Can a Museum be a Catalyst in a Community?

Written By Becka Viau

When I first viewed this lecture by Curator Thelma Golden, I found my self lost in a conversation around race… However, as I watched for a second time I realized that for me this lecture is really asking the question: is an art gallery a place to ignite social change? Or even better, where can an Art gallery exist so a community, so the community it serves can have conversations about difficult and changing social notions?

I instantly think of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown. Is this gallery providing Islanders, its community, the right amount of catalyst to ignite social discussion? I would argue yes, in the sense that they do exhibit Island Artists and when looking at the exhibitions installed right now it is obvious that 4 out of 5 exhibitions directly speak to island life and the conversations are accessible. Yet when I am confronted with the installation by Jayce Salloum I wonder how many from the Island community are having a real conversation with this work? Is this really an important question? Is the Salloum exhibition functioning on a National Level and not a local one? Does presenting artwork that is hard to access by the general public serving the mandate of the gallery?

Overall this lecture has made me reflect on the importance of national, local and international conversations sparked by art of all kinds, and the importance of public galleries to the presentation of these conversations.

To quote Thelma Golden,  “artists provide a space bigger than one that we could imagine to work through these images (ideas).” I challenge you, the reader to visit the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and find out what ideas you can get yourself into.

11 thoughts on “Can a Museum be a Catalyst in a Community?

  1. Becka this is a great topic, and I hope you get some good feedback on this. For those who don’t know, I’m a curator at the centre, so obvious I have a stake in what’s there and you should take my comments with a grain of salt.

    Just to be a pain in the ass, I would like to challenge a few of the assumptions that underlie your questions.

    First of all, what does accessibility actually mean in the case of a museum, especially this one?

    Does it mean that a given public should see itself reflected in terms of its own preexisting definition of itself in what’s shown in the space? Or should that definition be challenged? (i.e. why should we not see our concerns reflected in work that has no obvious “local” content? do we see ourselves as citizens of the world or of a delineated place?)

    Does it mean work that is easy to understand?

    For me, growing up in PEI as a semi-outsider, one of the challenges was always being “unreadable,” “different,” “hard to understand.” Events in Little Pond recently remind us that if one defines a community in terms of “what we can all easily understand,” exclusion and even hatred of what’s different is often the end result.

    The unreadability of difficult art can be forbidding, it can even be bullshit or a self-protective shield; it can also stand for a certain kind of cultural authority that one holds over others and often provides the key to entry into elite society.

    But by the same token, unreadability, difficulty, conditions that force you to be resourceful and creative instead of falling back on what you know, these are important things, especially if one’s goal is to challenge an existing order and bring about something like “social change.” A gallery, or any environment that becomes infected with the strange aura of being or housing “Art” becomes a space where unexpected things can happen, things that maybe have no clear practical purpose but might make us see things differently and imagine a different world.

    The art museum is a remnant from another world itself. It was built at a moment when people really believed in “the public” as an ideal. It is perhaps more interesting and exciting now, when instead of reaffirming a culture’s myths about itself (it tries to do this anyway but I think usually fails), it tells us almost inadvertently about things that are now lost in the time of extreme privatization.

    The other assumption I want to challenge is about Jayce Salloum’s show. Granted it’s difficult. I find myself struggling to explain to anyone what the artist is up to.

    But I think you’d have to exclude the Lebanese community, those who have family fighting or living in Afghanistan (and anyone remotely interested in the goings-on in the Middle East over the past 40 years) if you want to suggest the show is not of interest to Islanders. What Salloum presents is a picture of places that are far from those of us who don’t have such a personal investment, but appear in the news every day. The way Salloum presents them is different, however, and challenging to what we usually are able to access.

    If one wants to think about the “Island community” as the crucial audience of the Confederation Centre, we’d have to be clear what that community is. To me the Jayce Salloum show goes a long way toward making viewers think about questions like that, as difficult as the show might be to understand without some effort on the part of the viewer. Are we so far away from Afghanistan? Lebanon? Who are “we” anyway?

    1. Pan,

      I am not sure if the “island community” is the main audience or “community” of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery. According to the mandate of the gallery the audience is nationally based. Not one as an Islander but one as a Canadian. Yet, this concept of audience could be lost as the population of PEI shrinks into winter life. Or maybe it is the way the Gallery communicates its identity within the local community to the Island.

