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Kitty Scott’s Serpentine Segue

"Kitty Scott's Serpentine Segue" by Reesa Greenberg, Summer 2007, pp. 50-55

In August, 2006, Kitty Scott left Ottawa, where she was curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, to take up a new position as Chief Curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, England. In this interview, Reesa Greenberg, an art historian, writer and long-time colleague and friend of Scott’s, asks her about working in London and about her years building the contemporary collection at the National Gallery of Canada.

Reesa Greenberg: What is the most exciting thing that has happened since you started working at the Serpentine?

Kitty Scott: Meeting Paul Chan. He is an amazing young American artist whom we are currently working with and I feel privileged to know him and to work with him. I was talking to him today and he has just been to New Orleans. He is thinking of doing a project down there in the most devastated ward, a landscape of trees. Another notable moment would be making a site visit to Battersea Power Station very early one autumn morning with the artist Cao Fei for her project China Power Station: Part I. The quality of the light in the huge, obsolete, virtually empty building was exceptional and something I will never forget. Equally, I have enjoyed getting to know the team at the Serpentine; they are dynamic and really hard-working. The team is growing and Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist have some amazing plans for the future.

What plans?

Well, the Serpentine Gallery has a very small footprint. It is also a listed building; how does such an institution expand? One way is via the programming. Last October we organized China Power Station: Part I at Battersea Power Station in collaboration with the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. Part II will be developed for the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo this year and Part III for Beijing in 2008. The Serpentine Gallery Marathon: London is another example. It was a 24-hour event in which the architect Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist interviewed more than 70 Londoners, from Sir Kenneth Adam to Eyal Weizman. The gallery will be continuing to work in this mode.

What are you working on now?

We will be premiering Paul Chan’s The 7 Lights series, an extended meditation on disaster. Chan has shown a number of the Lights in different venues. However, for his exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, he will exhibit the entire series together for the first time. Chan envisions these projections in relation to domestic-scale architecture, so I think they will look stunning here. Paul is also doing a children’s book with us and we are in production, in collaboration with the New Museum, on the first major catalogue devoted to his work. George Baker, the American art historian and critic, has written a rigorous text on Chan’s work and there are contributions by Adam Phillips, Massimiliano Gioni, Hans Ulrich Obrist and myself. This summer the directors are working with an artist and an architect for the Serpentine Pavilion, the annual commission for the gallery’s lawn. It is a first: Olafur Eliasson will collaborate with Kjetil Thorsen of the architectural practice Snøhetta and the engineering group Arup on the 2007 pavilion. At the same time, we will be exhibiting the work of Hreinn Fridfinnsson, one of Iceland’s leading conceptual artists. This fall we are working with Matthew Barney. His films have been screened here before, but he has never had a serious gallery exhibition in the U.K. While we will be screening DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 in a nearby cinema, the exhibition at the Serpentine will focus on the entirety of the DRAWING RESTRAINT series. Barney has some very strong ideas about the installation. It is difficult to say more about this project as we are in the process of realizing it.

How is your work at the Serpentine different from the National Gallery?

Well, there are no more work orders! These were forms that had to be filled out the minute you wanted to move a work of art. The Serpentine works in a very quick, flexible and super-ambitious way. The staff is much smaller, so I have more responsibility. As Chief Curator I am higher in the food chain than I was in my old job. I work closely with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist on the exhibition program and with the exhibitions team on realizing the shows. At the Serpentine Gallery proper we make five exhibitions a year and program two “Punctums,” short, energetic two-week shows. My focus is almost 100 per cent on exhibitions rather than the combination of exhibitions, collections and the display of a permanent collection, as was the case at the National Gallery. Here, I work more closely with artists over an extended period of time. As well, a high percentage of the Serpentine Gallery’s budget comes from the private sector. This means there are different demands on my time with regard to patrons and donors.

