ArtTomorrow (Winnipeg, November 2007)

This article originally appeared in the CARFAC Saskatchewan Newsletter in January 2008. It’s the final version I submitted to my editor, so there might be a few rough spots. My raw notes for the article weigh in at about double the length of the article. Please let me know if you’d like to see them.

ArtTomorrow forum on the future of contemporary art institutions

November 1–3, 2007 in Winnipeg, Manitoba

Art Tomorrow took place in Winnipeg on the first weekend of November 2007. It was hosted by Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. The speakers included a high-profile cross section of artists, arts workers, and academics, some with deep roots in Winnipeg, and others from abroad.

The intention of Art Tomorrow was to bring together national and international experts to talk about the research, presentation, and documentation of contemporary art. At its heart, the conference was a very public kickoff to the process of defining the future of Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. There was a great deal of discussion of Plug In’s role—in the Winnipeg art community, nationally, and internationally—and talk about various options for a radical change in direction for Plug In. These included the possibilities of a partnership with the university, Plug In perhaps buying, renovating, or building a permanent space, and various ideas about financially self-sustaining business models.

Each of the two days of the conferences was packed with panels, special presentations, and group discussions. The first day’s topics were mostly about history and context, and the second day examined civic planning, infrastructure, and education. While the overall focus of the conference was on the institution and its various roles and strategies, the idea of the artist and artwork as a key part of the institutional mandate was never far from anyone’s mind.

The first panel, moderated by Su Ditta, looked at the history and context of art institutions. AA Bronson (artist, member of art collective General Idea, director of Printed Matter in NYC) gave an excellent historical perspective, from the late nineteenth-century German Kunsthalle movement to the beginnings of the artist-run centre movement in Canada, and his own early activist work. Kitty Scott (Director of Visual Arts at the Banff Centre, and formerly of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) and the Serpentine Gallery in London, England) explored a few strategies for presenting art, including ways that the Serpentine works around its status as a listed building. She also compared the Serpentine—a fairly lean institution which engages in a great deal of activity despite relatively few resources—to large institutions such as the NGC, which engage in comparatively little activity in relation to their size and resources. Michelle Jacques (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario—AGO) described some of the AGO’s challenges: compartmentalization, the perception of the museum as a colonial construct, the conflict between the historical baggage of the institution and attempts to achieve relevance in the community. She described a shift in programming towards projects which align with institutional criteria such as diversity, responsiveness, relevance, creativity, and transparency. Steve Loft (Director of Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg) briefly described aboriginal art in Canada from the 1960s to the present. He said that although there have been major advances in the recognition of contemporary aboriginal arts practice, there are still many gaps. Questions about the ways in which Euroamerican models are imposed on traditional practices have not been answered. He pointed out that there are still only four aboriginal artist-run centres in Canada, and that the system as it currently exists doesn’t allow for growth. He denounced the institutionalized racism of our public art institutions, and that funding models don’t serve the plurality of practices in aboriginal and other multi- and cross-cultural communities.

When asked where the artists are positioned—especially politically—in the large institutions. Steve Loft replied that the rise of the artist-curator has had a positive effect. Between the panel and the audience, the discussion looked at business models, the various roles of an institute for contemporary art, and the social and historical context of the institution. The key point that I synthesized from the discussion is that most of the institutions we see today are based on grass-roots activity that was initiated by artists. I was reminded that many of our current institutions and funding programs were developed based on the needs of artists. While it wasn’t discussed in the panel, it’s important to remember our systems and venues were created to fill gaps, and that if artists today are not feeling well-served, we can and should create our own institutions.

