Kate Hollett vs. the AGO’s Andrew Hunter

The Ebb and Flow of Canadian Art

Does nationality shape identity? Surprisingly the new AGO Curator for Canadian Art says not necessarily…
“For some [artists], it’s irrelevant,” says Hunter.

He feels that for most artists, there’s an ebb and flow to their identities – particularly with the importance of being Canadian, or at least the idea of what Canada is.

“There are moments it’s the absolute most important thing for people, and there are moments when it’s more of a burden than anything [else], or it becomes irrelevant,” Hunter says. “The mistake would be to approach it and say absolutely it means this.”

As for labeling just what Canadian art ‘is,’ Hunter won’t commit to a definition. He says there isn’t one single narrative of Canada.

He feels the experiences of those on the East Coast, West Coast, Prairies, and Arctic all tell different stories and narratives. They’re all Canadian, but they’re also distinct from one another.

“It’s a constantly evolving and changing conversation.”

For Hunter, it is more important to keep the conversation going – probing and questioning just what makes art ‘Canadian’ – than to settle on a definition that, in his eyes, would be imperfect.

“What I want to do is … push those boundaries so it’s not just: ‘the Canadian narrative is this,’” he says. “I think there’s a strong need to move the conversation more to the public about what is Canadian.”

It’s this shift – the idea of bringing the public into the conversation. Socially based interaction is pure Hunter and represents much of what he plans on bringing to the AGO.

“We’re successful, and the work is good and strong and interesting, when the public is engaged with it.”

Having the public engaged and talking about art is the benchmark by which Hunter measures the relevancy of Canadian art.

As for the current state of the union, Hunter lays things out frankly saying, “arts and culture has to work harder to be connected and engaged.”

He doesn’t see art occupying the same sort of public space that it once did. The era of art appreciation being something of a civic duty has passed. Now, people engage with art because they have a genuine connection with the work. This presents an additional challenge for curators and artists, who must battle against the multitude of messages and media that compete for the public’s attention, particularly those in lower age brackets.

“There’s a real disconnect for younger generations,” Hunter says. “They don’t want to connect to this national narrative; they don’t have a clear idea of what it means to be Canadian… My job is to convince everybody that the stuff I’m interested in is important to everybody and it has to be embraced and valued.”

The solution, then, is to combat the negative perceptions the public may have about art – chiefly that it’s pretentious, inaccessible, and difficult to understand.

Making art a sort of open dialogue with the patron is just one way he intends to boost accessibility. Hunter sees language as one way to get people involved and thinking about art.

“They disconnect when the language becomes too dense and obscure that they can’t connect with it,” he says.

This doesn’t mean that any and all objects and images should be accompanied by lengthy, plain-text descriptions of what they are and what they mean, just that jargon and inaccessible academic text should be avoided if the goal is to connect with the broader public.

Hunter says it’s important, for artists and curators, to understand your audience and consider how they will interact, or want to interact with your work.

“You have to be considerate of what’s important in society,” he says. “You have to be a participant n the issues that are really relevant in the community. It’s important that institutions not just reflect what’s going on, but participate and be engaged and be a bit more humble.”

Hollett winded up the interview asking Hunter for advice for emerging artists.

He stresses the most important thing is to keep an open mind.

“Be open, try to be someone that’s always learning, every day is another learning adventure,” Hunter says. “There’s a lot of opportunities to work in the arts all over the country, and working through the arts can get you all over the country. I’ve worked everywhere but the high eastern Arctic!”

He notes it’s important to always be critical and questioning. Art that isn’t challenging, either for the artist or audience, is boring. Don’t let that happen to you.

Hunter finished by stressing the importance of learning to be a good collaborator.

“Success in the arts doesn’t come from a strong bold individual,” he says. “The people that do well and survive are those who respect and know how to work with other people.”

It also may help to be a little bit nuts, but you didn’t read that here.

Justin Vasko for NXNE Art.

A bit of background on this piece: Kate Hollett, the director of NXNE Art came to me with an interview she conducted with the AGO’s Andrew Hunter. I was given an open-ended mandate and told, “make something of it,” and this is the result.

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