At the National Gallery, a few Canadian artists and critics would drop by if they were in town for a Canada Council jury; otherwise, there was not too much traffic. Hans Ulrich Obrist draws all kinds of people to the office—and it is London, after all. Strangely, I think Canadian artists and critics visit London more than they do Ottawa. It makes sense. I have had more Canadian artists calling and asking to drop by to see me since I have been in London. This registers on a number of levels, of course. While the two institutions are not unrelated, the Serpentine Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada are poles apart in terms of the day-to-day work.

In Ottawa, you were instrumental in the National Gallery’s purchase of Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot-high sculpture Maman and its installation on the plaza in front of the main entrance, in view of the Parliament Buildings.

Yes, I very much wanted the sculpture for the gallery’s collection and made a case for it. I wanted to show it in the building first, thinking the Canadian winter might be too harsh. During this process, I realized we could show it on the plaza and this would be stunning. Maman is very different from the sculpture that was outside the gallery previously—Guido Molinari’s Homage to Samuel Beckett (1967). While I like Molinari’s formal work, it does not occupy the same kind of space in the public imagination as Maman does.

People seem to love the sculpture—every time I go by there are clusters of people looking at it, photographing it or being photographed with it. Maman is much larger and more visible than the Molinari, but I also wonder: could the enthusiastic reception of Maman communicate that it is harder for the public to engage with abstract work?

The piece was an instant hit. Tellingly, there were no complaints about its $3.2 million price, unlike with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire. Perhaps Maman is a register of a changing demographic in Canada. Like Bourgeois herself, who is French and moved to the United States, many Canadians are from elsewhere. They don’t have a problem with the NGC spending large sums of money on international artworks.

Or perhaps the difference is between an abstract work and a figurative one?

Yes, that is true too. The artist has stated that she had an uneasy relationship with her mother. The work itself embodies a contradiction that is perhaps more telling. Maman, with her sac of eggs protruding from her underbelly, is a portrait of the mother as both a protector and a destroyer. Everyone has had a mother.

What does it mean to rebrand a national institution by associating it with an icon of the international contemporary art world?

For the first time, there is a significant international work of art visible outside the building. Such a sculpture announces the gallery’s global perspective in a very public way. While the National Gallery has been amassing works from all over the world for some time, I believe this is the first major work presented outside the building.

The question of what it means to be a nation or a national is in flux everywhere and especially in Canada. People here can hold dual citizenship; they may be born in another country or may choose to adopt a second country. Your parents came from England and you were born in Newfoundland, which joined Confederation in 1949. How do these circumstances influence your perception of your Canadianness?

I am not sure what it means to be Canadian or what “Canadianness” is. I am somewhat ambivalent about the question. When I think about my own experience I keep returning to the idea of the outsider. Let me explain: I grew up in Newfoundland at a time when many residents were asking why the province joined Canada. In addition to this, my parents moved from the U.K. to Newfoundland the year I was born. To the locals, they were known as CFAs, or come-from-aways. While Newfies are some of the warmest and most hospitable people you will ever meet—I know, as I am one—they are also quick to spot differences by accent. A refrain I heard over and over in my teenage years was “Yer not frum around here, are ya?” I am an optimist, and my history has made me aware of the positive qualities of not belonging. For instance, it gives you a certain distance from the place you live and a consciousness of an elsewhere.

Do you feel like an outsider everywhere?

I have lived for extended periods of time in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, as well as in Amsterdam and London. I cannot say I ever felt I belonged in any of these places. I am sure many Canadians have experienced this kind of alienation, but I also think it is a global phenomenon. Anyone who no longer lives where they were born may feel this way. People who start new lives in Canada with absolutely nothing or those who have been displaced within this country might tell a different and much more difficult story. All of this has made me very open-minded with respect to interpreting what Canadianness means.

As curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery, you followed a mandate to acquire and exhibit art that was representative of contemporary Canada. That must have been difficult given how diverse contemporary art is and your open definition of what a Canadian can be.

