Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Head of Nail, Meet, Uh, Hitting Implement: OCAD Director Pegs TO as Too Self-Contained

Just wanted to relay a little something worth repeating from the Canadian Art Gallery Hop panel that happened on Saturday at OCAD.

On the plus side, the presentations by artists Adad Hannah and Emily Vey Duke were very strong. Hannah told the crowd more about his awesome re-creation of the Raft of the Medusa performed by teenagers from 100 Mile House in BC. And Vey Duke spoke pretty nicely to the difference between good irony (saying two things at once and meaning both quite sincerely) and bad irony (saying two things at once and believing both to be false, hopeless, weak, fail and totes ridonk).

AGO curator David Moos' presentation was a little more troubling. In it, he spoke a lot about Toronto and how he feels like it's finally a really exciting time in the city again--an excitement, in his mind, signalled mainly by all the construction cranes that dot the landscape. He talked also about how he'd like to increase the gallery's focus on Toronto in the future.

I kind of cringed at Moos' descriptions because (a) the idea that cultural excitement need be correlated to new buildings and architecture is a fallacy that has recently cost Toronto an unfortunate crapload of cash money and (b) the AGO is actually a provincial institution and, on that count at the very least, should be working extra hard to see beyond the Toronto-centrism that tends to pervade our city's cultural scene.

So while I was cringing silently, OCAD president Sara Diamond spoke up and hit the nail on the head, saying that the Toronto scene (and related AGO foci) is, in her experience, much too self-contained—-and that it suffers from that self-containment quite severely, in part by sacrificing potentially helpful international connections.

Though I don't always see eye to eye with Diamond, I gotta say, she was spot on with this. I would also add a lack of national--and even regional--connections is a disadvantage that most Toronto-sited cultural institutions happily put themselves in. Since the whole Windsor-to-Ottawa corridor is home to some quite productive and exciting artists--not to mention the whole Vancouver-to-St John's span--I hope that Moos opens his mind a bit... or at least gets his presentation points thought through a bit more next time around.

Image from the City of Toronto


Hrag said...

As someone who grew up in Toronto, I very much felt Toronto-centric. I can't say I ever really thought about the rest of the country.

I think there's a case to be made that Toronto is a very special place, an island of sorts but I do understand where you are coming from. If there is to be an evolving Canadian identity, than Toronto needs to play a crucial part in that.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Hrag...

Thanks for your comment.

I think Toronto is a special place, but it's not the only one, and it actually does hurt itself by acting as if it is sometimes.

I was wondering, though, if you feel NYC gets similarly blasted for inward-looking-ness. I think some pro-Toronto folk would argue that any place that's a national art market centre will "naturally" overlook/forsake potential regional, national and international connections. What's your take?

Hrag said...

Everyone loves to blast NY for that exact thing. In the case of Canada, I bet most collectors are in Toronto so naturally the market is there.

Art on the international scene needs to transcend its geography. When I think of Stan Douglas and Jeff Wall, I never think of Vancouver. Frankly, it doesn't even occur to me that they're Canadian most of the time.

I do find that one of the pitfalls of Canadian art is that so much of it is government funded so there's a tendency to be too "Canadian" (which the gov't I'm sure loves) and not just about art. I think the "Toronto scene" should work at creating a scene that liberates Canadian art from gov't funds, then I think we'd all be better off. Though if another city can do the same thing that would be a great thing too!

Am I making sense? I feel like I'm rambling. I always find your blog so insightful. Makes me wish I was back in Toronto sometimes.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Hrag,

Thanks for the explanation and the big ups...

I don't think the government/gov granting really controls the nature of Canadian artmaking, but you're correct in stating that sometimes we be a little caught up in Canadianness, or Torontonianness, or Albertanness or what have you here in the north 49. As you point out, strong contemporary art tends to transcend national boundaries, or at least speak to an international contemporary art audience apart from nationality.

At the same time, I relish the way that some artists and curators can use art to talk about regional/national problems and issues. I think in contemporary art nowadays the general trend is to shy away from any specific regional/national content for fear of the work not reaching (or finding approval in) that kind of supra-nationally-oriented art world. And I guess I see that as a loss at times and at other times an unrealistic expectation of art—-I was thinking the other day about David's the Death of Marat and how that's a "masterpiece" that is explicitly tied to a historical/regional incident. Grasping for other examples, I would also point to John Heartfield, whose collages are very pointed to the politics of a certain place and time. And I wonder why we find such pointing almost distasteful in the art world these days--is it maybe because it's difficult to do this well? Or because it's hard to play to a wider market/audience?

This comment thread is straying from the original post, but I appreciate you raising these issues and your concerns about Canadian art stuff.

Hrag said...

I think comparing anything happening to Canada to the French Revolution or World War II might be the problem. There isn't anything that would inspire that level of artistic imagination. Some of the reason, I believe, that we find contemporary Chinese art so interesting is because of the political issues and their importance in the world. As an emerging world power, we look to Chinese art as a source for answers (specially since soo few of us outside China read or understand any of the languages prevalent there).

And in terms of the role of government grants, I think anyone who has filed out a government grant knows how much Canadian-ness drives that script, specially on an institutional level. remember a decade ago that was rife. Feel free to correct me if that's changed...I hope it has.

Anonymous said...

Wrong on the China front. It is called antiques. They alone are the driving force behind this embrace of the east. A whole lot more money than the the worth of all the Chinese contemporary art that has buoyed the advertising revenue for Art Forum. What the grocery industry likes to call a loss leader.

Anonymous said...

After working in several galleries around the province of Ontario and in Toronto, there is a huge Toronto-snobbery syndrome, especially in the GTA, where Toronto is the be-all-and-end-all.

Many of the gallery workers in these GTA galleries have to live in Toronto and commute to their suburb galleries, otherwise, they are not taken seriously by their art counterparts.

What? Live in the community you represent? Recognize the talent at your door? No, only feed those in Toronto, then whine how you can't connect to the community you represent. So sad. Thanks Leah for bringing this up!

Leah Sandals said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for contributing.

Hrag, I hear you on not comparing events in Canada today to WWII or the French Revolution. That's most definitely a reach, one I didn't mean to compare directly in terms of magnitude, and it's good for you to call me out on that. It's just a fun leap of hyperbole perhaps, but all to say that I think locality can be a rich field to work within--and a challenging one to get right in 2009, when the focus is often on histories and geographies of art rather than other kinds of histories and geographies (an old saw, that one, picking on art history, but I do think from my time in the art college system that it's true, kids are encouraged to think of that particular stream of history as the ne plus ultra of potential references... or tend to misread instruction that way.)

I've also never received a Canadian government grant (Ont Writers Reserve, yes, but that's decided by individual publishers and that's it) so... I dunno, I feel I really don't know what the gov might be trying to push, maybe I'm just naive/hopeful in thinking it could be flexible. But that would be worthy of some debate for sure, esp if it's something that prompts talented folks to look elsewhere for more freedom and flexibility.

Interesting point on China, anonymous, hadn't considered that, and same for GTA galleries, Anonymous 2. I have heard that some GTA galleries now require their curators to live in the communities they represent. Don't know how that is working out more widely, but...