“I’m drawn to art practices and curatorial practices that are politically engaged and socially relevant, and as much as I have done that work in Quebec, I believe this is why they are calling me out to Newfoundland, because they are interested in that approach,” Chainey Gagnon tells Canadian Art. She adds, “I’m really looking at community outreach in the most critical way possible and how we can achieve that in St. John’s.”
In 2009, for instance, Chainey Gagnon launched Community Art Lab at the Foreman Art Gallery with its then–curator of education and cultural action Yael Filipovic. One component was a residency program that ran over three years and invited artists/researchers like Dodolab to come in and investigate the question, “How does art teach?”
“Other things we did were projects in community centres and really trying to create a sense of audience-building. We more than doubled our attendance over a three-year period,” Chainey Gagnon says.
Though St. John’s and Sherbrooke are quite a distance from each other, Chainey Gagnon says they do share a certain quality—operating in a regional art context.
“I’ve been working in a regional context for 10 years, so I’m well aware of some of the challenges,” Chainey Gagnon says. “It’s a challenge, always to bring rigour and bring contemporary art practice to a different regional context. There are always tensions in the community about what is expected in a museum…. I think some of those challenges can be met by looking towards different publics and trying to understand what their needs are.”
Chainey Gagnon notes that community engagement “doesn’t mean we have to dumb it down”—rather, it’s about negotiating how the arts gain meaning in particular communities.
The curator is currently organizing Manif d’art, the Quebec City biennial to take place in May, as well.
When asked how a biennial approach might transfer to Newfoundland, Chainey Gagnon says, “I’d like to offer different offsite events and different kinds of programming…. I’m very much driven by collaborative practices.” She says she is also interested in experimental ways of staging art.
Overall, Chainey Gagnon says she looks forward to working at a place like the Rooms which has an art gallery, provincial museum and archive under one roof—another opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary style.
“I know 46 percent of all visual artists in Newfoundland and Labrador live in St. John’s, so there is a pool of artists there that I’m very, very excited to get to know.”
The former director/chief curator of the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, Sheila Perry, left in August 2013 following four and a half years in the position. She now works as director and curator at the Woodstock Art Gallery in Ontario.