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Features / April 5, 2016

Beyond Press Releases: 5 Questions About Art Institutions

How does the “if you build it, they will come” syndrome persist? When will everyday citizens get their due in the naming-rights game? Questions abound.
Questions of audience loom large for many art institutions these days. But how well are they recognizing the contributions that citizens themselves make? Photo: Lindsay Elliott at the Vancouver Gallery Hop 2015. Questions of audience loom large for many art institutions these days. But how well are they recognizing the contributions that citizens themselves make? Photo: Lindsay Elliott at the Vancouver Gallery Hop 2015.

In many ways, 2016 is turning out to be an exciting year for art institutions in Canada.

On March 12, the Audain Art Museum opened to the public in Whistler, adding a completely new institution to the national roster.

On March 22, the government announced some new funds for museums—including repairs at the National Gallery of Canada—that the Canadian Museums Association said would bolster the sector.

On March 29, the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto-Canada (formerly known as the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) announced ambitious plans for its new building—or buildings, as the case may be.

And looking forward to June 24, art lovers can anticipate the opening of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec’s new pavilion—the first museum structure in Canada designed by the firm of starchitect Rem Koolhaas.

These are just a few of the highlights of the year so far, and the year ahead.

However, there are also problems with some of the developments we have been seeing.

Many of these difficulties mirror longtime thorny issues in the art-institutions sector—but even if they are evergreen, they are worth reiterating.

Here are five questions about art institutions in Canada today.

1. When will art institutions start to acknowledge their complicity in gentrification and artist displacement?

Though the announcement that the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto-Canada would take over the first five floors of a circa-1919 manufacturing plant in the city’s Junction neighbourhood was greeted with a lot of understandable excitement in the arts community and beyond, some also wondered how complicit the institution was in pushing artists and others out of the area it is purporting to turn into “everyone’s living room.”

MOCA is accessing this new space—and, in future years, and adjacent building—through what is being called “a unique alliance” with developer Castlepoint
Greybrook Sterling Inc., which is changing the surrounding eight acres into a mixed-use community.

Yet rising property values in the area—the same ones that make the new development, and MOCA, possible—are also what have prompted rent increases in close-by artist-studio spaces on Sterling Road, as well as consequent termination of artist leases in these spaces.

In other words, while MOCA is emphasizing its new space as being guided by principles of the “agora”—“a public space for working out democracy today”—it is inherently bound up with notions of private property and private development.

The latter isn’t so terrible, really—what irritates is when this art institution (among others) refuses to own up to its role or complicity in the process of gentrification and capitalism, instead using a kind of theoretical doublespeak to distance itself from said processes.

Art institutions can’t have it both ways, positioning themselves as unadulterated champions of art and resistance while facilitating (or at least, going along with) processes that continue to displace artists and others of lower incomes.

It’s really too bad that a more complicated view of this situation isn’t welcomed or articulated (as of yet) by MOCA itself—if art and theory is, to some, about nuancing views that are often oversimplified, this would seem to be an ideal, and richly faceted, test case to work with.

2. How will everyday citizens ever get their due in the naming-rights game?

We get it: even with the Canada Council’s boost in granting funds under the first Liberal budget, private money remains key to the arts in Canada.

And offering appropriate recognition to private donors is a kind of art in itself—how to make all donors feel appreciated, while still managing to put the monies towards needed operations or infrastructure rather than special one-off recognition projects?

Enter: naming rights. Naming rights are kind of a great solution to this challenge because they require little in the way of special programming or expensive add-ons—all that is needed is proper signage (for a physical space) and a few more phrases added to a press release, annual report or business card (for a directorship).

But there are times when the increasing proliferation of naming rights starts to niggle—particularly in cases where one private donor gets their name on a structure permanently, even when the structure has been primarily funded through public monies.

Case in point is the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec’s new pavilion. It’s been dubbed the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion after the chair of the MNBAQ board, who donated $10 million towards making the project a reality.

While any single $10 million donation is certainly generous—and Lassonde’s commitment to the arts is not to be doubted (he’s also chair of the Canada Council, natch)—it’s really just 9.6% of the new building’s total cost.

