I arrived a few minutes early to meet Virginia Clark on Friday. With the familiar creak of the Grad Club door, I stepped around bodies and band gear to find her in the venue’s main space. Her back is turned, attention fixed on Rich Aucoin — the artist she’s booked for the night. He needs a piece of wood to build his keyboard stand on. Spinning to fling open a nearby door, she’s sure she has just the thing in one of the Grad Club’s three basements.
“Well, are you coming?” she asked, holding the door open towards me. After a short wood-scavenge and debate on the validity of glass as a safe alternative, an arguably sturdy Sleeman sign made its way with us up the stairs.
“I’ve played on beer signs before,” Aucoin said.
It’s a team effort to put on a show at the Grad Club, that much is clear.
Born and raised in Kingston, Clark spent time in France before returning to study sociology at Queen’s — she’s an ArtSci ’94.
On a trip home after tree planting in B.C., she hopped on the ferry to Wolfe Island to visit friends. Clark never expected the trip would amount to her career at the Grad Club.
“I was struggling in Vancouver just getting minimum wage, not really that happy,” she said. “I just lucked out. This awesome woman named Connie [Morris] was managing the place at the time and she just took me under her wing, we hit it off. It’s over 10 years now.”
Those who know of the Grad Club know Clark, by proxy. Evidence of her work paints the town. Concert billings splash bulletin boards and doors around campus, the Wolfe Island Music Festival, church shows, Flying V Productions — all of this is Clark and her team.
What you can’t see nestled behind the Grad Club bar when you step up for a pint, is her office, where she said she often spends both days and nights.
“When you’re running a business … it’s constant troubleshooting, that’s my day,” she said. “And dealing with great people. The community that comes here, we have a lot of regulars. It’s almost like a family.”
Clark’s work affects Kingston’s rep as an arts hub. It wasn’t always this way. She comes from the Kingston community of live music when bands like Weeping Tile and the Inbreds could be found playing the Toucan.
“It was the birth of my love of live music,” Clark said. “But at that point they weren’t really doing live music anymore … nothing was really happening on campus as far as live music went.” Aiming to provide variety, Clark asked musically-inclined pals to come entertain, like local Spencer Evans.
“I asked Spencer, ‘You want to come play on Thursday nights? We’ll make a night of it, I’ll make martinis upstairs and you come down and play,’” she said. “It started there, just asking friends.”
After a chance call from a then up-and-coming agent Rob Zifarelli — he now represents Feist and Broken Social Scene — Clark booked her first show.
“No idea what I was doing at all,” Clark said with a laugh. Sitting back in her chair, she points to a poster near the ceiling. “It was Stephen Stanley, from Lowest of the Low. That was my very first show, it’s like my first dollar bill.”
The walls of the office are lined with posters from Ok Go, Stars, Constantines and Wintersleep, all indicating the heavy history built from Clark’s initial efforts. Now, she said she’s inundated with offers and proposals for performances.
On show days, the rooms transform. Tables shift, chairs pile, the stage folds out.
“It’s not the ideal venue,” Clark said. “It’s a living room. The physicality is quite odd because you’re playing almost to two different rooms.
“But it’s so intimate and hard to find. It’s hard to find that kind of connection, people want that connection.”
When shows get too big, Clark relocates to accommodate larger audiences. Lately, the talent she books is spreading across genre, as she combs through new artists for both the Grad Club and the upcoming Wolfe Island Music Festival.
“I do curate it,” she said. “When the Grad Club does a show here, it’s not just any show. It’s going to be what I hope people would consider to be a really good show.
“I like the fact that a lot of students have gotten to perform here and have gone on to succeed in the music industry.”
Clark shared sincere love for working with students, her face lighting up talking about the community’s significance.
“The Grad Club is my heart and soul, I love this place so much,” she said. “It’s been a big part of my adult life. The Grad Club treats us really well. The students treat us really well.”
There are countless Queen’s alumni who will cite the Grad Club as integral to their experience in Kingston. It’s something Clark doesn’t take for granted.
“It just makes me so happy, that this is here for students. I base my tastes on that,” she said. “I try to be as diverse as I can be, but also try and angle it so that people are going to find it interesting and not the same old.”
Clark said people often ask her why she hasn’t moved to Toronto yet. Given her success here, city-dwellers assume she’s missing out on a bigger piece. With property on Wolfe Island, in Skeleton Park and 95 acres on the Canadian Shield, she said she looks no further for happiness than her close, dear friends around her.
“I love my community, it’s part of me. I love my lifestyle here,” she said. “Living on the lake and living on Wolfe Island … I’m very fortunate that way. That to me is a priority. Doing what you love to do, doing it with who you love and living where you love to be.”
Later in the night, the lights fall and there’s a sense of organized chaos. Aucoin’s set comes to a close, employees bustle, patrons fly around the room and I spot Virginia in the audience. Beaming, she floats through the crowd collecting empties.
“I feel a sense of pride. I enjoy, because I love music,” she said. “That’s really what it’s all about, what you love, right? Anybody in their life, they find out what they love, and they do it. I’m living my dream.”