Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Telling South Asian Tales Old and New: Profile of Brampton's Sharada Eswar out on Yonge Street

My most recent foray in profiling GTA artists for Yonge Street took me to Brampton, where I met up with a very busy professional storyteller and writer: Sharada Eswar.

Since immigrating from India with her family in 2001, Eswar—who previously worked in marketing and did storytelling and puppetry on the side—has really ramped up her activity in her chosen art. Here's an excerpt from the Yonge Street profile that provides a peek at her 2011 schedule:

In March, she and choreographer Nova Bhattacharya received a Toronto Arts Council grant for a project to re-imagine the Mahabharat from a female point of view. In April, her interviews with Sri Lankan refugees formed the soundtrack for No Entry, an installation at Coronation Park. In September, she wrapped a radio drama for Wychwood Barns' Theatre Direct, inspired by tragic Hindu hero Abhimanyu and chilling reports of the Toronto 18 wannabe terrorist group.

In December, she'll be doing carnatic singing in a Pharmacy Avenue studio for a Tamil-and-English adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The remarkable project, presented by the community-arts group Jumblies Theatre, is the culmination of a three-year Scarborough residency involving dozens of Jumblies staff and hundreds of community volunteers. During the residency, Eswar has facilitated programming for the region's Tamil seniors. With Like an Old Tale, she's taking on the role of an actor, rather than that of a self-directed storyteller.

To find out more about Eswar and how she built her career in the arts, read on at Yonge Street.

And it's worth noting that that big adaptation of A Winter's Tale actually opens next week, December 8, in a big old TV studio near Pharmacy and Eglinton. It only runs for 10 days, coinciding with the 6th Canadian Community Play Exchange Symposium. For ticket info, visit the Jumblies site.

(Photo of Sharada Eswar by Voula Monoholias for Yonge Street)

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Sweetness and (Projected) Light: Q&A on Watch Me Move at the Glenbow Museum

The Lisson Gallery's Greg Hilty works amongst some of the most highbrow echelons of the art world. So when it came time to interview him about Watch Me Move, a show on animation art that was a big hit at the Barbican this summer and is now on at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary (its only North American stop) I had to ask him how the heck he got in charge of this megacrush on populist flicks from Pixar and Disney.

You can find out what Hilty said in today's National Post, where our condensed Q&A appeared. An excerpt:

Q You’ve worked at some of the most high-end galleries in the world. How is it you’ve created an exhibition that crushes out on multiplex fare such as Disney and Pixar?

A There’s overlap in my background as a museum curator specializing in points where the visual arts connect with other visual fields, like film. I’ve always taken the view that there’s great meaning and great relevance to be found in looking at art very broadly. Though I’m very clear about what’s good and what’s not good, I think it can be found in different places.

Q So how do you tell good from bad in animation? What makes one instance artful and another not?

A That’s a hard question. One indicator of animation’s maturity is it has been taken up by many people who call themselves visual artists rather than animators, like Francis Alÿs, Kara Walker, Nathalie Djurberg and Julian Opie. But no matter who’s doing it, I think there can be good clay animation and bad clay animation, just like there can be good painting and bad painting. I think animation has been limited in the past by many museums seeing it as a set of technologies. I was keen to look at animation, by contrast, as an approach to plumb the depths of human consciousness and scale the peaks of human imagination.

My favourite Hilty quote in the Q&A comes at the end, however:

"Sweetness and pleasure and delight are things that the art world sometimes, at its cost, ignores. It tries to be a little bit above all those things — and fair enough, there are serious things to engage with — but it’s a big world, and there are many emotions in the world and in people’s lives. I think one of the reasons for the good response to this exhibition is there’s a sense of recuperating the full range of human emotion in the visual arts."

Damn straight! As a huge fan of the movie Up! and (shame be damned!) a child-free (and, I'll add, cat-free) lady who actually requested seeing Puss in Boots on its opening weekend, I have to agree on that note about sweetness.

There's also some Canadian content I had to trim for lenght, like the fact that Hilty said the NFB did give the world some pretty interesting animation, especially that of Norman McLaren, whose Neighbours is included in the show.

For the entire interview, read on at the National Post's Arts section.

(Still from Toy Story 3 from the Telegraph)

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free Collection Admission at the National Gallery of Canada on the Way? Q&A with NGC Director Marc Mayer at

Last week, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer gave free public talks in Toronto and Winnipeg on an often-controversial topic in the arts: taxpayers’ money. In it, Mayer discussed misconceptions that the general public and art insiders alike often have about art, artists, art museums and the art economy. He also spoke about his wish to make art more accessible to all Canadians.

