-held job.
Eleven years ago I dropped off a resume at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. I was just finishing up Grade 11, and I wanted a summer job that wasn’t going through old files in the creepy storage room beneath the Chapple Building for my dad’s law firm. The Gallery Attendant position being advertised in the Lakehead University job bank seemed like it would work. I got an interview, and for reasons I still don’t fathom, I got the job.
The full-time, minimum wage job turned into a part-time, minimum wage job during my last year of high school. Then I worked all summer again. This pattern continued for a few years. After about three summers, I took a research job over the summer at the university instead. But I kept coming back during the school year to work at the front desk.
Last night was my last regular shift as a gallery attendant.
I’ve left before, of course. I couldn’t very well commute to the gallery when I lived in the UK, so the summer that I was leaving Thunder Bay, I turned in my key. We actually had a proper going-away party for me. It was weird—I hate being the centre of attention—but also kind of touching. Even so, the event was shaded with an understanding that in two years’ time I would be returning and had every intention of coming back to work at the gallery again. After all, I had no idea when or if I would land teaching work after moving back to Thunder Bay.
As luck would have it, I got on the supply list for the continuing education teachers pretty soon after moving back. Without any promise of steady work, though, I kept working at the gallery.
The job was an amazing one for a student. You couldn’t beat the hours. Full-time during the summer, after school and weekends during the school year. Plus, the duties were not exactly strenuous. Perhaps the most stressful part of working at the gallery is the uncertainty of how late some events might run, or dealing with a surprise request from someone having an event. As an introvert, I was never particularly good at the sales/service part of the job—I still hate selling things to people, and I never made small-talk like some of my coworkers do.
In that respect, I guess, the job was good for me. I learned a lot while working at the gallery, and in many ways, I grew up. I was 16 when I started working there, and I am 27-going-on-28 now. It’s safe to say that I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t worked at the gallery, and continued working there for so long, interacting with the people I met through this space.
Funny thing is, visual arts has never been a medium that appeals to me, either to practise or to enjoy. A painting does not speak to me the way music or, even more, literature does. If you want to know a big secret: I didn’t even pay that much attention to the exhibitions we had. Oh, I would look at them. Some I liked more than others. I can appreciate a lot of the messages behind the artists’ works. Walking With Our Sisters, which we had the honour of hosting a few years back, was and remains one of the most powerful displays we had during my time there. But I always felt a little out of place, the math/English guy (and, until recently, I was always the only guy working at the front desk). Always a little bit of a poser. Words affect me more than pictures, and my time at the art gallery has not much changed this.
The gallery did not, then, actually foster an appreciation of art in young Ben, I’m sorry to say. But it did help my appreciation of culture. The gallery is more than just a space for static, or even dynamic, displays; it’s a meeting place. Groups host events: meetings, conferences, entertainment, bridal and baby showers, and workshops. When you’re the staff at a space like this, you overhear things. You learn, and you are exposed to the impressive variety of organizations in our city. In particular, I think I learned a lot about Indigenous cultures, through the artists and activists who pass through or regularly visit, from the gallery.
So in some respects, being a gallery attendant was your normal minimum wage student-type job. You wore a white shirt and black pants, showed up for three or five or eight hours, and did as you were asked. Dust the gift shop. Put out some chairs. Take down the chairs. They need more tables. Run dishes through the dishwasher. Ring items through the cash register. Don’t forget to sweep outside.
In other respects, being a gallery attendant was like nothing else. A minimum wage job at A&W (where I often said, when I was very young, I wanted to work) is basically wage slavery. You work, get your money, go home. Even a more comparable job at somewhere like a hotel doesn’t have the same depth to it as the art gallery. Perhaps the most comparable job might be working at some place like the auditorium, which like the gallery is a meeting place for culture. You’re getting paid to do a lot of menial work, but you’re doing it in an amazing, busy, interesting place.
So I stayed, for about ten years give or take. Long after I landed steady work with the school board, I kept working at the gallery. It was an interesting job. I appreciated that my boss appreciated me, and expressed a desire for me to stay on. I liked my coworkers, and I looked forward to seeing one of them each shift, to catching up. It was, in some ways, a nice opportunity to socialize for someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out with friends.
But, all good things….
There comes a time when you have to say “enough”. It wasn’t that I stopped enjoying the work. But I wanted more free time outside of my “day” job of teaching. And as much as I love the atmosphere at the gallery, it was ultimately a minimum wage job that involved a fair amount of physical labour. I enjoyed being there, but I was reaching a point where I wasn’t looking forward to spending the entire day teaching and then three or more hours at a second job, or spending the entire week teaching and then five hours of my weekend at the second job.
Additionally, most of my closest coworkers had moved on, or were also moving on. I like the newbies … but I don’t know them as well. It’s so interesting, because I started at the gallery as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, and now I’m the jaded old 27-year-old training the 18-year-old new people. I’ve come full circle! And as I reached this point, I had to ask myself, how much longer would this continue? Was I still going to be working at the front desk in my 30s? There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, of course. But I was starting to think about when I might bow out. I was, along with one other person, the longest-serving gallery attendant. Most stay for a summer, a year, maybe two or three years tops. I was already an outlier, because I tend to settle down. England was a big exception; mostly, I like to find a place and stick with it for as long as possible.
This year just seemed like the right time. I have permanent work at the adult education centre. My old boss retire—new boss is great, but everything is in flux, so this is as good a time as any to depart and let the new people make their mark. Plus, as you might already know, I just bought a house. So that “free time” I’m looking for will, for the foreseeable future, often be consumed by house things, I’m sure.
I loved working at the gallery. I’m excited about the plans to build a new one down at our waterfront, and I’m flabbergasted when I see people post short-sighted rants about how funding such a building with taxpayer funds is a “waste”. Arts and culture are the backbone of human civilization; they are the whole point of our existence. If I had any money to spare I’d be putting it where my mouth is, but, you know—I just bought a house. (But 10 years working at the gallery probably counts for something.)
Time and again going through this life I am reminded that the things that change you most are the ones you never expect. I never anticipated, when I first started working there, that the Thunder Bay Art Gallery would become so integral to my identity. It feels weird that I’m not there any more. And I’m very grateful. I’m grateful for the people I worked with there, who have helped, in a way, to raise me into adulthood. I wouldn’t be who I am without you. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, for the things I’ve seen, for all the opportunities to grow along the way.
This is a summer of change. One job down. My very own house. The autumn is going to be very interesting.