      Approaching a presentation like Salloum’s can be overwhelming. Considering the vast amount of visuals and the amount of gallery space it occupies, the amount of didactic panels or pointers an viewer may choose to avoid to all together. And that is where the question “how many from the Island community are having a real conversation with this work?” in my post comes from.

      I again ask … is it important for the local community to actually view the work and to talk about it? … or If the local community does view the work are their “tools” or “methods” a gallery like the Confederation Centre Gallery uses to open or welcome the viewer into the didactic space presented by the artist?

      and what did you think of the video… 🙂

      1. I’m going to jump in on this conversation, as it does touch on substantial issues– that of the role of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery as it relates to the local community, and a discussion of its exhibition programming (essentially, to whom does it speak?).

        You are correct in stating that the CCAG speaks to a national audience. This is an integral part of its mandate, to consider the national identity as expressed in its various artistic investigations. And, yes, the CCAG does take in shows from elsewhere, as seen with Jayce Salloum, which was circulated from the Mendel and Kamloops Galleries. This does not lessen the local conversation, rather, I think it strengthens it.

        However, and now I’m speaking as one of the individuals that organised this particular round of shows, the exhibition was created in collaboration with the MAG and KAG, and was brought here because we believed that it did, in fact, speak to the local community in a variety of ways.

        All the exhibitions were selected because they spoke to each other on essential and thematic levels. With each round of shows, we try to balance historical with contemporary, challenging with more readily accessible exhibitions. Our intention is to provide a broad, but rigorous representation of the Canadian cultural landscape, one that leads the viewer from exhibition to exhibition.

        In this circumstance, all the shows are contemporary, with an underlying theme of the autobiographical. However, that sense of autobiography extends to the role of the individual within a larger community, and within that community’s sense of history. Hannah Claus subtly describes the intersection of her two cultural backgrounds (Mohawk and European-Canadian), while considering larger issues of community, knowledge of one’s history, and the constant attempt to “read” ones lineages. In the Shadow of Evangeline is the interpretation of Longfellow’s poem by 10 contemporary Acadian artists. Laura Archer both considers and shares her experiences with DWB in various refugee camps. Jayce Salloum, as well, blends autobiography with a discussion of his role in the larger Lebanese community.

        I mentioned earlier that it is certainly the role of the CCAG to operate in conversation with the national community, but it is also a (if not THE) primary interest of the Gallery to consider and include the local community in as many ways as it can. Every gallery that one encounters has a unique voice, one that stems directly from its conversation with its community (whether AGNS, The Rooms, what have you). We’re super proud to be able to exist in the community that we are in, and it’s our primary objective with each turn of the exhibition season to promote that. Each season, the CCAG includes, as you mentioned, shows by local talented artists (of which there are many), seeks to include local artists in group exhibitions, and schedules exhibitions overtly considering Island issues. Other shows are a continuation of that interest, although they may not seem to be so at first.

        The video you’ve posted actually speaks perfectly to the themes of the current round of exhibitions– the discussion of “me/we”. It provides a discussion of the museum as a place to “look at art, ask questions of art,” employing art as a means of “reimagining cultural discourse within a network of artists.” The most poignant question, which I retyped for the context of PEI is: “What does it mean right now, at this point in history, to be an Islander in Canada?”

        As much as this round of exhibitions centers around the concept of the individual considering their role within the many, the idea of “Island-ness” is a concept formed by individuals, each with their own background, biases, networks. The experience of Prince Edward Island is extremely varied, and that is exactly what we’re trying to consider at the CCAG.

        Jayce’s show does tie into what Pan mentions– the Lebanese community on PEI, an integral part of the local cultural map. However, it is also intended as a larger discussion of the beautiful, varied communities that can be found in an Island of only 130,000 people.

        You describe the layout as difficult to understand. It is our intention to challenge the viewer’s ideas of art and artistic presentation, and why not? Who doesn’t need a good shake up, even if it makes them mad? Art is supposed to get you thinking.

