Propositions for a Post-COVID Art World – SFU Galleries


As galleries across the country get used to the new normal after almost two years of quarantines, lockdowns, and pandemic protocols, a space for reflection has opened up. This can be seen as an opportunity for public museums and art galleries to rethink their relationship to their communities and reenvision themselves as more access-driven, anti-racist, and decolonial.

To explore this speculative vision, Akimbo has partnered with Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries and given a selection of galleries three prompts for three people representing three different institutional perspectives.

For the second installment of this weekly series, we hear from Kimberly Phillips, Gallery Director; Christopher Lacroix, Exhibitions Coordinator; and Blea Zamora, Accessibility Assistant at SFU Galleries in Vancouver.

  1. Describe an experience you’ve had with a work of art that changed the way you think about community.

Justine A. Chambers, Semi-precious Semaphore (a virtual performance in collaboration with students of Ryerson University’s dance program and presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Kimberly Phillips: A while back during the pandemic, I viewed a group performance on Zoom by a class of dance students choreographed by movement-based artist and instructor Justine A. Chambers. After so many months of that flat grid of digital boxes being basically our only way of reaching our colleagues, it was profoundly arresting to experience it transformed into an explorative and creative space with bodies moving in tandem across so many time zones and in so many different small apartments. The constraints of the Zoom platform were what allowed for that creativity to manifest. I was nearly in tears at the rush of optimism and gratitude I felt for our creative communities – our ability to deal with the conditions that we are handed and still somehow manage to find one another. It made me think about a quote by the late Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle (in Goodbye Snauq, which was first published in West Coast Line in 2008), which I often find myself returning to because of the way it grounds me to what I feel I need to do: “Find freedom in the context you inherit.”

Anakbayan BC poster (from @anakbayanbc)

Blea Zamora: A particular experience that refreshed my sense of community was an art showcase by Anakbayan BC. This group of activists is made up of Filipino youth in British Columbia. During the show the area was filled with works in different mediums, from posters to poetry to music. One particular piece that caught my eye was a poster made to show the Filipino community’s solidarity with the Black community and the ongoing fight for Black Lives. On it is an Aguila, a Filipino Eagle, and below the eagle is a black panther. The poster reads “Makibaka,” an acronym for a group of Pinay activists in the sixties. Makibaka has now become a word synonymous to struggle or fight, and is often still used by Filipino activists: “Makibaka, huwag matakot!” (Fight, do not be afraid!) This poster meant to me that there were Filipino communities doing intersectional work and were standing together with other marginalized groups. It meant Filipino communities were communicating that they understand the struggle of protest and activism, and fighting for their rights and their lives. They understand it and support others in their battles against imperialism and colonial structures, because ultimately it is their battle too. This show and this piece in particular made me think: this is a community. This is the kind of community I want to develop, one that holds each other up, that supports and works with other communities to lift each other up.

  1. In your position at your gallery, explain what you bring to the institution. What do you see as the most important part of the other two contributors’ positions?

Blea Zamora: I am a co-op student working as an accessibility assistant. Most of my focus goes into research to find best practices around accessibility for the current gallery operations – more specifically, looking at online accessibility. As COVID and lockdowns had the gallery relying on online content for the exhibitions, a need for more accessible online practices was apparent. I currently devote my time and energy to creating content and researching ways in which we can be more accessible for folks online.

Kimberly’s most important role is overseeing the overall goals and vision of the gallery, such as where SFU Galleries wants to be in the next few years and what steps can be done to get there. Christopher’s role is important for how smoothly exhibitions come together, such as communicating for the artists and their needs in the gallery.

Christopher Lacroix: I coordinate the execution of our exhibitions, making the joint vision of the artist and curator a material reality in our gallery spaces. I think the most important aspect of Kimberly’s role is balancing the present-day operation of the galleries with long term visioning of SFU Galleries’ growth and development. Blea – as our first Accessibility Assistant – is crucial to making our current exhibitions more accessible, but more importantly she is researching ways in which accessibility can be practiced in the organization from the start, rather than as an afterthought.