Today, published my condensed follow-up phone interview with Mayer. In it, we discuss the gallery’s budget (slated this year at approximately $58 million), where it comes from, and what he’s planning on doing with it in the future. The most exciting financial development for me is that Mayer says he would like to restore free permanent-collection access at the National Gallery. (I write "restore" because it did used to be free to visit the NGC collection, but today it costs adults $9 for the majority of the week, one free evening excepted.)

Here's an excerpt from the interview:

Leah Sandals: In your talk, you noted that Canadian taxpayers provide 85% of National Gallery of Canada’s funding. You also said that you would like the gallery’s permanent collection to be free for taxpayers to see, just like collections are in public museums abroad that have similar funding arrangements, like the Smithsonian and Tate. How are you going to make this free permanent-collection access happen at the NGC?

Marc Mayer: Well, it’s complicated, and we’re trying to figure it out. We’re actually trying to find someone to sponsor it. We think that makes more sense, that someone should take credit for that kind of generosity. And there are various sponsorship options, so that’s really what we’re looking at, because it’s a considerable amount of lost revenue. We think, of course, that [over the long term] there would be a gain in revenue, because more people would come to the gallery—but not in the first couple of years; it takes a while for people to get used to the idea that the permanent collection is free and that they can come anytime.

LS: The latest quarterly figures the gallery has posted online indicate that admission fees only account for a small portion of total revenues—2.2%—with much of that figure coming from tickets to special exhibitions rather than tickets to the permanent collection. So what are the obstacles, then, to restoring free permanent-collection admission?

MM: 2.2% is a lot of money on 58 million dollars. And we can’t afford to lose any money. So the main obstacle is the money. But we’re also part of a network of national museums; would our decision force them to [do something similar]? What is the ministry’s position on this? All those issues, we haven’t figured them out yet. But I do feel strongly that Canadians should have access without barriers as much as possible to the national collection, particularly those who bothered to come all the way out to Ottawa. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Read on at for the rest of our exchange, which addresses Canadian vs. non-Canadian acquisitions, the gallery's new biennial, its re-involvement in the Venice Biennale's Canada Pavilion, MASS MoCA's massive show of Canuck art next year and more.

I was thankful that Mayer was willing to speak to these topics, often in a frank manner, and I'm grateful to the University of Toronto Art Centre and the Winnipeg Art Gallery for hosting his talks. Here's a few other thoughts on the talk and chat that I wasn't able to squeeze into the interview:
  • In his talk, Mayer said that the gallery is working on having an extended wall label for every collections object on display. To this, I say, hallelujah. A lot of people who visit art museums (especially new visitors) are often left hanging when it comes to being provided with some tools or information for interpreting the art on display. Or at least some context! Mayer said that one of his priorities on this front is to get a label for Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, which has been one of the most notorious paintings in Canada for the past 20 years, but bears no trace of this context (or any other context, be it historical, formal or financial) in its gallery presentation. He also mentioned Newman's Yellow Edge in this label discussion, which I was especially glad to hear because at Speed Art Criticism this year, some earnest non-artster came up to me just really wanting to understand why the heck that work was in the National Gallery. Hopefully the label will offer some of that explanation to people!
  • Mayer also said during the talk that he's not just looking for art-historical context in these labels, but different kinds of stories or angles with which visitors may better understand (or inquire about) the art on display. I agree that providing multiple vectors of entry into artworks is a good idea.
  • On the more humorous end of things, Mayer said during his talk that the Group of Seven era "frankly hadn't interested me all that much until recently." He did go on to note, however, that many members of the public and the critics decried the National Gallery's acquisitions of Group of Seven works as a waste of taxpayer money a century ago, and that public outcry is to be expected of art-museum acquisitions, in a way, since the mission of contemporary curators at most national art museums is not to document the best-loved art of their time but rather what is likely the most game-changing art of their time. (Because some people rightfully decry the overuse of the word "game-changer" these days, I'll clarify that that's my word choice, not Mayer's.)
  • Mayer noted that at talks like these (and I would extend, of course, that in interviews like these) he is largely preaching to the converted. This made me think afterwards: how could he reach a wider audience and vice versa? There were jokes about interrupting a sports event, but it did make me think, again, of the Speed Art Criticism event at Nuit Blanche, which to me is a really interesting opportunity to meet a public that is art-interested, but not art-ingratiated.
  • I'll end this post with a quote from the talk that I found interesting: "Our greatest efforts need to be the creation of a much bigger audience for art, both new and old. We need to think much harder about how to do that, and focus our research and cogitation on the cause of connecting Canadians to their most ambitious culture. That's what the National Gallery is thinking about above all other concerns these days, I can promise you. Indeed, that is what the National Gallery is for." (I myself actually suspect Mayer is likely juggling many more concerns than just audience development, but I appreciate him making the point.)
(Image of National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer courtesy the NGC and via

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Power Plant announces Free Admission from March 2012 to 2013

First the ROM's announcement of reduced admission fees, now this: The Power Plant has announced free admission for a full year starting March 23, 2012.

