Sara Lopez Assu has been named the new executive director of the Campbell River Art Gallery. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror

Campbell River Art Gallery taps Sara Lopez Assu for top job

‘We needed a strong leader, and we felt she was the right fit,’ says board chair Darren Larose

The Campbell River Art Gallery has a new leader.

Sara Lopez Assu has been named to the position of executive director of the downtown, community-based arts facility and non-profit organization.

She doesn’t come from an art background, although the local arts community is extremely familiar with her husband, Sonny Assu. She also doesn’t come from a non-profit background – although she’s had a few roles in them over the years. Her formal training is actually in urban planning.

But what the board of directors saw in her when she interviewed for the position was more important than either of those things.

“For me, personally, what she brings is leadership,” says board chair Darren Larose. “We needed a strong leader, and we felt she was the right fit based on her background in leading teams and her willingness to ask questions and admit when she doesn’t know something. We also wanted someone with strong communications skills to help us get what we do out into the face of Campbell River and beyond.”

Originally from Montreal, Lopez Assu moved to Campbell River to support Sonny’s desire to come back to his traditional territory.

“He moved out to Montreal for me, but after about five years of being a fish out of water, we decided we’d better come back,” she says with a slight chuckle.

Back in Montreal, she was the director of child development with the Montreal YMCA, which gave her an appreciation for – and the funding challenges within – the not-for-profit world, before becoming a recruitment officer with Concordia University.

“Leadership and community-building has always been a huge part of all my roles with these various organizations,” she says. “And over the past five years or so being in this community with Sonny, dragging me to all the openings and becoming familiar with his vast network and breaking down the barriers that I may have had toward contemporary art over the past dozen years being with him, coming to appreciate the stories behind the artwork and the stories of the artists, has really become a more central part of who I am.”

Then while she was on maternity leave from her marketing and communications position at Broadstreet/Seymour Pacific, she picked up a few hours working alongside Ken Blackburn, executive director of the Campbell River Arts Council.

“I learned a whole lot about our arts community down there,” she says, “especially in terms of what’s happening that’s exciting and where are the opportunities that are maybe going unfilled right now. It gave me a better idea of the strength of our local arts community and how we can make it even stronger.”

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And when she saw the job posting for the gallery, she knew she needed to throw her metaphoric hat into the ring.

“This team has been incredibly successful in bringing in really eye-opening and exciting exhibits and exhibitions,” she says, “and when I saw the job posting I was excited at the possibility of leading a great team in my own way, which is about empowering the staff that’s here, nurturing the vision that we already have and really build something even more spectacular.”

She also wants to tap into the local arts scene as a compliment to the world-class shows being brought into the gallery.

Like with the upcoming Sugarbush Shrapnel show featuring art by Mississauga-Nishinaabe artist Olivia Whetung, which discusses the transfer of traditional knowledge, self-sovereignty and the effects of climate change on Indigenous ways of knowing.

“So I want to see what’s going on here locally that reflects those ideas,” Lopez Assu says. The message resonates more for people, she says, when you can also look at it through the lens of the Campbell River estuary, for example.

But in some ways, she sees herself still in a communications role.

“Where I knew I could make a difference is in increasing our community outreach through communications. Marketing and communications is what I’ve been doing for the past five years, and I’m not sure our community and the North Island knows about all the cool stuff the gallery doing. If we’re looking at all of the extremely important conversations we’re having in our society about race, for example, does our community know that all of this information they’re consuming through their social feeds during this pandemic, that they can come and view an exhibit that will challenge some of their views and contribute to their own unlearning and have an eye-opening experience? I don’t know that they do.”

So her plan is to change that.

You can keep up with what’s happening at the gallery by signing up for their newsletter at crartgallery.ca or contact Lopez Assu anytime by email at director@crartgallery.ca

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