On Friday, the Art Gallery of Ontario surprised many with its new hire for curator of Canadian art: Andrew Hunter. Unlike other curators of late at the AGO—and many other institutions of its type—Hunter identifies as an artist and educator as well as a curator. Also, while Hunter has 10 years of full-time institutional curatorial experience at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Kamloops Art Gallery and the University of Waterloo, this experience was mostly in the 1990s, and he has spent an equal amount of time working independently on art and curatorial projects that are often critical of the way museums typically operate. Recently, Hunter spoke with Canadian Art about increasing access to the AGO collection, revamping the story of the Group of Seven, and how he hopes to get more Ontario artists actually showing at the AGO.
Leah Sandals: Some of your past exhibitions have been quite personal in nature: “This is Montreal!” at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery examined fantasies you had as a young Ontarian about Montreal, and “Billy’s Vision” at the Mendel Art Gallery and other venues touched on the story of a drifter your grandfather once met. How much room is there in a major museum like the AGO for that kind of personal perspective?
Andrew Hunter: I’ve moved back and forth between being an independent curator and being an artist and being an institutional curator throughout my career. It’s important to remember that many of those personal projects were more artistic ones than curatorial ones. Still, I think sometimes people assume that I am going to be institutionally based, but just tell my own stories.
I want to be clear that the work I do, as an independent or in an institution, is always very much framed by the needs of that institution, the culture of it, and the people I’m collaborating with.
No matter what, however, I do think it’s important that people understand who is speaking when they enter an exhibition. Some of my more extreme projects have come out of that. Often big institutions have an institutional voice, and it’s very hard when you come in to understand who’s talking, exactly.
I’m not intending to go to the AGO and start doing “Billy’s Vision.” It’s a very different kind of challenge from that. But I do intend to be present; I don’t intend to be hiding in the background.
LS: Over the last few years, you’ve been working with artist Lisa Hirmer on a collaboration called Dodolab. Through this, you’ve done projects related to the fact that, in the words of the Dodolab website, “national myths and symbols can become barriers to inclusion and meaningful adaptation.” Since the job of a Canadian-art curator is, in a way, to deal with national myths and symbols, how do you intend to keep stories about Canadian art inclusive and open at the AGO?
AH: My initial engagement in dealing with Canadian art-historical material was around the presence that it has and the impact it has in the world, as well as how it can be limiting—how it can become a barrier to people who don’t necessarily identify with the narrative of a country.
So an absolutely critical part of the program I’m going to develop at the AGO is to make sure that we don’t just tell the old story—and we also don’t do the reverse, which is to stop saying anything.
One of the key things is it’s not just about me speaking, or myself and the other curators; it’s about developing projects where the community is also thinking and articulating and animating the collection. There has to be a diversity of voices coming through.
A big concern is that we have a substantial amount of Canadian work that is in the AGO collection, and I’m not sure how relevant it is to the broader community of Canadians today. We can’t take a missionary approach, and be about getting everybody to buy into the traditional narrative. It’s got to be about a different storyline.
LS: Can you provide an example of how limitations come through in collections of Canadian art?
AH: The Group of Seven is an interesting challenge. Most people tend to think of the group in northern Ontario and Algonquin Park. But that’s a pretty limited view of the group—the group painted all over the place. So one challenge is getting people to understand the greater scope of what the group was actually painting, which included industry and urban space.
Of course, there are other challenges with the group, because it was, admittedly, a group of white guys painting in the 1920s and 1930s—Canada was much more diverse at the time, and it wasn’t reflected in the art of the era.
But these old or false ideas are so popular that they just keep resonating, and get drawn out regularly. So anytime we go through a phase like the 2010 Olympics or Expo 67, when we feel we need to pump ourselves up as Canadians, we drag out these stories, and all of a sudden we are wearing toques and mittens, and images of Lawren Harris’s arctic landscapes start popping up.
That’s an example in the broader culture of how some of these myths and stories become debilitating. You have this event people are rallying behind to say “We are Canadian, so we are hockey and we are Olympics.” And an awful lot of people who are Canadians—and not just new Canadians, but multi-generation Canadians—are saying, “That’s not the story of my Canada, and I don’t think I need to embrace that to be a true Canadian.”