Here's the details from the gallery press release emailed this morning:

The Power Plant is pleased to announce the launch of the ALL YEAR, ALL FREE program in celebration of its 25th anniversary year. Due to the generous support of The Hal Jackman Foundation, the gallery will drop all admission fees for one full year commencing 23 March, 2012.

The launch of this new initiative is timed to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of The Power Plant, an occasion to encourage increased public access to the gallery, mark its achievements, celebrate its past successes, and build an exciting future....

The gallery is indebted to The Hal Jackman Foundation for making this yearlong program possible. Since 2005, the generosity of the Foundation has enabled The Power Plant to open its doors free of charge during the summer, making the gallery more accessible to thousands of lakefront visitors and tourists. The summer program has been overwhelmingly successful, enjoying an increase in attendance numbers by more than 400%, and reporting 77% of those attendees as first-time visitors.

I can't say that this is anything but a good thing--after all, I'm always happy to see private donors sponsor more free admission to art institutions--though it seems strange/unfortunate to me that we must wait for the initiative to begin in March.

I also wonder if a year of free admission is enough to really acculturate new audiences and publics to frequent visiting of the gallery--some say a few years of free is needed to make that happen at art museums.

(Also, the longer I think on matters of access, the more it seems vital to me that public Canadian collecting institutions make access to their permanent collections free, whether sponsors are available or not. It's the principle of the thing, you know?)

But getting back to the Power Plant (a non-collecting institution) I do have to say this comes as a very pleasant surprise. Kudos to the Hal Jackman Foundation for continuing to put arts access in their list of priorities.

For more information about the Power Plant's upcoming programs, visit their website.

(Image of the Power Plant's smokestack by Xavier Snelgrove via Wikimedia Commons)

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Exactly that: Q&A with Ken Nicol out in today's National Post

Ken Nicol is a master at divining order out of chaos — particularly chaos of the everyday-life variety. Whether he’s carefully sorting swarms of houseflies or arranging potato chips into tidy grids, this Toronto artist distills mathematical purity out of lo-fi dross. With his latest show, themed on the number 100, now on in Toronto, Nicol talked to me about his work. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Your current show is themed on 100. Why?
A I don’t know. I’m hoping to make a list of 100 reasons to do 100. I’ve been asking people for ideas. Someone said, “Well, 100 is really round, it’s not like 37, all pointy and stuff.” Ha! But 100 did come up with the Pringles I use, because it’s 100 chips in every can. And the show is on for 100 hours. So 100 kept coming up. And it’s a great tool, because it’s a good goal for something. If I claim 100 as a genre of mine, then I can know when to stop collecting things like my white beard hairs. It gives me a nice little parameter.

Q Was math a big thing for you in school? There’s so much in your art about symmetry, counting and sets.
A Generally I sucked at math in school. But I do a lot of drafting. I suppose it’s geometry I’m more interested in. Phi, the Golden Section number — that’s pretty neat. And as for grids, well, I mean, look at my heroes: Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre. Though I keep on buying Cy Twombly books, and I don’t know why.

Q Because your works can be so small and precise, I find they prompt me to acknowledge my own poor attention to detail. Does it bother you that people don’t always pay as close attention to objects as you do?
A It totally bugs me. I mean, you go to a Ken Nicol show — if you actually pay attention, you’re going to be rewarded. A lot of this stuff is easy to absorb, because it’s nice-looking and well done. But if you go a little bit further into it, there’s more.

There's definitely more, I agree! To read the rest of the interview, head to the Post.

Nicol's show Hundreds of Things, Volume 1 continues at MKG127 in Toronto until November 12. He also has a small show at Convenience Gallery that closes November 24.

(Image of Ken Nicol's 100 Pringles, Regular, Sour Cream & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Barbeque 2011 Courtesy the artist and MKG127)

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"I don’t know what there is in the colour green that makes you think hard": Grade 6 students review contemporary Canadian Painting

The other day, I received a set of terrifically enjoyable art reviews. They were all written by Grade 6 students at a Toronto public school. Their teacher had assigned them to look at the semifinalists in this year's RBC Canadian Painting Competition and make a case for their favourite work. Some of the reviews are reproduced below, along with the works they refer to.