The second panel discussion looked at cultural contexts, with a focus on Winnipeg. Both Steven Matijcio (curator at Plug In) and Sigrid Dahle (independent curator from Winnipeg) gave overviews of their curatorial practices. Matijcio talked about the elusiveness of identity, hybrid structures, the grey zones of political activity and action, and the focus in his practice on research. Dahle talked about her curatorial projects surrounding an idea she calls “the gothic unconscious,” focusing on exhibitions about Winnipeg’s troubled history, and history of radicalism. We were treated to a history lesson from Eleanor Bond (artist, Plug In board member from 1985-1995, now based in Montreal) and Suzanne Gillies (co-founder of Plug In). Bond described the role Plug In had served as a locus of professional consultation and mentoring, the generation of ideas, and a catalyst for keeping ambitious Winnipeg artists in the community rather than moving away by giving them a sense of their place and worth in the art world at large.

Gillies talked about the early history of Plug In, and how everything was fairly loose and always artist-driven. She was the first panelist to stress the importance of artists to these institutions. She said that places like Plug In can and should still be about artists, rather than necessarily about the non-artist audiences that funding agencies are interested in. Paul Butler (Winnipeg-based artist, Director of The Other Gallery and Collage party) gave an overview of his projects, both of which are nomadic. He talked about the need to take work to the audience rather than waiting for them to come to him

For me as an artist, the key point was made early in the discussion, when panel moderator Wayne Baerwaldt asked what advice the panelists would give to the Plug In board. Suzanne Gillies immediately and emphatically replied that without the artists, we have nothing. Comments by the moderator and the other panelists—and from a number of audience members—reinforced this idea.

The third session was a guest presentation by Jens Hoffmann, (Director of CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, former Director of Exhibitions, Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, UK). Much of his presentation and the discussion that followed had less to do directly with artists and more to do with curatorial and institutional issues at the various places he’s worked. For me, the most interesting part of the session was his description of the decline of ICA London’s relevance to the local art community, and how that has affected programming and audience.

After this series of marathon sessions, everyone broke off into four facilitated “Critical issues discussion groups,” The group discussing ICAs, Artist-run Centres, and Museums concluded that everything is hard to define, that the content of the box is much more important than what the box looks like, that being an artist-run centre gives a certain measure of freedom compared to large institutions. The second group, who looked at Art, Institutions and Publishing came to the conclusion that publishing should be a key effort of art institutions, and enumerated a number of reasons why: publishing helps to capture ideas and history, record and document work, and helps disseminate ideas, as well as enabling different levels of interaction. The third group, Supporting Interdisciplinary Practices concluded that it’s ridiculous to discuss whether institutions should support interdisciplinary practices, because interdisciplinary practices are the nature of current practice. They felt that institutions already support such practices, and should continue to do so. The group pointed out, however, that although there’s been a lot of interdisciplinary work within visual arts this interdisciplinarity has rarely broken outside the bounds of visual arts. The final group looked at Art Production and Institutions. They raised more questions than they answered, concluding that—in theory—institutional support for art production should happen. However, they dwelt more on the associated problems—logistics, costs, funding, definitions—than on the desired outcomes.

The second day of the conference started with a presentation by Glen Murray, former mayor of Winnipeg, now an urban strategist with AuthentiCity consultants in Toronto. He talked about two major themes: the importance to cities of the arts, culture, and creativity, and the culture and economics of place. He said that social class, time, identity, and values change our perspective on place, and talked about how an earlier generation saw escape from the cities into the suburbs as a sign of success, but that the next generation saw the suburbs as stifling, and escaped into the city. Ideally, urban planning should take this into account. A great deal of his talk was peppered with mention of the “creative class,” a concept promoted by urban theorist Richard Florida. While Florida could be the topic of an article of its own, suffice to say that his influence can be seen in a number of urban planning initiatives across Canada, including Saskatoon’s Creative Connections project.

Murray cautioned against architectural megaprojects which try to mimic the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao by dropping “starchitect”-designed structures into cities, without the cultural planning and infrastructure that Bilbao took twenty years to develop. While he decried the idea of initiating such a project in an unprepared community, he also warned against the opposite situation, where penny pinching leads to ugly buildings that have no character. At the end of his talk Murray gave an impassioned plea for urban planners to include cultural infrastructure. For me, the value of Murray’s presentation was the assertion that arts and culture matter from a civic planning standpoint, and that their value can be couched in terms that urban planners and bureaucrats can understand. If anything, he stressed the importance of continuing to make civic officials aware of the existence and value cultural activity, and to be part of the planning process.

