Propositions for a Post-COVID Art World – Thunder Bay Art Gallery


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 roles within the gallery.

For the third instalment of this weekly series, we hear from Sharon Godwin, Director, and Cynthia Nault, Community Engagement Coordinator, of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, and John Hodson, Director of the Maamaawisiiwin Education Research Centre in Thunder Bay.

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

Christi Belcourt, Walking With Our Sisters (detail)

John Hodson: The Métis leader Louis Riel once wrote, “my people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back.” For many Indigenous people living in Thunder Bay, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is that prophecy made real in a troubled contemporary Canadian city. Indigenous people represent thirty per cent of the population of this city. Half of the elementary and high school population is Indigenous. Regrettably, by any metric available, Thunder Bay has been the epicentre, the posterchild if you will, of all the contemporary expressions of post-colonial Canadian dysfunction that can be measured. As that dysfunction is a matter of public record, I will not dwell on the details of that reality here. I will tell you of a medicine that cures this dis-ease.

Riel’s understanding is the recognition of the Indigenous belief in the relationship between artistic expression and healing from personal trauma. This therapeutic treatment has shaped the Gallery’s Indigenous community outreach for four decades by supporting grassroot initiatives financially, through promotion, and with exhibition space for critically acclaimed and emergent Indigenous artists and curators. That healing relationship is not exclusive to Indigenous populations alone.

The best example of this phenomena in action was Walking With Our Sisters, a memorial expression to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that was a vision of the Métis visual artist Christi Belcourt. That vision resonated across Indigenous Canada and resulted in over 1,700 pairs of moccasin vamps created by families as a memory to their lost ones. The installation, opened in 2014, was a vicarial, solemn, spiritual experience that welcomed the greater community. All who came walked with Elders who shared their heart experiences, answered questions, and offered emotional support. In the end, four percent of the entire population of Thunder Bay came to learn, to feel, to witness.

Cynthia Nault: Indigenous Ingenuity is currently on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery – on hold, however, due to the public health mandate. It comes to us on loan from the Montreal Science Centre and in partnership with Science North and Indigenous Tourism Ontario. It’s a highly interactive, educational exhibition featuring many amazing inventions by Indigenous peoples from all over Turtle Island. Even now, the design of these things hasn’t changed. For example, canoes are made with different materials, but the shape is the same.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery has offered, in addition to the components of the show, some stunning works from our permanent collection, including snowshoes, moccasins, canoes, intricately woven baskets featuring impeccable quill work, and much, much more. I’m particularly inspired by the “climate tactics” components of the exhibition. We see videos of community members who are working together on innovative ideas to build a greener future for their communities and beyond. We know that Indigenous peoples make up only about 5% of the global population, but they’re protecting over 80% of our world’s remaining biodiversity.

For me, seeing these communities and their forward-thinking and action-taking (while the Canadian government continues to subsidize fossil fuels and force Indigenous peoples from their homelands to build pipelines) is especially inspirational because of the historical abuse and neglect experienced by them. We see people who are resisting and surviving an ongoing genocide, and they are leading the way for the rest of society – living examples of respect and care for all of our relatives, callously referred to as “natural resources” by some.

Justine Gustafson, Let’s Heal Together, 2020, felt, satin, seed beads, metal clasp, smoked deer hide, brass sequins (photo: Christian Chapman)

Sharon Godwin: Piitwewetam – Making is Medicine is an exhibition of beadwork, regalia, cradleboards, skirts, and quilts created by the Gustafson family of Whitesand First Nation now living in Thunder Bay. Shannon and Ryan Gustafson and their daughters Justine and Jade made the beautiful pieces in the show during the years following the tragic death of their son and brother Jesse, known as Piitwewetam (Rolling Thunder). This conscious and ongoing “making” was their way of beginning to heal after the unspeakable loss of their son and brother. Their message to Anishnabe and all people was that healing was possible through positive, creative pursuits rather than potentially destructive methods that people sometimes fall prey to.

Originally scheduled at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery from February through June 2021, the exhibition was held in suspended animation on our walls during lockdown. Related community events were cancelled. Just prior to finally opening in September, a small gathering of family and friends was held and members of Jesse’s drum group, along with his father Ryan, opened the night with songs in tribute to his son. The reverberations of the big drum in the Gallery space cannot be described, only felt, to the depth of one’s being. That evening, the drum brought the Gallery back to life again.

Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine demonstrated, more than ever, the importance of ceremony and the healing power of both making and being touched by art. Although we know this, it was brought home like never before by the generosity of the Gustafson family as they communicated through their actions the importance of family and their respect for community.

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

Sharon Godwin: I bring an absolute belief in the art gallery as a place for the community, a place of discovery about art and oneself, a safe place for discussion about important and often difficult issues. I see my role as ensuring (by action and sometimes by stepping aside) that Gallery staff can present programming that helps people have life-changing moments and experiences with art. And, obviously, working to support artists and to create community awareness of the reality of being an artist is central to this work. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of a world without art. Enough said.

Cynthia Nault became the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Gallery in October 2021. She’s two-spirit, Anishnaabekwe, wolverine clan, from Red Rock Indian Band (Lake Helen First Nation). An artist and activist, Cynthia is passionate about art, community, climate action, and social justice.

