Friday, June 29, 2012

Free Museum Admissions on Canada Day: Time to Step Up Beyond the Holiday

I was happy this week to hear that the National Gallery of Canada would be providing free admission to its permanent collection on Canada Day. I was also glad to hear the Art Gallery of Alberta would be providing free admission to both the collection and temporary exhibitions on July 1. I haven't done much further research on other museums that normally charge admission providing free access on the upcoming holiday, but I can only presume there are others.

Yet, at the same time as I'm glad about these patriotic public-access gestures, I feel some disappointment or disbelief--definitely, at least, some ambivalence. The collection at the NGC belongs to all Canadians every day of the year, so trotting out free access as a one-off holiday "extra" tends, in my view, to reinforce the idea that public access is really not a something the public should expect in the long term. Ditto for Albertans vis a vis the Art Gallery of Alberta's collection.

It is also disappointing to me that our major public art museums in English Canada do not, by and large, even honour the tradition of free museum admission on or around International Museums Day. Montreal has a strong program of this kind, which is no surprise, some might say, given the different ethos and funding situations there. The NGC has also stepped up, offering free admission this year on May 20. But the AGO, the AGA, and the VAG don't seem to take part in this outreach effort, let alone non-art museums like the ROM and the Glenbow. (I could be wrong, and would be happy to be corrected!)

Perhaps this lack of International Museums Day isn't a surprise given that the Canadian Museums Association itself, though giving a nod to the possibility of free admission, suggests that for International Museums Day museums should invite in a local MP rather than the wider public.

I write this post with some trepidation given that it is unpleasant for me personally to focus on such disappointments. To state the obvious, it is not always fun to be a negative voice.

This is especially true when there is a lot to be proud of in the Canadian art community--like the fact that many galleries and museums, public, private or otherwise, do offer the public free access to art every day of the year. I simply continue to feel regret when the institutions charged with growing and maintaining "publicly owned" collections fail to provide the public with adequate free access to them. I also feel disappointed that many of our institutions can't seem to get it together to do at least something along the lines of New York City's Art Museums Day (another Intl Museums Day related event).

I do wish everyone a terrific holiday! I'll be headed to the beach, hopefully.

(Photograph taken by Jared Grove (Phobophile) and posted at Wikimedia)

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Fiiiiiiiiiiiiinally Read: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Prompted by my colleague David Balzer's excellent summer reading list generated for (Canadian Art's student and careers site), I have fiiiiiiiiiiiinally read Steve Martin's 2010 novel An Object of Beauty.

Set mainly in the commercial side of the New York art world from the 1990s to the date of publication, An Object of Beauty certainly does have a kind of light, gossipy dishiness to recommend it (though that's not all). I am quite unfamiliar with the commercial and auction parts of the art world—much, much less familiar than Martin, who is a prolific collector and, fortunately for the reader, a great observer and conveyor of human social dynamics—and it was entertaining to read scenes of a dealer sticking to her monied client like glue, for sure. He also does a great job of mapping out various strata of the NY art realm, as far as I can tell: uptown vs. downtown, East Side vs. West Side, modern vs. contemporary, etc.

(Publishers Weekly put this observation much better: "Martin (an art collector himself) is an astute miniaturist as he exposes the sound and fury of the rarified Manhattan art world.")

I also enjoyed the ways in which Martin conveys, in this book, the different ways that dealers, auction houses, collectors, and critics attribute or signal value in art. Is this value monetary, spiritual, acquisitive, social, human, humane? All of the above, or none, depending on the character and context of the individual.

Also, the fact that the narrator of the book is a critic prompted both a sense of thrill and embarrassment for me, as I empathized with his peripheral role to the art world (including the one of his own narrative), with his small, tiny publication triumphs, and most centrally, at least for this novel, with his need to get the himself the hell out of the way of the story, while also being enmeshed in it in a way.

In fact, I found this choice of narrator somewhat curious, whether a critic or not--it's rare that I read a novel (well, these days, it's rare I read at all, so I'm no expert) where the narrator has such a peripheral role to the narrative, and alternates between an individual perspective and a slightly more omniscient (or as he puts it at the beginning, a more imaginative) point of view. Could this be interpreted as a kind of reading of art criticism in general? I don't think Martin intended it as such, but criticism does tend to reach across that whole spectrum of voice, from first-person memoir to third-person "objectivity" or omniscience, so... fun to think about, I guess.

Finally, let me say that Martin is very good at conveying the dynamics in a courtship/relationship where one person is much more invested than another. It kind of made me think, man, who could really have turned down or burned Steve Martin so bad? Dude plays the banjo and has been attached to a bazillion famous things. Also, he prolly has a really nice art collection. A reminder that in matters of the heart, we are all vulnerable and imperfect, I suppose.

