Propositions for a Post-COVID Art World – The Art Gallery of Windsor

 

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 first installment of this weekly series, we hear from Julie Rae Tucker, Head of Programs and Collection; Abbey Lee Hallett, Audience Engagement Coordinator; and Phillip Olla, Gallery Volunteer at the Art Gallery of Windsor.

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

Kama La Mackerel, Trans-affirmations, acrylic on silk

Abbey Lee: I always feel like my perspectives on community are affirmed when I see artwork that is actively creating spaces for those who have to fight to be represented in society. An installation that sincerely expanded how I view inclusive community spaces was Kama La Mackerel’s Trans-Affirmations. In this installation, La Mackerel painted five trans-affirming messages on their mother’s saris and installed them in spaces where the trans community’s perspective often goes unheard. By doing this, La Mackerel used their practice to actively represent and claim space for trans folx. Particularly given that white feminism and trans-exclusionary radical feminism continue to be pervasive, it is so heart-opening to see someone who is of mixed-race descent (Afro-Mauritian and Indo-Mauritian) and identifies as a zom-fam (translation: “man-woman” or transgender) creating inclusive spaces for those who exist within the margins of multiple equity-seeking groups.

Rebecca Belmore, Vigil, 2002, video still (video: Paul Wong)

Julie: When I think about being transformed by a work of art, I think of the video Vigil by Rebecca Belmore. I saw it at a film screening around the time of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Part of my job at the time was to monitor the media for Indigenous content. I would cull a daily selection of relevant stories. There was horrible racism occurring in the comments section of every piece related to Indigenous peoples. Unless they were from an Indigenous media outlet, articles about Indigenous people often carried little substance and were only focused on conflicts. I mention this because the media shared so little information about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) across the country. Vigil intersects culture and civic life, and makes clear these crimes, injustices, and pain. Watching it, you can’t help but imagine yourself in the crowd at the performance and feel implicated. When I think about community in relation to it, I think about social responsibility and the impacts of colonialism. I hope more people will read and tell their families to read The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and the MMIWG Final report. The death of so many women has implications for us all, and we need to think about how our communities continue to underserve the most vulnerable.

Kehinde Wiley, Officer of the Hussars, 2007, oil on canvas

Phillip: The piece of art that immediately came to mind was Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars at the Detroit Institute of Art. As a person of African descent, born and raised in the UK, I am used to seeing museums and galleries display African art that typically focuses on traditional forms. But the piece by Wiley inserts a young African American into a position of power that has previously excluded them. Sitting high on a leopard-skin saddle and wielding a sabre, Wiley’s model mirrors the subject of Théodore Géricault’s 1812 painting The Officer of the Hussars. When I saw this image I felt an array of emotions, relief, excitement, and pride. I finally felt that the African American community could see themselves as powerful and capable of great things. I felt uplifted and giddy as if I was the one sitting on the horse. Art can be powerful and portray people for what they truly are. Wiley’s painting acknowledges what I believe: there is tremendous power and value in all people. And it raises the important question: “Why do we continue to undervalue the lives of young black men?”

2. 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?

Julie: The Head of the Public Programs and Collection position was created to break down the silos between programming and exhibitions. I have fourteen years of experience working and volunteering for different arts and Indigenous organizations from artist-run centres, collectives, art service organizations, and film festivals. I have been lucky to work with so many talented and skilled cultural workers who I continue to reach out to for advice and support. For example, when I asked two of them this question, they said I bring “knowledge of the needs and demographics of the community, Indigenous and decolonial perspective, fine arts practice, artist-run culture, granting experience, and fresh perspective.”

What I appreciate about my colleagues is how they shine during a Zoom webinar, and this is a superpower specific to Abbey Lee. Their role is vital to connecting to the community at the grassroots level. We have successfully showcased the collection, exhibitions and programming to neighbourhoods and enlivened the downtown. We hope to expand these initiatives and continue building relationships with our community. Abbey Lee’s work is vital to those initiatives that engage people outside the gallery.

Phillip is a volunteer who brings their interest and research in digital art to the table. Arts organizations must onboard volunteers who bring their passion and expertise from outside the cultural sector to support and champion what we do here. I want to engage with different disciplines in the shows I curate, and I want people to see themselves in the gallery.

Abbey Lee: For the past year, I have been working as the Audience Engagement Coordinator at the AGW. I love telling stories, connecting with diverse communities, and opening hearts and minds through engaging programs. Much of my role involves talking to community members, either virtually or in-person, and sharing the stories of the community-centric initiatives that are occurring within and outside of the AGW’s walls.

