Patricia Barr grew up in a household where success was defined almost exclusively by the pursuit of respectable, white-collar jobs.
“Medicine, law, or business – not the arts,” says the 51-year-old director of Wall Space Gallery + Framing, a contemporary art gallery and custom framing studio at 358 Richmond Rd. It just celebrated its 10th year of operation in the bustling neighbourhood of Westboro Village.
Like “a good Asian daughter,” she originally set her sights on medicine because she was strong in sciences and it made her folks happy. She studied microbiology at McGill University before changing to occupational therapy. She thrived in the profession for 17-plus years, until job burnout and the challenges of balancing work and family life had her craving a change.
Her husband Tom suggested that Barr come work part-time with him and his brother at their new Westboro location, winning her over with: “You can order lattes next door and do what you do best – talk with clients.”
“It sounded really exciting,” recalls Barr, who joined a month after they launched the Westboro spot in August 2008. She went full-time in 2010, when manager Lori Wojcik left to open Town restaurant.
“I did not realize how much work it was going to be if you want to be successful in the business,” she concedes. “Nobody tells you about all the hours you have to put in, how it consumes your every waking hour. Tom mentioned it, but I scoffed, thinking being an OT was harder.
“You’re schlepping stuff, cleaning up crap like frozen vomit in your outdoor planter,” Barr says with a laugh, later revealing that particular mess took two hours and four pots of boiling water to remove.
“You have to get to know each of your customers personally, their likes and dislikes, their kids and their dogs. Or that might just be my curious nature.”
Yet running the gallery has become the most rewarding experience of Barr’s career.
“It’s like opening a Christmas present each month.”
“It’s like opening a Christmas present each month,” she says of the ever-changing art exhibits, including local landscape artist David Lidbetter’s upcoming solo exhibit, beginning Nov. 2.
For the past decade, Barr has been riding the highs and lows, watching some shows do very well while others, although critically successful, suffer poor sales. She listens to clients and gains their trust as they share their life stories, world travels and personal struggles in relation to their precious photographs or works of art.
Through it all, she’s tried to divide her time between the small family-owned business and raising three children.
“Work often wins, as it’s keeping us afloat,” says the mother of Griffin, 20, Sydney, 18, and Audrey, 16. “I’m happy to report they survived.”
Barr has always had a passion for art and design, beginning in her Gloucester High School days. She worked at a Framing Experience store in east Ottawa, landing her then-boyfriend, now-husband Tom a job there. He continued in the custom framing business and, with his brother Edward, now owns two locations: one in Westboro and another in the Train Yards shopping district.
Westboro’s Wall Space relies both on the sales of its artwork and its framing design services. It also sells jewelry, ceramics, sculptures and glassworks.
The leanest period, says Barr with a sigh, “is in the dead of winter, when not one person comes through the door, in an outdoor shopping district, and you have zero sales for the day.”
Wall Space saw a drop in gallery walk-throughs last year when neighbouring coffee shop Bridgehead relocated next to Farm Boy.
“People used to come in for very expensive cups of coffee,” Barr jokes.
At one time, Wall Space rented its venue as a source of income, but the social gatherings caused too much wear and tear, says Barr, who still remembers finding kiss marks on photographer Michelle Valberg’s exhibit of Sable Island horses after one boisterous but fun rental.
This past September, Wall Space hosted an anniversary bash to celebrate its 10 years in Westboro. It was poor timing for Barr, who’s been suffering since mid-August from pelvic health difficulties. She’s been resting at home under her doctor’s strict orders.
What was very sweet, though, is the way the community businesses pulled through for Barr, who, despite being incapacitated, made an appearance at the party.
Cupcake Lounge provided sweets while Kichesippi Beer and The Wine Bottega made sure there were drinks, and Dave Neil, owner of The Piggy Market artisan deli, kept on top of the charcuterie platters. Artists celebrated along with the Wall Space team, fellow business owners, friends and clients, all in support of the Candlelighters, a non-profit organization that provides programs and services to young cancer patients.
In response to the community kindness, a grateful Barr quotes Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Five things to know about Patricia Barr
1. She was one of four kids born to Tony and Carmen Hidalgo in the Philippines. The family moved to Canada when she was just four. Her dad became an executive with Hewlett-Packard and her mom sold Shiseido skin-care products.
2. She jokes that, due to her struggle with work-life family balance, she encouraged each of her kids to choose one sport, but to never be good enough to make a competitive team (because it would require driving to out-of-town games).
3. She’s passionate about gardening. She grows Swiss chard in her front window boxes at home..
4. Barr and her team have supported various charities over the years, including the Candlelighters, The Royal Ottawa Foundation’s Women for Mental Health and Ottawa Riverkeeper.
5. Don’t ask her which artist is her favourite. “It’s like asking which one of your children is your fave,” she responds. “I love them all uniquely and equally.”