Some of the projects I’ve done in the past tried to engage with that. “Ding Ho/Group of Seven,” which I did with Gu Xiong, a Canadian artist who came from China, played off his understanding of Canada growing up in China during the Cultural Revolusion—an understanding largely based on an exhibition of Group of Seven works that had come to China. For my part, I also tried to look at what I understood China to be as a youth, based on imagery of the Cultural Revolution. So that project was very directly linked to trying to understand these strong national stories and the impact they can have on a people.
LS: You talk about trying to reach out to a broader range of people who might not feel, at present, that the AGO and similar galleries are not places for their stories or experiences. A recent study indicated that half the adults working in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton are in precarious work situations—working part-time, contract or temp jobs, or lacking job security or benefits. How much is the AGO’s admission fee to the permanent collection—$19.50 (including HST) for adults—another barrier to inclusion in this context?
AH: That’s something I’ve talked about quite a bit over the years—the whole issue of accessibility to collections and accessibility to institutions in the arts.
And I acknowledge that the big institutions like the AGO cost money to operate.
That creates a real dilemma—that it’s supposed to be a collection for all of us, but it’s not necessarily accessible to everybody. And that’s got to be balanced by the fact that if the institution is going to exist, it has to pay the bills; it has to be able to pay its staff; it has to be able to run programs, and so on.
One thing that is really positive at the AGO in recent years, I think, is that it has made admission free to high-school kids every day after school. It’s also free and accessible to teachers.
But I think that can be built on. The thing is it’s one thing to make it more open and accessible, but it’s also to take a next step and program towards that—by which I mean, how do you also make it accessible in meaningful ways?
For instance, for the large numbers of working poor out there, it’s not just about having the money to be able to go into the AGO—it’s also about having the time. That’s a big issue. So do we, as an institution, just decide we’re only interested in the people who can make the time to get down here and in the door? How do we rethink our presence?
One of the things that did hearten me when I was looking at this position is that the AGO has a desire in its strategic plan to be more a part of life in Toronto. And one thing I was very clear on when interviewing is that I want the program I’m responsible for and the team I work with to be much more present in the city—to be a critical presence, to be a participant in addressing issues that face the community now.
LS: One complaint that has long been lodged towards the AGO in the Ontario art-world sphere is that it does not actually show Ontario artists all that much in terms of major exhibitions—especially contemporary Ontario artists. How do you hope this might change during your tenure?
AH: I’m glad you asked that. I’ve been an artist and independent curator for years, and that critique is familiar to me because I’ve directed that critique at the AGO and other institutions over a number of years.
I think the AGO has ebbed and flowed in terms of being active working with contemporary Ontario artists in its collection. Recently it seems to have been doing more. But I think the criticism is valid.
One thing that appealed to me when I was approached about the curator of Canadian art position was that it included a strong emphasis on contemporary artists, which was a bit of a surprise. I had expecting it to be more about the collection.
That really excited me, because over the years I’ve asked other artists to engage with historical material or engage with an institution’s history or engage with a collection. Years ago at the VAG, I did a project with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun where his work was being shown, but he also selected Emily Carr works to be partnered with his to get a critique going.
The key to be clear on is that my role engaging with contemporary art is different from that of Kitty Scott, curator of modern and contemporary art, and of other people in the contemporary-art department. My role is to engage artists in relation to the Canadian collection.
Another thing to be clear on is that in a Canadian-collection context, we are interested in rethinking ideas of north, among other themes. We specifically want to work with contemporary artists who have an understanding of the north and have shown an engagement with the history of the north and know the north. That’s an example of how we will be deciding who we will be engaging with in the next few years in the programs I deal with.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Three clarifications were made to this article on February 28, 2013, to emphasize that (1) Hunter’s views on contemporary artists at the AGO pertain to specifically to artists’ interactions with the Canadian collection and (2) that the theme of north is just one area of focus among several.