Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future – Emily McKibbon, MacLaren Art Centre

Over the past year, as galleries across the country have had to hold their daily operations in check due to quarantines and lockdowns, a space for some serious reflection opened up. Akimbo has partnered with Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries and asked the curators of eight public museums and art galleries to speculate about their future through the lens of what needs to be done to be access driven, anti-racist and anti-colonial. We proposed three initial questions and gathered the responses in text and video.

For this week’s instalment, Emily McKibbon, Associate Director/Senior Curator of the MacLaren Art Centre, provided her answers.

  1. Who is an artist whose work points to future possibilities?

Sean George, Untitled (Disco Ducks), 2021, mixed media (photo: André Beneteau)

It’s hard to talk about the pandemic without talking about loss, but concomitant to loss is the dissolution of a lot of barriers and boundaries. I’d like to use this question to talk about Barrie-based artist Sean George, who has been a fierce critic and a fast friend to the MacLaren during the pandemic.

I had originally been planning to feature Sean’s work in a group exhibition that was supposed to open in December of 2020. In lieu of delaying the presentation of his project, I offered him instead the opportunity to present an installation in our upstairs foyer, in a space that in other years would be off-limits to me and, by extension, to him. In an ordinary year, the roughly 30,000 people that go through our building make programming difficult in all but our dedicated galleries; fundraising events and venue rentals make securing all artworks within our controlled exhibition and collections spaces even more imperative. Right now? Neither are an issue.

Sean’s Monuments, Memories and Missing Passages is a materially rich investigation of what a monument might or could be at a moment in time when monuments are being called into question. The work was made between 2020-2021, and finds its genesis in an experimental written work documenting one of Sean’s downtown walks in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. It’s a searing, difficult, playful, anarchic installation, but seeing it installed in a prominent, public area of our building feels appropriate – a small victory, a gift of capacity limits.

From his fifteen years in education and public programming at the Vancouver Art Gallery to his advocacy work in this region supported by OAC, Sean’s practice has always been rooted in community. When I first moved to Barrie in 2013, he was one of the first people I met and one of the first friends I made. Like so many artists, Sean is a catalyst for change, for reimagining a better and more equitable world. When we first closed our doors in March of last year, he was the first person on the phone with me, asking us how we planned to pay our artist instructors whose programs had been cancelled that spring. When he was at the MacLaren earlier this year installing his exhibition, he was juggling calls for assistance from friends-of-friends who he was helping with applications for rent relief from negligent landlords through the Landlord and Tenant Board of Ontario. As a curator in a regional space, I’ve found that it’s the regional artists who have the clearest vision about what a gallery could be to the audiences they serve. During the pandemic, as our lives have become increasingly local, I’ve found myself grateful for their candor, their optimism, and their commitment to the work that we can do together.

  1. What belief systems, theories, and new knowledge could revolutionize your institution?

Adrienne Rich’s In Those Years is the written work that has most encapsulated my experience of this pandemic and how it landed in my/our “personal weather.” The activism of the 1980s and 1990s has also felt incredibly relevant to me these past months and my reading list reflects that: Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s Blank: Essays and Interviews, and Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. Some of these books I’ve had for some time, but now, more than ever, I am learning from them.

  1. What creative initiative could your art gallery do to shape your future programming?

For this third question, I’m going to flip the order and state at the outset: with unlimited resources, I would dearly love to do less.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was optimistic that this time could be used to critically interrogate our old ways of working and determine what could be lost or discarded. The murder of George Floyd by police, followed by an industry-wide reckoning with some of our oppressive practices, demanded further changes. The rub is that we’ve been so busy generating content – so much content – that it’s been hard to devote any time to introspection, to analysis, to improving…

In addition to being busier than ever, we’ve somehow all become data scientists. COVID has provided so much real-time data on how good policy and collective action can effect real change against one of the greatest crises of our time. COVID has also shown how bad policy, systemic racism, class inequality, and unequal access to healthcare can expose whole communities to infection and death – also in real-time. We’ll never have as quick or responsive metrics in our fights against climate catastrophe, systemic racism, or colonialism. And, of course, the metrics we use to measure our own success as museums and galleries are not nearly as nimble or responsive to the initiatives we undertake as we might hope or pretend. Alongside my colleagues and Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries, staff at the MacLaren have been working through a program, planned before the pandemic but all the more relevant these days, that’s intended to enable us to use better data. Over the months, we have found ourselves asking how we can marshal better metrics for what it is we do or want to try.

What creative initiative could the MacLaren do to shape future programming? This pandemic has centered my belief in the importance of public space in an increasingly neoliberal urban environment and of holding safe public space for the people we serve. When it’s safe, I’d love to quietly and carefully reopen our building for quiet and careful conversations about how to use our building, our collections, and our operating funds to be better custodians for the people who might visit us, rather than just the art that sits within our walls. I’d like to pay artists to help us tease out some of these ideas in conversation, pay artists to help come up with better metrics, pay artists to help visualize whatever esoteric/concrete/affective/immaterial data that supports our case, pay artists for the quiet, deliverable-less work of reimagining the work of museums. With diminished revenue streams and an increased reliance on private sector funding, we’ve engaged in a frenetic push to demonstrate our value; increased resources would allow us to take as a given the idea that art is, fundamentally, a public good. The challenge should not be to prove that art has value, but to make art more accessible, more meaningful, and more urgent to more people, so that the good it does is equally shared. I don’t want to look back on this time and feel that we’ve squandered this one moment when real change was a possibility – we’ve lost far too much already.

The galleries featured in Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future are part of the Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries research project Data Shy to Data Driven.