Overall, not a must-read, but very much a nice-to-read, especially if you are involved with art in some way, shape or form.

(Image: Image of the book's cover from

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Artwatching vs. Birdwatching: A Highly Nonscientific Comparison

Over the past couple of months, I have been getting a teeny tiny little bit into birdwatching.

By this I mean that I have enjoyed biking to the Leslie Street Spit here in Toronto and keeping an eye out for different species. I also have purchased a laminated Ontario bird guide. And I enjoy excitedly telling friends and co-workers when I have spotted and identified a species that is new to me.

Now, from what I see out on the Spit, I understand I could be standing on the precipice of (or already beginning to slide down) a very slippery hobby slope. By the end of the summer I could just be the owner of a three-foot-long zoom lens, floppy Tilley hat and pricey binocs.

Which—you know what?—would actually be plenty fine because I really enjoy spending time in this slightly postapocalyptic pocket of nature taking back some of the wastes of humankind. (NB for the non-Torontonians: the Spit was originally built as a breakwater using landfill excavated from Toronto construction sites.)

Spending a little time on the Spit has also prompted me to think about the similarities and differences between Artwatching and Birdwatching. Here are some of my highly nonscientific observations:

1. Both Artwatching and Birdwatching are highly visual activities which one could argue engage an appetite for the spectacular.

2. Both Artwatching and Birdwatching can engage a visual analytics of identification. How many times have a stood in a gallery or stared at a page trying to identify an artwork without looking at the caption or wall label? That is, trying to identify a "species" of work purely through visual means? Or learning to do the same? Well, the same or similar skills are used in Birdwatching--just like a certain palette or texture identifies a certain painter, certain patternings or colours identify a bird.

3. However, Birdwatching can also regularly engage an aural component. Though I am not skilled (yet!) at identifying bird calls, I know there are guidebooks out there to this effect. Though there is such a thing as sound art, it is not usually necessary to tune in to an artwork's aural component in order to experience it or identify it. Canvas is pretty damn silent, ya'll!

4. Artwatchers have an advantage in that the objects of their focus typically do not move, or do not move with any great degree of speed or agility. This is quite different from the conditions that Birdwatchers encounter, where one might have only a few seconds to get a good look at the object of one's focus, or even less. This lends a kind of urgency to the birdwatching experience; artwatching allows for more lassitude, in a sense.

5. Both artwatching and birdwatching can be enjoyed as singular experiences and competitive/accumulative contests alike. In my experience, I have enjoyed looking at both objects of art and at birds as kinds of opportunities for transcendence—a way to move beyond the everyday. Yet I have also had experiences (often at the same time) where the looking can take on a competitive or accumulative quality. "Okay, I've seen a Killdeer/Olafur Eliasson work. While thrilled at first, I now find it familiar and kind of boring. I want to see something else next." There can be a kind of "onwards and upwards" or "I haven't seen that yet and I should" tendency. (I know both these qualities of looking have more to do with me than with art in general, but I thought it was worth noting.)

6. Both artwatching and birdwatching subcultures have their own distinctive customs and styles of dress. I am not indoctrinated fully into either subculture, I think, but I can say you don't see a whole lot of all-black outfits out on the Spit. A lot more earth tones and quick dry materials.

7. The cameras are a lot bigger in the birdwatching community. An iPhone just ain't gonna cut it!

If you want to find out more about bird species at the Spit, check out the Tommy Thompson Park website.

(Chickadee-riffic image via I would basically freak out, in a good way, I think, if I was the person in this picture.)

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Happy Arts Access Moment: TSO Plays First Free Outdoor Concert in More than 10 Years

Though I haven't written about it in a while, I still do think a lot about arts access issues.

So I was happy this weekend to attend (with a few thousand other Torontonians) the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's first free outdoor concert in more than 10 years. It was part of Luminato's closing events.

Even though rain threatened to end the event before it started, most of the audience members held fast. The rain then mostly cleared, and the audience enjoyed a range of popular favourites from ET (dedicated to the cyclists of  Toronto by director Peter Oundjian) and the Lord of the Rings (did you know scorewriter Howard Shore was Canadian and used to play saxophone in Lighthouse? I didn't.) as well as a premiere of an overture by Philip Glass and Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture.

There was a kind of War of 1812 tribute thing going on (not unusual for Toronto at the moment) which led to some weird touches like the audience being instructed to sing the Canadian and American national anthems, but the audience generally seemed to enjoy it.