        However, we’re not trying to make things difficult, just for the sake of difficulty. The presentation also speaks to a regular trend in curatorial and artistic layout. The standard idea that art should be evenly spaced and on the same horizontal place has its time and place. In this case, the layout is intended to create another method by which the art can be interpreted. And you can hate it, and that’s fine. Honestly. Just, please, ask yourself why you hate it.

        I definitely support critical feedback and discussion (especially over a beer). It is always important for institutions to hear from their communities where they may improve, and I wholeheartedly support people discussing art (whether they hate it or love it, how it made them think). The video beautifully describes the interaction of community/individual, considering the catalytic power of art works and aesthetic innovation, as people who are seeing and thinking about the issues that affect them. In that vein, I look forward to reading what others have to say.

        And if they want to do so over a beer, I’m all for it.

      2. Becka,

        To answer your second question first. Good call! Thelma Golden rules. She puts together AWESOME exhibitions that are all about feeding a community’s desire to/possibility of (and fear of) redefining itself. I felt like a lot of what she was talking about here was pretty general though. I kind of wished she’d given us a good yarn somewhere in there.

        As for the Confederation Centre and its audience, that’s a good question. As often as not, the Studio Museum gets its dialogues going by presenting very challenging exhibitions that get a lot of people up in arms. You can imagine what a lot of people in Harlem thought about a show called “Post-Black”.

        I think that how (or whether or not) the Confed Centre specifically relates to a local audience (it’s not technically the mandate, because it’s meant to be a national monument and thus a magnet for travelers as much as anything) is a constantly shifting thing that reflects the fact that it is something of a one-of-a-kind institution with a role that is always being renegotiated. Often it involves showing local work as a way of drawing people into the dialogue.

        What I guess I would argue for is a hybrid model. In one sense the museum can be a conduit for local artists to present and create their projects (since PEI has only 125k people I would argue that with a building this out of scale with the province, “local” should best be defined in terms of the Atlantic provinces as a whole – if they would give us money that would help too…). To a great extent it does do this. Many Island artists in mid-career had their first significant solo exhibition here, and so learned the realities of mounting a show of a certain scale at the confed, and without the constraints of having to cater to tourist sales.

        At the same time, what I always got out of the Centre, in the past, as an Islander interested in art, was precisely exposure to things happening elsewhere. If you live on PEI, sure there is some good art happening. But let’s call a spade a spade. Anyone who went to Nocturne in Halifax last weekend will tell you that although we are a city of c.50000 we don’t even hit 1% of the production or quality of a place like Halifax, which is only about 7 or 8 times bigger. We simply do not yet have the venues, access to training, financial support, critical community, critical mass of people working at it full or nearly full-time.

        This could change, and hopefully between This Town is Small, the Confederation Centre, and a healthy mix of other kinds of support, more and more fully-formed shit will happen. But in the meantime, whether I’m curating or return to being a full-time viewer, I want the Confed to bring me some things “from away” and PRECISELY to produce social (among other kinds of) change.

  2. so, basically, yes. I do think that the gallery (or, rather, the art within it) can be a wonderful catalyst.

  3. Hey Mireille, DAMN! I think we just shot ourselves in the foot and proved Becka’s point with our lengthy ramblings.

    Just like Jayce Salloum…will anyone bother to read them????

  4. hahaha. true. but the offer of beer drinking and conversation stands nevertheless.

  5. Despite being exhausted after a 9-9 day of classes, talking about art, and art-making, I sat down and read every word of that excellent discussion. (I noticed PEI’s population was shrinking as it went on?)

    As an islander not currently living there, I have to say that when I go home, the CCAG is consistently one of the first stops on my list. I personally can’t wait to get home and ‘have a conversation’ with whatever work is in the gallery because I know it will be work that CAN hold a conversation! I have been going there my entire life and no matter what I thought of the art that was exhibited, I always thought SOMETHING, always felt something. I think the Confed is doing a great job, and has been for years. Without the influence of that gallery while growing up, I doubt I would be pursuing a career as an artist as we speak.

    Another thing: just the fact that this conversation is happening says a lot about PEI – our island is a gem, make no mistake about it. And I think we’re a little closer to 150k 🙂

  6. Hopefully, in the near future, this type of discussion will be happening between islanders who aren’t necessarily a part of the artistic community. I feel like the Confed Centre is still a bit of an undiscovered gem in the middle of Charlottetown.