The panel “Back to School” looked at research, education, training, and creation. I have to preface my comments about this session by saying that it started off with a very cerebral academic bent—as befits a discussion of research and education—but for the most part was so abstract that I quickly lost interest. Ashok Mathur (Canada Research Chair, Director Centre for Cultural Inquiry, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops) set the tone with a presentation about creation and research, in which he enumerated the value of both, and then described one of his current projects: a re-imagining the novel as an interdisciplinary medium, or perhaps as an installation or collaboration. Maybe I’m not used to this type of conference, but after a day-and-a-half of intense lectures and discussions about all manner of issues related to contemporary art, my threshold for terms such as “creating disruptions, while de-commodifying and decommisioning the existing definitions of the novel” had been exceeded.

The next two presenters were fairly dry and academic, and had little direct relevance to individual practicing artists. Barbara Fischer (Director of the J.M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House, University of Toronto) spoke about the movement of independent curators into institutions and academia, and gave the impression that she thought large audiences were a bad idea. François Dion (Director of Artext(e) in Montreal) talked about the history and evolution of Artext(e), and about a logic model for decision-making that he had borrowed from the business world. Dion was followed by Joseph del Pesco (Curator at Artists Space in New York City), who talked about artist-led pedagogy and his interest in artists specifically engaging in some aspect of teaching in their art practice. He touched on trans-disciplinarity, where the subjects of art—science, politics, spirituality—are reintegrated into the practice of art. My notes say something about alternative models to the institutional art schools, and scaffolding for self-learning/self-education. I wish I had better notes for this presentation because in hindsight it looks like it was really interesting.

Pablo Helguera (artist, and head of adult public programs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) was the final speaker of the education panel. He began with a mini-artist-talk about his project “The School of Panamerican Unrest,” in which he travelled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and engaged in public art activities along the way. He then talked about the dichotomy of giving art tours during the day as part of the institution, and then engaging in a critique of the institution in the evening as part of his studio activities. He pointed out the insularity of the international contemporary art circuit: the triangle of Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, and the circle of New York, Miami, Sao Paulo, Venice, Berlin, and London. In talking about the “importation” of artists into a locality, where they become catalyst for activities and local reflection, he stressed that if we come to a place as artists, we should be clear about our role. That if we start to engage in anthropological or other research, perhaps we should quit being artists in order to go back to school to become experts in those fields.

The final panel of the conference looked at architecture. We were shown a number of case studies for the development of a permanent home for Plug In. For me, the most interesting part of the presentation was the proposal that Plug In buy and redevelop a parcel of land into a mixed-use facility with a gallery space, artist studios, the possibility of retail space and condos. This role as a property developer, where the incoming from the development would pay for the operational costs of the operation of the gallery was very appealing. There was also a discussion of the gallery as a social space.

Art Tomorrow was an excellent conference, though the rich content and with enormous amounts of detail about specific projects were at times extremely challenging for me. My only general criticism is that the individual presentations were too long, severely limiting the time available for discussion. While the knowledge transfer was deep and interesting, it’s unfortunate that we were often behind schedule. More down time between presentations would have helped my “overstuffed brain syndrome.”

While Art Tomorrow was primarily an act of public soul-searching on the part of a specific institution in a specific place, the topics covered and lessons learned can apply broadly to arts institutions and the artists upon whose work such places are built. This may be obvious, but in a world where identities are blending together, technology is making the idea of place both more and less important, and it is becoming possible for everyone to attempt to be all things to all people, it is more important than ever for arts institutions to understand who they serve and why, what they wish to achieve, and to stay focused. Despite the fact that many of the topics were centered around institutions and/or curatorial practice—with a measure of academic navel-gazing thrown in—the importance of the artist was repeatedly brought up, making me optimistic that our often-intimidating institutions are making efforts to remember the importance of those of who make the art.