Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future – Suzanne Carte, Art Gallery of Burlington

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, Suzanne Carte, Senior Curator of the Art Gallery of Burlington, provided her answers.

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

Sameer Farooq, BOOP Museum, 2019, installation at the Visual Art Centre of Clarington

Toronto-based artist Sameer Farooq is someone I have been so lucky to be in conversation with for several years. I continue to go back to his practice to learn, and have greatly benefitted from his critical analysis on the future of collections.

As a documentary filmmaker, image maker, and writer, Sameer has extensively questioned the role of the museum from acquisition to interpretation. His newest body of work, Restitution, asks us to visualize and meditate on what happens within cultural spaces when objects, archives, and belongings are removed. This series plays a significant role in his first major solo exhibition A Heap of Random Sweepings at the Koffler Gallery. After three years of collaboration and exchange with curator Mona Filip, the result is an exhibition that “investigates strategies of representation to supplant the injustices and inadequacies museums have historically perpetuated through traditional forms of collection, interpretation, and display.”

At a recent panel organized by Filip, Dainesha Nugent-Palache, and the artist, curators Candice Hopkins, Dan Hicks, and Julie Crooks spoke on the Heritage of Theft: On Museums and Cultural Restitution. I furiously took notes during the session while the panelists volleyed big ideas about the museum as a failed vessel and spoke truths about the imperialist imperatives of collecting. It was a rich discussion on the trauma embedded in archives, restitution, and the responsibilities of institutions to belongings and art.

Sameer will be participating in the Art Gallery of Burlington’s upcoming exhibition How to Read a Vessel, an experimental exhibition functioning as a communal site of learning to openly discuss the challenges and excitement of holding, caring for, and exhibiting an object-based, craft-forward permanent collection, while continuing to develop a vision that incorporates critical social practice at its core.

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

Due to a year of lockdown languishing (pandemic word du jour) and perimenopause, my brain has become an unfocused/hyper-focused, messy machine. This (non-exhaustive) list is an amalgamation of subjects from understanding archives to developing ways of being in the world. I admit that much of this reading was done aloud with the AGB team on Zoom to connect and think together while apart. It provided a space for us to collectively imagine a more empathetic, more radical, more equitable, and less winner-takes-all art world. These readings helped ground me in the now and help position us to re-imagine the future.

Welcome my emotional binge reading!

An essay that always reinforces the transformative act of storytelling is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986).

Readings that provided real and practical tools were: Elwood Jimmy, Vanessa Andreotti, and Sharon Stein’s collaborative writing Towards Braiding (2019), an exploration into generative and non-generative settler-Indigenous relations within the Canadian context, which offers a practical guide for organizations to consider when seeking to engage Indigenous communities and individuals; Carolyn Lazard’s guide Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice (2019) geared toward arts non-profits and the potentially expansive publics these organizations serve; disability and transformative-justice scholar Mia Mingus’s Access Intimacy: The Missing Link (2011); La Tanya S. Autry & Mike Murawski’s Museums Are Not Neutral (evolving) Action Manifesto on meaningful institutional reform; and A Culture of Exploitation: “Reconciliation” and the Institution of Canadian Art (2020) by Jas M. Morgan is a brilliant resource all Canadian institutions should be referring to in this social moment to de-seat white supremacy.

Su-Ying Lee reminded me of the importance of critically analyzing images in her article, Reading Images Against Racism (2020). In an industry built on disseminating ideas through images, we need to take responsibility for what we display in public and hone our interpretive skills in doing so.

Queering the Collection (2019), edited by Be Oakley, Emily Dunne, Christopher Clary, and Patricia Silva, gifted me with the idea of “radical softness as a boundless form of resistance” as a way of being that resists the capitalistic impulse to over function.

Part I, II & III of Heavy Processing for Digital Materials (More Than A Feeling) (2020) by Jas Rault & T.L. Cowan reminded me to trust in and celebrate the queer lineage that brought me to value collaborative creation processes over products.

Artists and cultural workers have always struggled with maintaining a healthy work-life balance. In the last fourteen months, the seepage of the professional into private life has become even more difficult to break as many of us have been living at work rather than working from home. David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work (2015) helped me make sense of the “do more with less” drive the arts sector perpetuates and formulate a language on how economic demands colonize our lives and priorities.

And where would we be without love? Shaun Leonardo, artist and Co-Director of Recess, propositions failure and humility in Love (2021). This essay welcomes a refreshing messiness into institutional thinking and asks: what would it look and feel like for an institution to be in community rather than purporting to serve community?

Also do yourself a favour and read Julietta Singh’s poetic memoir No Archive Will Restore You (2018). I reread it the minute I finished it.

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

The creative initiative continues to be the institution.

Now is a time when galleries and museums are being called upon to confront and contend with racist legacies and present-day exclusionary practices. Artists and artist-educators have been undoing the toxic structures of hetero-patriarchal embedded norms that plague institutions for years. I’m inspired by the ingenuity and honed survival skills of art educators who have carried the weight of institutions during closures. As the sector continues to devalue and gut arts education programs, and furlough the front-facing staff, programmers have excelled in creating magic and keeping galleries relevant and connected during the last fourteen months. I want to acknowledge the massive amount of work AGB’s Associate Educator, Tara Bursey, has done to continuously make and re-make programs.

Therefore, if the AGB had unlimited resources and money was not a barrier, I would implement a mass hiring to build out our education programming team and include more artists, curators, and instructors. Not only does it benefit the gallery’s capacity to diversify the types of projects and programs we could deliver, but it would stimulate growth for the future cultural workforce. Project-based employment prolongs unstable working conditions and denies workers the benefits of insurance, vacation pay, EI and CPP, job security and WSIB coverage, and access to professional training.

If we purport to be striving for equitable and radically inclusive spaces, we first need to respect and value the labour of our cultural workers. A big shout out goes to my colleagues Hitoko Okada and Carmen Schroeder, along with a dedicated team of preparators, who mobilized to educate gallery staff and leadership on how to best prioritize safety and labour equity for precarious contract workers. I am grateful for and indebted to their guidance and perseverance, and to Robert Steven, our former President & CEO, who positioned empathy and humility above all else.

We’ve inherited broken systems that are no longer relevant. This generation of cultural workers have an opportunity to re-envision how a gallery operates from the ground up and challenge the systems of oppression that force a corporate model of power and “growth” onto not-for-profit organizations. On my good days, I believe we can have it all and we can get there together. We can build new systems. We can be agents of change.

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.