The focus at the NGC when I arrived was very much on artists living in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are geographically close to the gallery, and on artists of a certain generation. I felt it was time not only to expand the geographic purview but also to acquire work for the collection by a younger generation of artists. The more progressive a collecting institution is, the more likely it is to take risks and buy work by younger artists.

When I started working at the NGC in 2000, I was surprised to learn the gallery had so few works by highly sought after artists from Western Canada who were working in a complex way across film, photography, video and installation. In response to this, I acquired more works by Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham as well as a film and a photographic series by Stan Douglas. We had nothing by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, or by the younger artists Brian Jungen, Geoffrey Farmer or Althea Thauberger at the time. Cardiff and Miller were doing very well internationally, but they had not been seriously considered by one of the most important collections in the country. For the most part, I wanted to introduce new work by younger artists.

There is no doubt that these are currently some of the most interesting artists in Canada, but the collecting approach you describe sounds like an older definition of “Canadian”—one based on regional representation.

Like my predecessors Diana Nemiroff, Jessica Bradley and Brydon Smith, I was interested in researching and bringing to the broader public what I considered to be the best art being made in the country at this time. What artists like Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen and Althea Thauberger share is a conceptual approach, an interest in mass media and the everyday. One could discuss Thauberger’s work in relation to youth and marketing culture, and landscape. Similarly, one could interpret Farmer’s Trailer as a movie industry non-prop—or perhaps a better way of describing it is as a missing prop or the prop you will never see onscreen. For me, it is a marker of the way Vancouver, the city Farmer resides in, has become a commodity in terms of the American film industry. And Jungen’s whale skeletons made of plastic patio chairs brilliantly explore themes of transformation, extinction and accumulation. Each of these artists is singular in their approach, but there are overlapping areas of concern.

You made a point of establishing strong international ties as well. Why was this important?

When I think about the course I took on curating contemporary art at the Royal College of Art in London, I remember a class with Iwona Blazwick, who is now the director of Whitechapel. We talked about why museums collect locally and why they collect internationally. I distinctly remember her telling us how important it is to see the work of artists in the context of their international peers, and I attempted to apply this while working at the National Gallery. For example, I thought it important that artists like Stan Douglas and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller be seen in a context broader than one defined by nation. This is one of the reasons why works like Tacita Dean’s Fernsehturm (2001) and Thomas Demand’s Space Simulator (2003) were acquired for the NGC collection. Tacita, Janet and George, Thomas and Olafur Eliasson are close friends living and working in Berlin. Stan has lived in Berlin on and off. In this spirit I also tried, without success, to acquire a work by Eliasson.

That raises the question of how much freedom you had.

My acquisitions had to be vetted by the NGC’s director, Pierre Théberge, and the chief curator, David Franklin, as well as by the other curators working in the institution.

And your vision of a 21st-century National Gallery of Canada?

In terms of contemporary art there needs to be more of it, both national and international. This means more exhibitions, acquisitions, publications, conferences and talks with artists, writers and theorists. The best institutions work closely with their curators, the experts, to bring these programs to fruition. And these programs must be seriously marketed—nationally and internationally—and use the Web in innovative ways.

As well, I think the NGC would benefit from being more closely aligned with artists. Many museums have artists on their boards. I also believe that the NGC should play a more formative role in teaching students of museology, art history, conservation, museum management, design history, art and curating across Canada. I am sure universities would welcome this. And I think there could be stronger ties with the major collectors and dealers across the country. These people should be regarded as family and they should be made to feel more welcome. It would also be great if the National Gallery of Canada could develop relationships with other Canadian institutions so that the collection of contemporary art could be seen more widely. While the idea of summer exhibitions in Shawinigan is interesting, I wonder about it, practically speaking. Ottawa is already remote, as the number of people visiting the institution shows, so why explore even more remote territory? What is the logic? Why not open a small space in the heart of Montreal, or St. John’s for that matter?

This is a feature from the Summer 2007 issue of Canadian Art.

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