Thursday, July 8, 2010

Prairie Artsters: The Art of Viewing Freely

On a recent road trip through Saskatchewan, I had a chance to visit The Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and both the Dunlop and Mackenzie galleries in Regina. Varying in programming, the exhibitions included an Adrian Stimson solo exhibition and the excellent Jen Budney-curated Innocent Years group show, featuring renderings from three international artists' childhoods during significant 20th century shifts. Also up for viewing were the Canadian premiere of Geoffrey Farmer's Ongoing Time Stabbed With A Dagger—his first use of kinetics that had a world premiere at the Art Basel in Miami Beach—ex-Edmontonian Sylvia Ziemann's Possible Worlds and an interesting contrast between James Henderson's historical representations of First Nations identity answered back with to be reckoned with ... featuring works such as Nadia Myre's "Indian Act" and Ruth Cuthand's "Trading".

What all of these exhibitions have in common, besides being in Saskatchewan, is that they are all free, all the time.

The most direct result of having your galleries and institutions accessible to the general public is the diversity of the audience, and subsequently the experience for the audience. The first person I passed at the Mendel after the clear donation box filled with colourful bills was a woman sitting on the floor with her tattered backpack, back against the wall, watching Marjane Satrapi’s Oscar-nominated Persepolis attentively. She was laughing aloud at times and clearly the only one who watching the entire film. There was a cross range of families with strollers and walkers pointing to things and talking to one another, young men and women roaming from piece to piece, and a single guard who supervised unobtrusively. Grabbing a bite at the gallery cafe, my travel companion and I each had a fresh lunch that came under the admission price for most cultural institutions. While the impending future of the Mendel remains uncertain as a brand new building is on its horizon, I can only be reminded that the experience of art in the modern age of galleries and museums has become an inclusive one, where admission prices and lineups can become headlines and viewership dangerously becomes a class and income issue.

In our own AGA and galleries from around the world, I have experienced firsthand, heard troubling accounts, and witnessed guards ask audiences to quiet down, step back, and in one case, ask a mother and her children to leave because her kids were getting too excited about the art.

All of these accounts were from institutions where you felt watched as you walked around, where guards hovered over you as you were simply looking at art, fearful that somehow the art will be desecrated. While vandalism and ignorant behavior certainly exists within this realm, there is a marked difference between an errant child with chewing gum and those who just wish for a closer and longer look. Sometimes we accept this lording behavior on how to view art as we fall prey to the elitism of being in a gallery, that there must be rules and decorum that govern how we look and how long we look for.

But that is that what we are paying for? To be policed on how we view and who gets to view?  As I was reminded at the Dunlop, located in Regina’s central library, a young man asked to bum a smoke off me on my way into the library. I shrugged I didn’t have any. Farmer’s sculpture installation dominated the majority of the gallery, assembling shapes and dimensions and clocks wearing bowler hats into a theatrical presence, and unfortunately not quite successfully integrating movement into his contemplation of time. Walking around the piece a few times, a gallery staff came up during a pause and offered to discuss the work further if I had any questions at all. The young man from outside had come in by this time and come up to me again. Only this time he asked, “Do you think this is art?” I shrugged yes. The gallery facilitator quickly joined the conversation that unfolded into tangents of inspiration, street art, graffiti, surrealism, collage, and kinetics. There was no didacticism or underestimating going on, we didn’t have to lower our voices, there was simply an open conversation on art between three strangers from different backgrounds, and we all walked away from the encounter learning something new, if not profound.

*First published in Vue Weekly in an abridged version

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