In contrast, federal and provincial funds—i.e. funds provided by everyday Canadian and Quebec citizens—provided for the pavilion came to $33.7 million and $45.1 million, respectively. That’s a total of $78.8 million in citizen money, or 76% of the total building cost, provided by everyday Canadians.

This is just, of course, one example of the way naming rights have changed the art-institution landscape, even if only in terms of language (though anyone who studies contemporary art knows that language matters).

Many questions come up as a result: If the bulk of a building or institution (or directorship, or small gallery within a larger institution) is funded with public money, what does it mean when that space or job title is named after an individual who only funds a relatively small proportion of its total cost? What message does that continue to send to members of the public who likely have to make additional payments (in the form of admission fees) every time they set foot in the buildings that they themselves helped pay for, or to see collections that are being held in trust for them?

3. Why is Canadian talent being overlooked for top jobs at key museums and art institutions?

The most recent Canadian Arts Summit, which took place in Banff last weekend, was themed on a timely topic: “New Directions in Arts Leadership.”

As the summit’s website notes, “significant generational leadership transition already in motion across many industry sectors. The imminent retirement of many important leaders is prompting the question – is the next generation ready to take over? Have we prepared new leaders to renew existing institutions?”

“In Canada’s cultural sector, the future success of our major institutions will depend on the ability of new leaders to re-imagine the role of the institution and its relevance in contemporary society,” the summit website continues.

It’s too bad, then, to see that some key leadership roles in museums and galleries—like the directorship of the ROM and the AGO, as well as a curatorship at the Power Plant—have lately gone to hires from the United States and Europe, rather than from Canada.

Yes, international connections and a proven track record are important to an arts institution’s success—but if that’s the case, why aren’t more emerging Canadian arts leaders being given the opportunity to make those connections, or to engage in professional development that will prepare them for taking over more senior positions at a later stage?

Interestingly, it seems, Canadians are in demand for some of these jobs—but only if they have moved out of the country for work for a period of years. (See: the recent hiring of Pierre Arpin as CEO of Contemporary Calgary and Chantal Pontbriand as the new CEO of MOCA.)

But such a happenstance phenomena as an individual moving abroad is not a reliable way to produce next-generation arts leaders who have a solid awareness of Canadian contexts and cultures. (The fact that someone has curated a piece by Jeff Wall into a German museum show, or that another has a spouse who was born in Toronto, and was even married there, is good to hear in terms of their introduction to Canadian artists and cultures, but hardly indicative of a deep dive.)

Museums and other arts institutions clearly need to do more to develop—and this means, hiring—new Canadian leadership talent.

4. Who will look deeper into the image gaffes that still catch out so many institutions that are supposedly experts in visual culture and its meanings?

Despite it being the job of many art institutions to encourage complexed, nuanced readings of the image-based culture in which we live, it seems like such institutions also fail, on a regular basis, to understand the crassness of certain messages they are putting out to audiences.

A recent instance of this—though action on it was, thankfully, swiftly taken—involved OCAD University’s sharing of a new ad campaign for its annual graduate exhibition.

The idea for the campaign wasn’t a bad one per se—namely, to integrate images of current students with images of alumni.

But, in actuality, the resulting campaign superimposed the eyes and eyebrows of white artists over the faces of several young artists of colour.

As the OCAD University Student Union posted on Facebook on April 1, a day after the campaign was released to students and staff:

“The Student Union would like to express our concern over the design for GradEx 2016’s campaign. The posters depicts, on the words of the artist, “new graduates with alumni (inset) under the tagline EXPERIENCE”. What the artists and and administration fail to see is that racialized students depicted in the posters are “inset” with white eyes. The reference to white gaze is extremely problematic and a perfect example of the institution’s failures to understand the experiences around racism and representation amongst racialized students, not to mention the current climate in the city. While we don’t want to shadow the success of students graduating this year it is important for the university to address not only this campaign but these issues within the University. We ask OCAD not to edit but to WITHDRAW this material and urge administration to also take this as an opportunity for conversation and to diversify homogenous spaces within OCAD.”

For its part, OCAD University decided later that day to pull the ad strategy. According to a press statement emailed to Canadian Art,

“Our original intention was to celebrate the breadth of the diversity of the OCAD U community and GradEx.

