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Interviews / August 14, 2008

Interview with Kitty Scott: Banff’s 75th, Serpentine Lessons, National Gallery News Frenzy and More

Figure In a Mountain Landscape creative residency working plein air at Sunshine Meadows, Banff / photo Adam Costenoble

The Banff Centre, arguably one of the key arts residency powerhouses worldwide, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. At the same time, Kitty Scott, the centre’s director of Visual Arts, is celebrating a rather different kind of milestone—completion of her first year at the centre after several years at the National Gallery of Canada and an unexpectedly short stint at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Recently, Leah Sandals caught up with Scott by phone and email to find out what Banff’s doing artwise for its anniversary, as well as what Scott’s got in the works to keep the silver-haired institution fresh. In the condensed exchange that follows, Scott also speaks to recent media scandals at the National Gallery of Canada, her lessons learned in London and why more discussions on such issues are needed.

Leah Sandals: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Banff Centre. What’s happening there in its visual arts area to mark it?

Kitty Scott: <a href="Sylvie Gilbert, the Walter Phillips Gallery’s senior curator, and Helga Pakasaar worked together and researched the history of the Walter Phillips Gallery, which opened in 1976, alongside the history of visual arts at the Banff Centre post-1976.

They organized “Bureau de change,” an exhibition of approximately 50 works highlighting the incredibly rich history of the gallery and the visual arts program at the Banff Centre. The list of artists includes Ann Hamilton, Brian Jungen, Mina Totino and Mary Scott among many others. There is a huge and beautiful landscape by Patterson Ewen, wonderful early small black and white photos by Lynne Cohen and some more recent mirror works by Ken Lum. It is a messy exhibition in the best possible way!

The gallery has also restaged a number of performances. Rebecca Belmore just recreated a major performance from 1991, Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother. Those who attended were blown away.

LS: You are actually kind of new to the Banff Centre, having arrived in October 2007 after a brief [one-year] term at the Serpentine. Why did you leave the Serpentine for Banff?

KS: I came for many different reasons. Ultimately, I wanted to have more control with respect to a program. I have been lucky to work for many great people including Hans Ulrich Obrist, but I’ve always wanted to direct. I had the opportunity to invent a program here, to effect change in the field of contemporary art.

While working at the National Gallery, I had a sense of purpose, and I did not experience this at the Serpentine. I guess I wanted to find that sense of purpose again. I have it here.

LS: So, given that the Banff Centre is such a longstanding institution with such established programs, how do you intend to keep things fresh?

KS: One important change is the Master Class we now offer once a year. For example, there are a number of really strong Canadian artists who don’t teach at major institutions in this country. I want to find a way for those individuals coming to the Banff Centre, from Canada and elsewhere, to have access to these great artists for intensive periods of time.

Ken Lum is the first person I’ve invited to teach the Master Class and it is open to 10 artists, critics and curators. Ken will lecture and work closely with participants. It will be quite different from what has happened in the recent past here. I am really excited about Ken’s involvement and I would eventually like to have an international artist to lead the Master Class.

LS: Beyond the Master Class, is there anything else you have in mind?

KS: All of the programs I’ve organized this year have been and will be led by visual artists. I want the artist’s vision central to the program and I would love every Visual Arts Program project to be an experiment. It is a tall order!

You see in many arts institutions today, and in the spectacle-oriented culture that is ours, that the power of the artist is constantly being eroded. The artist becomes—in many cases—a tool or an instrument to be used. In this instance, the desired result is usually higher attendance.

I want to work with artists here and find ways to realize their projects. I want to give the Banff Centre program back to the artists. All of the programs this year have been developed and designed by the artists who are leading them.

Figure in a Mountain Landscape, the current residency focusing on plein air activity, is being led by Silke Otto-Knapp. She’s a German London-based painter that I wanted to work with in London.

Silke titled her residency Figure in a Mountain Landscape; the title comes from a Peter Doig painting. We asked Peter’s permission.

Silke brought her friend Jan Verwoert, a critic who writes for Artforum and Frieze, to give a public talk and two seminars. She also invited an old school friend, the painter Elizabeth McIntosh, who is currently here working with the residents. Art historians Shep Steiner, who spends his summers in the area, and Johanne Sloan also gave public lectures on subjects related to the thematic residency. So an artist, rather than administrator, is constructing the program.

LS: As a curator yourself, you’ve probably been part of the institution-focused process at some point, don’t you think?