What I appreciate about Julie is her ability to engage so many different groups of artists at the AGW. She is terrific at making people feel at home in the gallery, which can be a difficult task, particularly for those who may not have felt welcome in the past. She recently curated an exhibition called The Bridge Artists, featuring the work of three Indigenous artists (Teresa Altiman, Naomi Peters, and Daisy White) who were chosen to paint murals on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge. I have heard nothing but positive things about that exhibition from the community; it is one of those rare gems that is engaging to guests who fall across the spectrum of artistic expertise. It is easy for me to tell powerful stories when we have people like Julie who are working so hard to curate such impactful exhibitions.

Phillip has such energy and enthusiasm, which is instrumental when you are on an education and engagement committee! He does a wonderful job of providing affirmation and support for the gallery’s initiatives, but at the same time is not afraid to be curious and question the processes that go into our programming. This is particularly integral for us as staff. We need people who are questioning why we do what we do to ensure that we don’t fall into an echo chamber where everyone is in agreement for the sake of ease.

Phillip: I am not an artist, but I am passionate about unconventional artwork. I do not believe art is for the elite or for art collectors, and so I bring the perspective that art should be for all and be accessible to all. I believe in the healing powers of art and how easy it is to get lost when interacting with art or making art.  My contribution to the AGW is providing a different lens on how we interact with communities and artists to create a diversity of artists and attendees.

Abbey Lee makes everyone feel welcome and warms up a room with her smile. As our Audience Engagement Coordinator she has the skills and the personality to connect with any type of person or any disposition and disarm them. There has been an element of superiority or snobbery in art institutions in the past and Abbey Lee is the polar opposite of this.

Julie is professional, organized, methodical, and knows what needs to be done. She plans way ahead to ensure things are executed in the proper manner. I have been a volunteer in other art organizations that do not have a Julie and they typically almost always resort to chaos and mistakes. She has the experience to deal with artists, who in my humble opinion are a different breed, and understands the importance of the business aspects of art collections.

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

Phillip: I would like galleries to develop digital media capabilities to engage the younger generation of artists. The intersection of technology and art is so exciting and will be instrumental to creating the gallery and artist of the future, where communities come together to create artifacts that represent their views, feelings, and identities.

Julie: It is critical to undertake relationship building urgently and with care. I think about how galleries have space to provide respite during these difficult times. We developed a portal for teachers to access on-demand learning modules and created the Centre for Art & Wellness, which offers creative wellness programs to the public. One of these programs, Taking Care, is led by a professional art therapist and improves participants’ mental health by teaching new skills through art-making to manage social isolation.

I am also learning to be open to criticism from community members. That person is showing care for your work, and listening is an opportunity to consider new ways of thinking. I want to cede control and autonomy of a project to allow community members to shape its direction in my work. I hope to work on more collaborative exhibitions that are intergenerational and co-curated. I am trying to understand what it means to be community-driven and how it is different from being artist-run. There are so many great artist-run centres in Canada, and working for them has taught me a lot about community. At the heart of it is for me to treat an artist/guest with much respect and make them feel at home in the gallery. I haven’t always felt that with larger institutions.

Abbey Lee: My first thought is to engage with consultation groups and follow through on their recommendations. We have the privilege of consulting with community members through an internal accessibility task force, an external accessibility consultation group, and an Indigenous circle, among other community consultation groups. These consultations are instrumental when it comes to planning and executing our programs and exhibitions. Instead of assuming that we alone know what our community wants, we are engaging in a “nothing for us, without us” approach, and allowing our community’s wants and needs to guide our initiatives, rather than the other way around.

My second thought is to meet communities where they’re at. It is far easier to sit inside the AGW and wait for people to arrive than it is to venture into unfamiliar terrain and engage on a deep level with people who may not have felt comfortable visiting the AGW in the past. Julie has done a great job facilitating offsite exhibitions in Ford City (a neighbourhood within the city of Windsor) and I got to help coordinate a series of art workshops with the Windsor Residence for Young Men, which saw AGW staff and a hired artist venturing out to the Residence to teach participants how they could design their own skateboards.

Last but not least: show up for your community when you can. Asking a community partner to collaborate and then dropping off the face of the earth, never to be seen again, is not the way to establish meaningful, long-lasting relationships. Is one of your community partners hosting a fundraiser? Donate if you can, or spread the word if you can’t. Has another gallery in the community just launched a new exhibition? Show up and engage with it, or help promote their exhibition on your channels. Does a grassroots organization in your community need space to host meetings? Offer space if you have some available! Continuing to engage with community partners in this way can break down silos between organizations and create a truly steadfast, meaningful community support network for you and your gallery.