I chose the Untitled art painting first for the competition by Tristam Lansdowne. I chose it because I like how the artist made the colours balance and look eye catching. The background colours look like a peaceful background so when I look at it, it already looks like a clam and peaceful place. In the front the beautiful falls of water and the plant looks like it is a beautiful place with beautiful nature all around it. When I look at the picture it reminds me of my old unforgettable dreams in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, there was a war. After the war we went to Sri Lanka from Canada and saw the beautiful buildings half broken and saw the other beautiful half. I also like this painting because the artist uses emphasis. First the top is normal but in the bottom it has more information. These are the important and good reasons I chose Tristam Lansdowne’s Untitled for first place in the painting competition.


My first choice for the art competition is Blotto by Deirdre McAdams. This picture has a lot of colour and shapes. The type of colour it has matches very well with the shapes. I really like the placement of the shapes because of its rectangular figure and bright pink and orange colours. I admire that this is abstract art because there isn’t really a picture of a person to look at. It can be anything you want it to be! That is very interesting to me. That’s why Deirdre McAdams’ Blotto should win the art competition.


My first choice for this art painting competition is Ianick Raymon’s Decomposition 2. The first reason I chose this painting is because it reminds me of checkers and a movie that I saw. The second reason I chose this painting is because it looks 3D and 3D stuff is really cool. The third reason I chose this painting is because I like how the artist put the checkered pattern in the middle and the corners. It is really creative. These are all the reasons why I believe that Decomposition 2, by Ianick Raymon should win the competition.


My first choice for the art painting competition is Bitsy Knox’s work entitled The Improper Sister 1. The first and most important reason why I chose it is because I really like the shapes. I like the shapes because the triangle shapes seem to bounce. Another reason why I chose it is because the colours make me think hard. It makes me think hard because of the highly contrasted colours, especially the colour green, contrasted with the pink. I don’t know what there is in the colour green that makes you think hard. There are many shapes and lines in the picture. The biggest think is that the colours stand out very nicely. The bouncing shapes make it more interesting for me. These are the reasons why I strongly fee that the painting by Bitsy Know should win the competition.


I chose Amy Schissel’s art because I like how her art looks free with so many colours. The colours of the lines make me want to fly because there is no balance. I vote for her because she knows that art should have no instructions. Shapes don’t have to be shapes, lines don’t have to be straight. You can imagine what you can make from her shapes. That’s why I think Amy Schissel should win the competition.


My first choice for the art competition is Julie Trudel’s painting named Project CMYK, Test 44. The first reason is that I thought how she mixed all the colours and made something look like a black hole! Second, I like the texture of how it is mixed like one part looks higher than the other. Third, I like the cool swirls and make it look like a black hole or a colourful toilet. That’s why I chose this one.


I have to say my favourite is that last piece of writing with its "colourful toilet" analogy. Many thanks to the teacher of these students and to Jackie Braden at RBC for forwarding along these reviews. And good luck to these young writers in future!

For more information about this year's RBC semifinalists, visit the competition website.

(All images from

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Muskrat Magazine's Rebeka Tabodondung: Looking at Media from a First Nations Perspective

My most recent piece for Yonge Street Media, posted this week, looks at Rebeka Tabodondung, editor and curator of Muskrat Magazine, a new online Toronto magazine that focuses on First Nations perspectives.

Here's an excerpt from the middle of the article:

"I got the sense in early discussions that Muskrat wasn't going to focus on how 'deficient' First Nations people are— their disasters and problems—but rather focus on contributions they can make to broader society," says Deborah McGregor, interim director for Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto. McGregor contributed an essay to the debut issue tracing the Ojibwa re-creation myth in which the muskrat—among the smallest and most humble of animals—is the only one brave enough to dive into deep waters after a massive flood and bring up soil for a new land to be built.

The muskrat's parable of great ends from inauspicious beginnings is a powerful one for Tabodondung, who was kicked out of high school before graduating. At 19, while on an exchange program for indigenous youth from Guatemala and Canada, she had a revelation which changed the direction of her life.

"That was the first time in my life I'd ever heard of an indigenous perspective of history," she says, recalling the youth program's visits with Aboriginal groups in B.C. "I realized the Aboriginal experience of colonization in Canada is not a perspective that is included within the education system, within media and general Canadian consciousness. I began to understand the power of media and the importance of indigenous people to control their own stories, to tell their stories the way it happened to them."

