Art galleries offer pleasure, education, history, and cultural change

Last fall, when I could simply pop into KWAG and have a chat with real, living, breathing people, I interviewed Senior Curator Crystal Mowry. Our conversation really drove home to me the extent to which art isn’t just about preserving our past, but also about questioning our past.

During COVID isolation, I was reminded of our conversation because it touched on the importance of art, artists, and curation as pathways to understanding our histories. Like many others, I have been very reliant on art and culture during this unusual and anxiety filled time.

As CBC Arts columnist Amanda Parris remarked earlier this month, “everyone I talk to seems to be coping with social isolation through engagement with art and culture. Our calendars are now populated by appointments for virtual theatre readings, Instagram Live paint-alongs and Stay-at-Home Cinema nights. At a time when social distancing has become a matter of life and death, it is the creatives who have largely made it possible to endure this new way of life.”

My interview with Crystal originally aired September 22, 2019 on Midtown Radio as part of a programme discussing race and representation in Canada. We were primarily talking about the role of contemporary art in addressing issues of representation, especially giving voice to groups that have historically been marginalized by the traditional art canon.

Our conversation covered some of the challenges that come with curating historical art collections, as well as some of the wonderful opportunities that come with having a gallery like KWAG in our community. I know I am not the only person who desperately misses all of their public programs – certainly my art-loving children want to get back into the building.

I wanted to return to this interview as a reminder about how important art, artists, and galleries like KWAG really are to our communities. Right now, we are forced through isolation and boredom to reach out into the digital world and seek new songs, images, videos, and spaces. But art and culture are more than simple comforts in unusual times. Once we are on the other side of all this, it will be important to remember that our community galleries are vital spaces of pleasure, education, history, and cultural change. We need them, and they need us.

Here is an excerpted version of my interview with Crystal Mowry. You can listen to the complete version in the YouTube recording below.

DD: Can you talk a little about what you see to be the role of curators in addressing issues of representation in art?

CM: I think curators, much like artists, are people who know a tremendous amount about how images can function in the world. Images are our business. That’s what we are trained to dismantle, to critique, to understand, but we are also trained to mobilize them to positive and responsible effect. So the role that I see curators playing right now is that of learners actually. I think the history of curation has been largely shaped by Euro-centric, white-centered perspectives, and it is our job to be looking differently. To be looking at images, to be looking at makers differently and to find ways to decentre that kind of perspective that has largely shaped the canons that are celebrated.

DD: I find it very interesting, particularly at KWAG, because this is a contemporary art gallery, but it also has a very vast collection. It has a massive vault full of all kinds of interesting and historic works, and sometimes when we are engaging and reaching back into our pasts, some of the representations that we pull out are very problematic. What role can that art still play? Does it need to remain in the vault? Can we face it head on? How does a curator make those decisions?

CM: We know it’s there, and we have to face it head on. And if we don’t know it’s there, I think it’s our responsibility to find it. So, one example might be in 2017, we had an exhibition, Carry Forward, that was guest curated by Lisa Myers. Lisa was looking at the various ways in which contracts, documents, petitions, and agreements – all of that paperwork – can tell us a story of erasure. One of the works in that exhibition was a piece by a Toronto-based artist named Deanna Bowen, who is very interested in black histories within Canada and the US. In the process of preparing for this exhibition, we discovered a name on this anti-black petition that was sent to Wilfrid Laurier in 1911. It was the name of an artist who we knew was in our Collection. Well, we couldn’t ignore that fact. And it forced us to think about that name, that artist, the canon, differently. And a decision was made quite late in the planning of that exhibition to bring that discovery into the context of the show. It required honest, open collaboration with the artist, the curator, and our registrar here who cares for the Collection. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as a curator. That realization has then gone on to inform Deanna’s practice and has led her to look more deeply into racist legacies within the Canadian artistic canon.

Photo of two pairs of gallery visitors seen from behind as they examine rows of pages of Deanna Bowen's installation of a 1911 petition, which fills the wall to both edges of the photo Gallery visitors examining Deanna Bowen's “1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petition” from Immigration of Negroes from the United States to Western Canada 1910-1911, Edition 1/2, 2013. Inkjet print on archival paper. Archival Permissions: Library Archives Canada. Installation view, Carry Forward, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo © Scott Lee, 2017.


DD: You’re obviously engaged in collections all the time, so you see these histories as part of your daily job. Is there a time when you found a piece in the Collection and you thought, I can’t even believe that this exists? When was the last time that you were really shocked?

CM: That has happened a couple of times. We have over 4200 works in the Collection, so there are still things that I am discovering about the Collection. There are some works that I would say are definitely inappropriate subject matter, that would be so difficult to show or include in an exhibition. But there are also works, like studies or drawings of racialized people – drawings made by white artists who were traveling the world and finding subjects. At some point the decision was made to title those works, give them names like Inuit Boy, or Inuit Woman, and you think, well, that couldn’t have been the way that the subject was necessarily thinking about themselves. So that’s another kind of colonial act, the erasure of identity and specificity and individuality. So we’ve been rethinking how those works are named and a lot of institutions are going back to these works and looking at them and reconsidering how they should be identified. So changing their names to Young Girl or Mother and Child, acknowledging that the names have been changed, and providing a rationale for why that name has been changed.

DD: You have great public programming at KWAG, and I just want to end talking about education and arts education and its role in facing some of these histories of representation and how that actually plays an educational role. And how we can use that to teach people about our past, and our current issues, and the importance of art in doing that?

CM: Our staff who work in our Public Programs department are creative, resourceful folks, and they often take their lead from what artists do. So, they’re people who have their eyes open all the time. They also learn from folks that they get to spend their time with who are sometimes young people. I am a parent, I have a young child, and my son has grown up here, and we have conversations about the world with art in the background all the time. And that is a tremendous gift I have to give him and I always, wherever possible, try to remind people that the Gallery exists for them. This is not an elite resource where only certain people can make use of it. We have a collection that lives here for the enjoyment of our community. So make use of it. Learn here. Learn with us.

Danielle Jeanine Deveau is a Lecturer at the University of Waterloo in the Department of English Language and Literature. She holds a PhD in Communication from Simon Fraser University. Her research and teaching focus primarily on academic and technical communication, media theory, research methods, and user experience design. She has also published extensively in the areas of humour studies, creative industries, cultural mapping, and urban development.