Conversation starter

Peter Dykhuis, director and curator of the Dalhousie Art Gallery, is fascinated with sparking cultural conversations not just within the four walls of the gallery but campus wide, by tapping into the diverse creative and intellectual practices of all disciplines.

His Backstory

Peter Dykhuis has developed parallel and complementary careers as a curator, arts administrator and critical writer alongside his own thriving artistic practice. He’s exhibited his painting and mixed media work throughout Canada and internationally in public galleries and artist-run centres, has designed exhibitions for the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Anna Leonowens Gallery at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (he became the gallery’s director in 1996) and curated shows at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.


The pandemic has presented obstacles to all gallery spaces and the DAG’s closure for construction on the updated Arts Centre presented an additional challenge that might have thwarted any other director’s plans. But Dykhuis has leveraged his tendency for divergent thinking into programming that works with challenges rather than against them. Case in point: conversations with Lukas Pearse, artistic director of Upstream Music, Tim Crofts, composer and lecturer at the Fountain School of Performing Arts, and Simon Docking, pianist and director of the Scotia Festival of Music, in which Dykhuis mentioned the gallery was housing the Music Department’s grand pianos during their renovation. The resulting performances of Herd of Pianos, professionally recorded for distribution and featuring between six and seven of the grand pianos at any given time, was possible because Dykhuis and others recognized the potential for a creative moment. “Getting the right people in the room and making things happen, that’s my job right now,” Dykhuis says.

“We’re looking at projects all over campus, so the lines are blurry as to what it means to be a curator nowadays. And that’s why I’m here.”

Why I Do It

For the past 14 years, Dykhuis has headed up the Dalhousie Art Gallery as both its director and curator. He says working for a gallery within the university context is “wonderfully complicated” because art can and does happen all over campus. One example is Blood Portraits by Kim Morgan with Susan Gibson Garvey, an installation in the Marion McCain Arts and Social Sciences Building, of images of individual people’s blood cells magnified 10,000 times on equipment that Morgan had access to in the Faculty of Medicine. “I’m interested in university culture and university art galleries as still places where you don’t have to stick to the prescription. You can follow your curiosity, and that’s what we do in universities. We do labs. We try things out. We ask critical questions.” He emphasizes how important it is to stop thinking of fine art only in terms of European Western traditions and instead to consider how it relates to Mi’kmaq culture, for example, the Indigenous butterfly and pollinator garden on the Studley Quad that the gallery kick-started this summer.

“It’s really fascinating to be in a full-spectrum university where you can look at how many issues tie into visual culture.” This summer while the gallery was closed to the public, it became the studio site for William Robinson and Lou Sheppard as they explored the architectural heritage and musical significance of the Dalhousie Arts Centre in what became their exhibition, which opened October 16 titled, I want to be a seashell / I want to be a mold / I want to be a spirit.

“I’m always looking for people that are game, that want to go places where other galleries may not,” Dykhuis says. “Working as a curator is about the politics of display: how do you bring visual cultural material into a public dialogue? That’s basically what fuels me, and university art galleries are the best place to play around with ideas, because people are curious.”