Kimberly Phillips: I am Director of SFU Galleries, and as such it is my role to lead the organization. I am responsible for defining and carrying our vision, ensuring we create and sustain meaningful relationships with our audience communities, partners, collaborators, and contributors, and – very importantly – creating the conditions within our house so that my staff can do their best work and thrive. Because we operate within the context of a research university, an important part of our mandate is to always push to consider how artists can help us rethink pedagogy, and to encourage rich cross-disciplinary conversations. This means that we work hard to generate relationships with scholars, thinkers, and makers across many different subject areas to encourage ways for urgent questions about our current world to be asked through the visual arts.

Blea and Chris both hold crucial roles in our organization (in fact, I understand each team member to have a crucial role). Chris’ work is fundamental to the importance we place on taking care with our artists, ensuring their needs and project visions are heard and made manifest. He works on a granular level to ensure no details get missed as we build exhibition projects. Blea has a terrifically important role as well. We are really committed to building up the accessibility infrastructure at SFU Galleries, and Blea is not only working to bring as many access supports to our current programs as possible (especially asking who we are undeserving), but researching ways we can rethink access from a justice standpoint, rather than as a set of accommodations made within a biased system already in place. We will be redeveloping our website in the coming year, so this is an exciting moment to completely reconsider what access means in a digital context.

  1. What could galleries do in the future to develop their relationships with the communities they serve?

Carmen Papalia / Heather Kai Smith, Interdependence is Central to the Radical Restructuring of Power, 2020, pencil on paper / digital drawing (courtesy the artists; included in The Pandemic is a Portal)

Christopher Lacroix: I think galleries should be considering the communities we are not serving, communities that have historically been underserved by and shut out from the art world. Since our online exhibition The Pandemic is a Portal, SFU Galleries has been working towards making our exhibitions accessible to those who are blind, partially sighted, or those who identify as non-visual learners. Strategies to increase accessibility includes audio descriptions/tours of the exhibitions and descriptions of the images we use to promote the exhibition on our website and social media channels. Our upcoming exhibition, Elizabeth Zvonar: Knock on Wood + Whistle, includes a series of visually dense and conceptually rich collages. We look forward to sharing carefully developed image descriptions of the work as a way of engaging blind and partially sighted folks who want to engage with visual art.

Blea Zamora: Working in a gallery that is part of a larger institution, it would be great to be able to collaborate with different departments at the school, to integrate the sense of interdisciplinary learning, but also to build that sense of community between different groups on campus – for example, working with the Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL). It would be lovely to collaborate with them in the future about expanding our content for accessibility and inclusion, or working with the specific departments when the exhibitions align with the content being studied. In general, I think galleries need to find ways of engaging all kinds of people from all walks of life. Whether that is making things more accessible for those with disabilities, or for people of different races, ethnicities, or genders. It could involve working with more local artists or community centers and youth groups to run workshops and foster interest in art. All to provide spaces for people to learn and understand the value of art in fun, interactive, and inclusive ways.

Kimberly Phillips: How much space do we have here?! Ha, ha. I have a lot of things to say. I like what Blea and Chris have suggested above. These are active conversations at the Galleries. Fundamentally I believe that if visual arts organizations want to be viable, relevant organizations in the future, we need to dispense with a set of outdated presumptions about what we do and who we do it for. This requires some seismic shifts in how we define and enact systems, how we use language, who is present around the staff table, and who we collaborate with to build conversations and projects. One element of this for me: I am thinking a lot right now about the responsibilities we carry with regards to the SFU Art Collection that we care for, particularly considering a more dynamic use and role of public art collections might have in helping us transparently confront our histories, ask questions about our current conditions, and grapple together with the kind of futures we want to build. Essentially I’m interested in how artists and art can help us to listen differently to one another. I believe it’s possible, and such a wonderful way to be present and build something together. We are so lucky: we do not, and we need not, work alone.