Researching this piece was a good reminder for me on the power of media and of telling one's own story. It also introduced me to a compelling performance piece by artist Keesic Douglas. Last summer, Douglas canoed from Rama First Nation near Orillia to The Bay on Queen Street West, where he tried to trade his great-great-grandfather's Hudson Bay Blanket for beaver pelts. Here's a film on that performance from Muskrat Magazine's Youtube Channel:

For more information, visit the Muskrat site or read on at Yonge Street Media.

(Image of Rebeka by Tanja-Tiziana for Yonge Street Media)

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dealing with Resistance to Change: Notes from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference

Following on yesterday’s post, today I’m compiling notes on a couple of sessions from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS Centre in Toronto.

The presentations ranged widely over brain structure, pedagogy, curriculum, and educational institutions. Here’s the points that stood out the most for me in terms of thinking about contemporary art, contemporary art education and related programming at public museums and galleries:

- Change coming from within educational institutions, and other institutions, is thought by many experts as being in the highly-challenging-to-well-nigh-impossible range of plausibility. As speaker Stan Kutcher put it, “Changing a university is more difficult than moving a graveyard.” As a result, several speakers said, change on educational and other fronts must be initiated outside the established institutions. To me, this recalled the development in decades past of Artist Run Centres in Canada, an alternative exhibition model that grew outside of museums. And perhaps, in more recent years, it points to the growth of the web as a place for exhibiting art outside of the museum and ARC structure. Still, I wondered -- must all change come from outside? It's a depressing thought for me, even if it's a realistic one.

- Some educational theorists are excited about the idea of moving from a top-down, lecture-based model of teaching to an interactive and shared model of teaching. Again, it’s worth wondering how this could apply to art institutions today. Though many museums offer “interactive” features of one kind or another, the general feeling in many art museums is “we are conveying or presenting important art knowledge to the viewer,” not “we are collaborating with the viewer on generating art knowledge and experiences” or “the viewer might have something to teach us or share with us about art knowledge and experiences.”

- In terms of using new technologies, all the presenters agreed that integrating resources for training educators in those technologies was crucial. Many institutions provide the budget for tech equipment, but not the budget to teach educators (and perhaps, in the museum case, curators and directors) how to use it.

- Even fewer resources, at times, may be devoted to much-needed testing, whether it’s of paradigms old or new. As Kutcher pointed out, he has been trying to do research on the effectiveness of certain technologies in education and teen mental health, but has little comparative data, as the effectiveness of traditional educational and mental health strategies had not been thoroughly tested in the first place. In terms of art museums, this prompted me to wonder what ideas of value in exhibitions have become accepted as status quo through the centuries without any data on viewer learning to actually support them.

- Again, collaboration between divergent groups is key for moving forward in technology and education, including arts education. As Matt Thompson, a representative from Mozilla put it, “The geeks are getting it. We know now that the Internet is not going to save the world. But it’s the dawn of a more interesting age” where there are hybrids between technology and other fields are growing more useful applications. As an example, he discussed some tech-ed programs Mozilla had developed in intensive collaboration with teachers and curriculum advisors. The upshot here for arts institutions is, again, to reach out to teachers (and, as necessary, programmers) when looking to develop appropriate and useful arts-ed technologies.

Also, here’s a few of my thoughts on the conference in general:

-Next time, please allot more time to speakers and panelists, or focus the topics so that they can be addressed in the allotted time. Many of the topics at the conference could have had full days devoted to them. Instead, each panel speaker was given four to five minutes to cover that topic. I’m all for conciseness, but there’s a limit to condensing useful information. It’s also annoying to go see a single-speaker talk that runs out of time in terms of getting down to the nitty gritty. That’s partly the fault of the speaker, but could have to do with unclear timing expectations.

- In a conference that has a lot of buzz around “new ways of learning in the 21st century” I was left wondering why so few 21st century tools and approaches were being used in the presentations I saw. I’m talking about webcasting the talks and panels as a basic minimum, which didn’t happen. I’m also talking about revamping the traditional top-down speaker approach. There’s few things more annoying than hearing a speaker expound on the benefits of “non-broadcast, non-top-down models of learning” while they absolutely engage in broadcast, top-down modes of communication.

- Be sensitive to the ways a sales pitch can alienate your desired audience. I overheard at the conference that some attendees were annoyed with the sales-y ness of the presentation lineups. Next time, to improve its usability and integrity, the conference might want to consider providing some tips for educators that don’t require buying a book or software program or consultant time to put into action.

Overall, I found the conference an interesting experience, especially as a non-educator myself, and I’m sad I’m not able to attend this afternoon’s panel featuring Sally McKay of Digital Media Tree. Good luck Sally!

For more information about the conference, please visit

(Image of an old-timey classroom -- with the same layout as many new-timey classrooms -- from elearninggr14)

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