“We have listened to and very much appreciate the feedback we have received. We acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns expressed with the preliminary visual approach, and we sincerely apologize for any concern it caused. OCAD University recognizes the profound and essential value that diversity brings to the creation, reception and circulation of creative practices and discourse.

“OCAD U’s GradEx steering committee will work together to develop a revised creative campaign for the 101st Graduate Exhibition (May 4-8, 2016), the university’s annual celebration of graduating students’ immense accomplishments and talents. During the creative process, we will solicit the views of a wide range of OCAD U community members who will also be invited to comment on the proposed new direction.”

In another recent gaffe and redirect, Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto-Canada asked for job-seekers to submit photos with resumes in a job posting. This practice is frowned upon by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (and others across Canada) as it can promote discrimination on the basis of gender, ability, ethnicity and other factors.

Fortunately, MOCA did withdraw the requirement for photos a day after the job posting went up. As MOCA explained to Canadian Art in an email, the photo request originally ended up in the job posting because “in a culture where everyone puts their photo on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google Mail, etc., it seemed logical not knowing the Ontario law had a specification about what to include or not.”

In its email, MOCA added, though, that, “We changed the text immediately the day after the first announcement went out (on our website and on the Akimbo post), deleting the ‘photo’ mention, and adding that the Museum was an equal opportunity employer, which it is. All our announcements for job postings will bear this mention, as it is necessary to be precise in this context.”

Sadly, these are not the only instances of image-handling going awry in art institutions.

A few years ago, the Art Gallery of Ontario encouraged visitors to try on a unibrow in “celebration” of its concurrent Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition. It’s notable that the gallery has never asked visitors to don a beard a la AA Bronson for its General Idea exhibition, or a bald cap for a Picasso exhibition—in emphasizing Kahlo’s appearance, the gallery unwittingly underlined and reinforced the way women’s identities are so often linked to their appearance, rather than their work.

5. Why the persistence of the “if you build it, they will come” syndrome?

There’s a reason the 1989 film Field of Dreams was not called Field of Reality—yet that film’s oft-repeated assertion that “If you build it, they will come” still seems to hold sway over many museums that hitch their visions of success to new, multi-million-dollar buildings.

Cases in point for this are myriad; it’s a story the Canadian cultural scene has witnessed many times. Typically, it begins with inflated attendance estimates for a new building or extension. And it ends with those estimates, at best, being hit in the first year following a museum’s opening, but proving difficult to maintain in the long run.

Catherine Crowston of the Art Gallery of Alberta—which opened a new building six years ago—has confirmed as much, telling Canadian Art in December that “we had a spike in 2010 when we opened, that was anticipated, that’s what happens with new buildings—visitors come to see the new building…That fell off in 2011. Then there has been a steady line in 2013, 2014, 2015.”

Crowston also had advice for other institutions considering a new architectural endeavour: “Be very realistic about anticipation of increased funding from public sources; there was an expectation from the previous director and board that there would be an increase that we didn’t actually see…..Also be very realistic, and perhaps conservative, about what your fund-development expectations can be. Ours are very high at the moment—just on corporate sponsorship alone, it’s in the neighbourhood of $800,000 a year. It’s a significant target in Alberta, and it becomes particularly complicated when you are in an economic situation as we are in now.”

There’s no real way of knowing what actual operating costs for a new building will be, noted Crowston, and securing the funding for the construction of the building is really only one step in a much larger, more difficult picture.

In a 2016 context, institutions that should be particularly aware of this issue are the Audain Art Museum (especially since it is located in a town where the prime attraction is outdoor, rather than indoor, activities), as well as the MNBAQ. But institutions with buildings in development, such as the Remai, MOCA, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, also need to take note.

Here is the bottom line: a new building does not a museum or cultural attraction make. While most art-institutions directors are hyper-aware of this fact, they have not always managed to put such insights into practice amid the initial push for a shiny new building complete with a camera-friendly ribbon-cutting.

Leah Sandals is managing editor, online, at Canadian Art.

A clarification was made to this article on April 6, 2016. The original copy suggested that commentary from MOCA regarding its initial photo-request with job applications was articulated by Mark Savoia, MOCA’s head of marketing and communications. In fact, the commentary came via Savoia but was articulated by MOCA in general.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also news and special sections editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.