KS: I am not sure what you are saying, but I think any good curator wants to create the best possible scenario for the artist. I believe artists are seers. They have always led and directed my work.

LS: So what other people have you lined up?

KS: London-based artist Janice Kerbel is coming next; her residency runs from September 15 to October 31, and is called Cosmic Ray Research. In connection with that Polly Staple will be coming in to do studio visits. And again it was Janice’s choice to have Polly here. The name for the residency came from the scientific research station set up here in the late 1950s on the top of Sulphur Mountain. This cosmic ray research station was the most important of its kind in Canada. One of the scientists involved will be coming in and leading a field trip to the site.

I’m also working on a new edition of Sound by Artists and exploring a series of publications focused on artists’ writing.

LS: Before we leave the topic of your past experiences, what’s your take on the recent media scandals at the National Gallery of Canada?

KS: The National Gallery of Canada is a very important institution. As someone deeply invested in contemporary and modern art I am obviously biased with regards to its program.

The high moments that come to mind include: the early acquisition of Jeff Wall‘s The Destroyed Room, 1978; Brydon Smith’s work in the 1970s with Donald Judd that resulted in the catalogue raisonné and numerous stellar Judd acquisitions, as well as his discovery of Nancy Graves’s camels and his purchase of Gerhard Richter’s Cloud paintings; and Diana Nemiroff and team’s “Land, Spirit, Power” exhibition from 1992.

Nemiroff was also responsible for the more recent “Elusive Paradise,” 2001, often referred to as the Millennium Prize exhibition. She curated a strong international field of artists and Janet Cardiff‘s The Forty Part Motet won the $50,000 prize. Earlier in her tenure she organized “Songs of Experience,” 1986, with Jessica Bradley and later the Canadian Biennial of Contemporary Art, 1989. As there are very few large and significant exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art, these latter exhibitions, which were important then, are still important now.

Few people are really aware of all the multi-faceted expertise located in that institution, let alone the curatorial know-how and hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

Yes, according to the press things are very wrong. Still, there is change on the horizon. Hopefully, the National Gallery of Canada will move past this moment and everyone’s focus will be redirected to the future program and the acquisitions they have yet to make.

LS: Thanks for speaking to that. Getting back to the West, what are the benefits and challenges of working in Banff as an artist or curator?

KS: I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Being in such a place is both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s a resort destination, though not a major destination for visual arts. In this respect, my challenge is to keep it dynamic and open.

I want the program to develop in an organic way. As an example, Silke invited Jan Verwoert to come to Banff. He wanted to extend his stay here and do an additional seminar; all the participants loved him, so he stayed. Later on, I asked if he’d like to come back and lead a thematic residency and he said, yes, absolutely. The program will grow out of these kinds of connections.

LS: You’re also putting together the Banff International Curatorial Institute symposium for this fall. What do you hope comes out of that?

KS: Well, before mentioning the symposium, I also want to organize more think tanks and smaller group discussions. I am hoping to organize one at the Leighton Colony next year. There are so many issues that rarely get discussed. Where is the discussion on the changes being made to the funding of Canada’s Venice project and other international pursuits? I hope to develop a forum for important issues in the field of contemporary art, criticism and curating.

Back to the conference, it’s called Trade Secrets: Education/Collection History. I collaborated with Sylvie Gilbert and Teresa Gleadowe, a colleague and former director of the Royal College of Art curatorial program. After a series of discussions in Banff, we came up with what we think is a relevant event in the current context.

The Education and its Discontents panel will include recent grads of curatorial programs, like Candice Hopkins and Francesco Manacorda, reporting on their experiences. Usually we hear the director of a school making a pitch for the program.

We have invited an artist to be on every panel as we want to make sure the artist’s perspective is at the forefront of the discussion.

Another panel is Collections and their Institutions. When we talk about curators, we often focus on the kinds of curators who make temporary exhibitions like biennales. We rarely hear from curators involved in collections building; can you name any? This panel will focus on curators who work with collections at a time when the art market has gone completely berserk and all kinds of private collectors have more buying power than institutions. So the panel will look at the current challenges these curators are facing.

Richard Flood, Chief Curator at the New Museum, will be the keynote. AA Bronson, Sam Durant, Matthew Higgs and Ken Lum are the participating artists. Frances Morris, Head of Collections at Tate, will be leading the collections discussions. Sabine Breitweiser, Barbara Fischer and Rosemary Donegan will be there too, among many others.

LS: Sounds great. Well, good luck with everything and thanks for your time on this one.

KS: Thank you.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via