There were also fireworks and cannons at the end for the Tchaikovsky, as well as a big round of audience-approval noise for the idea that the TSO will do more free concerts in future -- I certainly hope this is the case! Much needed and appreciated by the public.

(Photo of the audience holding steady during a rainshower at the free TSO event by yours truly.)

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Friday, June 15, 2012

From the Tara Bursey files: Notes on our Cultural Condition, Sort Of

Earlier this spring, I was flattered when artist, blogger and OCAD University student Tara Bursey asked for my feedback on some career-related questions for a class of hers. The list of questions included some general ones from the class (everyone in the class was doing these sorts of interview requests) and some individual ones.

I thought I'd post my response to the class questions. In a way, they are the questions I was the least capable of answering, so they got me thinking more broadly than I usually might. I'm just posting them here for fun.

Thanks again to Tara for inviting me to participate in this project. Here are the class questions and my responses:

1. What characterizes our current cultural condition?

I’m not in any position to comment on what characterizes our current cultural condition, because I don’t study such things. I often feel that when I am commenting on something publicly, it is on my own response to a small set of works, or to a single exhibition, rather than commenting on a wider cultural condition.

I know that subjectively I experience our current cultural moment as overwhelming in terms of the amount of information being generated and distributed through various media.

One Canadian artist I spoke with in the past few months, Kate Armstrong (whose practice addresses media and the Internet) told me that something like 90% of the information in the world has been generated in the past 10 years.

I don’t know if that statistic is accurate, but it speaks to the kind of overwhelmed feeling I experience. As much as I love the democratization and wide distribution of media brought about by the Internet and related tools, I personally don’t feel capable of digesting the volume of information properly.

2. How does this condition manifest in art and design practices?

Again, I don’t presume to know what our current cultural condition is, so I can’t really say what kinds of art and design practices that it manifests in.

I can say that I find myself increasingly drawn to sculptural works, particularly ones in textile and ceramic.

And sometimes I attribute that attraction to the fact that I spend much of my work life staring at screens and interacting with computers and images—interacting with virtuality, basically. (That virtuality also includes, in a sense, that wider media I mentioned as being overwhelming to me.)

Of course, I’m a writer, and I studied photography, and I’m happy to acknowledge that words and images are kind of virtual things to begin with. But given the predominance of digital, many of the concrete and embodied aspects of these practices have been done away with. (No more pen to paper, no more hours spent loading and shaking film-development canisters.)

So, given that I now have this subjective attraction to 3-D, nondigital objects, preferably ones in very tactile materials like clay and cloth, and given I attribute this attraction in part to the fact that there is an excess of digital or virtual inputs in my work and leisure time, I do sometimes wonder if there is a romance in our wider culture at the moment with things that are very analog or tactile or embodied in nature.

I guess if I was thinking more broadly, I’d wonder if the return to craft practices by some artists, which has been identified by some critics and curators, also relates to a feeling of wanting to get away from the digital and virtual which so dominate our work and leisure lives nowadays.

I also sometimes wonder how digital/virtual overload in the wider culture might influence fashion and home d├ęcor. It’s been very interesting for me in recent years to see the resurgence of decayed or worn textiles in fashion. There are many other possible influences for this resurgence – a look back to punk and grunge, say, or a desire for elites to “hide” their wealth in a time of economic recession – but I do wonder whether there’s some reassurance to be found in the tactile and the decayed, or maybe even just a desire to be reassured that there is still a part of life which is tactile and vulnerable to age/wear/weather/the basic laws of physics.

But again, just to conclude, I’m well aware that this sense of being overloaded is my subjective experience. It doesn’t mean necessarily that others/the wider culture/cultures are experiencing that too. That would require study I haven’t undertaken. If you find out, please let me know! : )

(Image of an Anthropologie store, near-irresistible source of tactile, pre-decayed wares, via the Style Spy)

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Monday, June 11, 2012

One Paint Chip, Two Solitudes

What art-text writer and editor doesn't get a kick out of perusing paint chips? The names that these colours get are often way above and beyond even the most imaginative critic's terminology for hue.

Of course, a cutesy name can sway specialists and nonspecialists alike. (I once suggested a friend use an boring off-white on her walls because it was called, irresistibly and absurdly, "Cuddle.")

Interestingly, when I was looking at swatches again recently, I noticed one Benjamin Moore paint colour whose name had quite different meanings in Canada's two official languages. In English it was called "Toronto Blue"—which is kind of amusing in itself, as I don't really associate this bright blue hue to my everyday life in Hogtown. But in French it was called "Outremer Francais." One colour, two solitudes—perfect (or fractious, perhaps) for your favourite bilingual couple. Mon dieu!

(Image from Artquiltmaker)

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