Propositions for a Post-COVID Art World – Tom Thomson 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 people representing different roles within the gallery.
For the fourth instalment of this weekly series, we hear from Shannon Bingeman, Assistant Curator, and Hillary Weppler, Community Engagement Coordinator, at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.
- Describe an experience you’ve had with an exhibition or a particular work of art that has changed the way you think about community.
Shannon Bingeman: There are projects that are collaborative in nature that illustrate a beautiful sense of community, but there are also projects that are personal that have the capacity to impact people profoundly and build a sense of community connection through conversation, openness, and vulnerability. I’m thinking in particular of a recent series of paintings that we exhibited by Mark Crofton Bell. It was called The Mom Project and included dozens of paintings of the artist’s mother that he made from direct observation every time he visited the long-term care facility where she was living and struggling with dementia. Although the body of work is deeply personal to the artist, visitors felt their own thoughts and experiences mirrored in his story. What surprised me was how it prompted personal conversations between strangers, which I witnessed firsthand after his artist talk and throughout the duration of the exhibition. After months of feeling disconnected from our visitors because of the pandemic, those conversations became a powerful affirmation and reminder of why we do what we do.
Hillary Weppler: In March of 2021, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery invited local mural artist JP Morel to create a mural in one of our gallery spaces in collaboration with local high school students. This mural, titled My Essential, was in response to the pandemic. Students were tasked with creating original artworks that illustrated what was essential to them and JP translated them into a mural. I was so pleasantly surprised to see the number of students who marked people (family, friends, sports teams, etc.) as essential to them. It gave me a new perspective on the value of community, especially as we continue to navigate a pandemic where traditional ways of gathering have been put on pause. Ultimately it was refreshing to see that people are still yearning for and have a desire to create community.
- In your position at your gallery, explain what you personally bring to the institution. What do you see as the most important role of the other contributor’s position?
Shannon Bingeman: I see myself as a bridge between artists and the public, a facilitator who helps communicate the personal, social, political, and/or spiritual drive behind an artist and their work. My role is to find connections and continuity in the conversations we bring forward in our exhibition spaces and build opportunities towards meaningful engagement. There is a certain dissolution of ego that I think is necessary in approaching curatorial work today, and I’m constantly conscious of this when developing shows. Working collaboratively, involving community partners, and being open-minded throughout the process is important.
Because Hillary comes to the gallery from outside of a fine arts educational background, I really value the balance of her perspective when we’re making decisions about opportunities and trying to decide if they achieve our curatorial priorities.
Hillary Weppler: I bring a sense of open-mindedness and willingness to try new things. A large portion of my role is finding ways for people to interact with art. I am always looking for different ways to do this. One example is the yoga series we run in the gallery space. We invite anyone of any age and background to experience the exhibition through the lens of a yoga class. The instructor is a local artist who brings elements of the exhibition into their practice, so class participants are able to engage with the art in an accessible, approachable way.
The importance of Shannon’s role cannot be understated. What I appreciate about her most is how she shares her knowledge with others.
- What could galleries do in the future to develop their relationships with the communities they serve?
Hillary Weppler: I think we all have work to do to make sure our galleries are truly accessible to all. We need to work towards galleries truly being seen as a place anyone is welcome to visit. At the TTAG our vision is “to be an open landscape for exploring art.” Everything we do works towards making that vision a reality.
Shannon Bingeman: To be open-minded and not approach building community connections with the perspective that “if we build it, they will come.” Start the conversation with community groups without an outcome or program in mind, listen to what their needs are, and go from there.