Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future – Mary Reid, Woodstock Art Gallery

Over the past year, when galleries across the country had to hold their daily operations in check due to quarantines, COVID and lockdowns, a space for some serious reflection opened up. Add in a continental reckoning with the enduring impact of colonialism and white supremacy, and the necessity for arts institutions to rethink their past, present and future is undeniable.

In response, 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, Mary Reid, Director/Curator of the Woodstock Art Gallery, provided her answers.


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

Cole Swanson, Spit Spectre, 2019, C-print (documentation: Jamie McMillan)

Cole Swanson is a Toronto-based artist whose interdisciplinary practice ranges from exquisite miniature paintings to large-scale installations that involve video, photography and sound. In creating his work, he oscillates between a solo practice and collaborative community engagement. A thread that runs throughout is his interest in environmental issues that relate to the current realities and consequences of colonization. Through his investigations he has linked ancient knowledge to contemporary scientific theory. By weaving together biological concerns with centuries of wisdom and providing opportunities for the contribution of others, Swanson provides a model of what the future could look like – one where art transcends the silos of knowledge and thought, honours the importance of understanding many different histories and provides an inclusive space of sharing with the goal of creating awareness and eventual change.

There is also a powerful ripple effect from involving members of a community to assist in either the production of the work or as collaborators through the sharing of information. Experiences like this instill a strong sense of belonging coupled with the satisfaction of contributing to something larger. These opportunities foster lasting connections that help collectively “move the needle” further along well after the work has been completed.


  1. What writer, thinker or theorist helps you make sense of where we’re headed in the arts?

Given the impact that the pandemic has had on my staff and board, I have been reading and partaking in several workshops focused on team dynamics, remote working and mental wellness. One of the biggest concerns for me is the mental wellbeing of all of us – from the community we serve to the partners we engage with – once we make it through the other side of this crisis. It is an understatement that we will all be profoundly changed. We will never be going back to things as they once were; however, this “new normal” has the potential to be more inclusive, more forgiving and more diverse.

With this in mind the Woodstock Art Gallery’s Education Department, composed of Stephanie Porter, Head of Education and Dee Logan, Education Coordinator, has been working for some time on an exhibition drawn from the permanent collection centered around the concept of mindfulness. Working collaboratively with our Head of Collections, Nell Wheal, these three co-curators are wrestling with the lack of diversity represented in the collection and working through strategies to call attention to this issue along with actions to address this disparity.


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

I am fortunate to work with a supportive and forward-thinking board. One of the gallery’s board members is an “innovator” in the product adoption curve of marketing. Due to his influence I have been delving into the impact of Artificial Intelligence in museums. The use of AI is already ubiquitous in our day-to-day life. Large museums have begun to embrace its potential and power in terms of providing responsive tour guide robots to predicting “no-shows” and maximizing gate attendance. What I am wrestling with is how a small, municipal art gallery can incorporate this technology and other forms of disruptive technologies into its operations in a meaningful, ethical and respectful manner that is affordable, manageable and sustainable.

Florence Carlyle, The Studio, 1903, oil on canvas

The Woodstock Art Gallery could harness the potential of AI in developing exhibition and education programs that are adapted in real-time to participants’ own interests. There is a myriad of ways this could be handled with the implementation of predictive applications. One idea would be to use one of the pillars of the gallery’s permanent collection: the paintings of Florence Carlyle (1864–1923­). As the largest repository of this notable, historical artist, the gallery also has in its possession a substantive archive of her letters, journals, photographs and short stories. By inputting this information into an AI platform, people could engage with and presumably have a conversation with Florence – perhaps as a hologram à la Star Trek.

In their book Rethinking Humanity, Tony Seba and James Arbib outline how the five foundational sectors – information, energy, food, transportation and materials – are rapidly being transformed by new technologies. Seba declares that “the next ten years will be the most disrupting in human history.” We are all affected by these sectors, and art galleries are in an excellent position to help make this information relatable, which fosters a synergy between the participant, the art and the institution.

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.