Her most important role is to build connections with community by providing “a way in” for everyone, but especially for people who have not realized that there is a place for them at the Gallery.

Dr. John Akweniiostha Hodson is of Mohawk descent, turtle clan, and joined the Board of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 2020. He has recently collaborated with other Indigenous members of the Board to formulate a series of recommendations that will guide the process of bringing two distinct worldviews to the work of the Board and the Gallery. Unanimously accepted by the Board, the opportunity inherent in these recommendations is groundbreaking for the organization and, we hope, by extension, for the City of Thunder Bay.

John Hodson: I bring very little to the Gallery except a vision of what is possible. I am part of a greater group of Indigenous Board members that includes Saul Williams, noted Nishnawbe artist and Elder; Brenda Mason, Elder; Louise Thomas, owner of the Ahnishnabae Art Gallery; and Bruce Beardy, Ojibwe language professor.

Sharon Godwin is a director who has consistently listened, adopted, promoted, and made space – physical and spiritual – for Indigenous peoples to express themselves through art, often overcoming resistance and immense barriers in the process.

Cynthia Nault, the Gallery’s new Community Engagement Coordinator, is charged with the mission of expanding our connectivity to the Indigenous community. It occurs to me that the trail she will have to follow is well trod by others and represents decades of service to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery stands on the verge of constructing a new community building on the shores of Gichigami under the watchful gaze of the Sleeping Giant, Nanaboozhoo. The new building will mean improved accessibility through public transportation, more space to expand opportunities for Indigenous children to learn, to play, and to heal through their artistic exploration; more opportunities for new Indigenous artists and emergent curators, and summer employment for our youth; and more opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens to gather and heal together.

Cynthia Nault: As a person with mixed ancestry, I have had the experience of knowing two worlds. It hasn’t always been this way for me, but I definitely see myself as a bridge between them now. My connections in our community and my experiences as an artist help me bring resourcefulness and creativity to the institution. I very much see my role as that of an ambassador. I want to connect with those who maybe don’t see themselves at the gallery and invite them in.

I see Sharon as such an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience, being that she has been at the gallery for so many years.

I have yet to meet Mr. Hodson as I am still relatively new to my role and currently working from home.

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

John Hodson: I can only speak of, not for, our community of Thunder Bay. I would argue that Thunder Bay, in many respects, is a microcosm of the rest of this country. We, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, must face the realities that we have collectively inherited; none of us are responsible for the mess that has been laid in our laps. We must move beyond those histories, beyond that collective pain, beyond the repetition of unwellness. The greatest difficulty is how much this inheritance conflicts with the mythology of Canada, Canada the good, Canada the fair, Canada of the Blue Berets.

How do we reconcile the horrors of the past with a mythology that is worthy? How do we bring the mythology into reality? I believe that all the tactics of the colonial project were attempts to eliminate a worldview that evolved over the last 130,000 years and yet that epistemic understanding still exists, and Indigenous people carry it.

We stand on the edge of a great healing or an even greater disaster in this county. Don’t expect the political leadership to lead us away from the edge of the abyss we are teetering on. They are too wedded to a past that is no longer tenable in this country. It will be the people, one at a time, meeting, learning, consulting, building a common vision, bringing solutions to problems, and sharing those experiences with others. In the case of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, it will be about how we bring two very different worldviews into a Board and into operations. How do we, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Board members and staff, promote the healing through art?

Cynthia Nault: Moving forward, I’d love to see galleries doing more in terms of care for artists. This is actually part of the reasoning behind Wellness Wednesdays, a new program we’ve begun in a virtual format. Wellness Wednesday is a weekly, hour-long check-in where folks can learn about the medicine wheel and how to use it as a guide for self-care.

Galleries are a natural fit when one thinks about how/where artists might gather. Without artists, there would be no art for anyone! Potentially operating as a hub, the gallery can be a centre where artists find out about programs and supports available to them.

I have recently learned about the role of public art galleries. I have to say, I didn’t know what it meant to be a public art gallery. Now that I understand we are holding this art in trust for the public, I want to shout it from the rooftops. I want to help educate the public that this art belongs to you! Come see it!

Sharon Godwin: Cynthia’s response reminds me that we have always tried to provide professional development opportunities for artists. There are an abundance of exceptional young artists and artisans in the community, either returning to Thunder Bay or staying here after attending post-secondary studies at Lakehead University. This is just one of the important communities where relationship-building will continue and grow.

Throughout the pandemic we’ve been evaluating all that we do. We’re interested in how the changes to the world – globally, locally, and for individuals – will inform our work and the kinds of relationships we will be able to develop. We are beginning again to reach out and ask various groups and people what the Gallery can do to support them and where new partnership opportunities might exist.

John speaks of our vision of a new facility in a more central location at Thunder Bay’s waterfront on Lake Superior and the potential of this project. The waterfront is a visible and vibrant community hub and as the site for the Gallery’s new facility, brings tremendous potential for reaching and serving a wider audience and building important community partnerships. Our building project has been delayed by recent events – but stay tuned!