  7. Hi Becka,

    I’m the curator of Jayce Salloum’s exhibition, and I’m thrilled that it has served as a catalyst for this very interesting conversation – Jayce himself sent me a link to your blog. I hope it is alright for me to join in, as there are a few ideas and issues here I would like to tease out a little bit.

    First of all, Jayce’s work is intentionally difficult, and neither he nor I make any apologies for that. He has described his aesthetic as one that intends to generate “productive frustration” in the viewer. In other words, we are meant to be conscious of ourselves looking, to think about how we look, and at the conventions of looking at art as well as other kinds of representations, like documentaries, archives, etc. To that extent, I second Mireille’s encouragement to ask yourself why you may hate his presentational mode (or not, as it is not clear to me that you hate it). Or take it further, and ask what is it about ‘regular’ presentations of photographs or documentaries that you might prefer? Do they give you a digestible meaning or message (Jayce’s work won’t)? Do they validate what you already know or how you already feel (his work won’t do that either)? Jayce’s work is not intending to preclude meaning or shut the viewer out. He is counting on the curiosity and energy of viewers (which, granted, not all viewers have, but we can’t help that) to respond with questions, to want to learn more, and to bring their own histories and experiences to the work in order to complete it. Each viewer may read the works in a different way. For some people, it will be purely aesthetic – I recall some viewers having fun trying to spot reproductions of his untitled photographs in the map of the world ‘drawing’. That is just as valid a way to engage with the work as any political reading.

    For me, Jayce’s work is about epistemology – how we know things, or think we know things – more than it is about any identities or specific places represented in works such as kan ya ma kan and the untitled videotapes. I have noted, however, that people tend to focus on this issue of identity, and specifically Middle Eastern identity, when thinking about audiences for his work, and I think it is problematic. Yes, Jayce is of Lebanese descent, and kan ya ma kan deals with the representations of Lebanon, and there are three tapes in the untitled videotape installation that deal with the Middle East (other tapes dealing with Canada, Eastern Europe, and soon there will be New Zealand, and more), and his untitled photographs include some images of Afghanistan. But this show also includes images of storefronts in NYC, two whole walls of images of Vancouver and Vancouver Island, pictures from a WWII German picture book, and the very ephemeral, and I think poetic, map of the world, which could be from/about anywhere, and other works that are decidedly not about Lebanon or the Middle East. It has been my hope with organizing this retrospective that we can move beyond this focus on Jayce’s own ancestry and think about his work that deals with the Middle East as part of a much larger body of work that asks questions about categories and definitions affecting us all on multiple social and political levels. Pan hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “if one defines a community in terms of ‘what we can all easily understand,’ exclusion and even hatred of what’s different is often the end result.” I think that much of Jayce’s work is precisely about that: it wants us to ask ourselves why we take certain forms, constructs, categories, and self- or other- definitions for granted, why we find them easy, and what might alternatives be. I read his work as being essentially optimistic, because it encourages us to re-define ourselves and others in much broader and more inclusive ways and contexts. Surely this sense of possibility can be of interest to all people, and not just people with an acknowledged vested interest in the varied specific places represented in certain works in the show?

    I must add also that I actually don’t see Jayce’s work as autobiographical at all. Although many of his works involve different sorts of archives of his travels, there is really nothing of his personal life in his work (except perhaps in map of the world). And I also want to note that Jayce was born and raised in Kelowna, BC, a small city that is arguably as isolated or set apart as PEI in many respects. Which is to say, he could have just as easily been from PEI and made the exact same works. So I want to ask: had he been born in Charlottetown, do you think it would or would not make the exhibition more relevant to that imagined community of Islanders? If so, why, except for sentimental reasons?

    By ‘imagined community’ I am referring to Benedict Anderson’s notion that a nation is a community socially constructed, or imagined, by the people who perceive themselves as belonging to the group. Questions about how we imagine communities are exactly the sort Jayce’s work seeks to provoke. Thank you for engaging with this!

    Jen Budney

    PS: I want to second Pan’s enthusiasm about Thelma Golden in general, but also note, like him, that her TedTalk is quite general. The Studio Museum has mounted difficult and uncomfortable shows and I do not think it perceives its community as homogenous, but this was not articulated in the talk.

  8. Hello Jen,

    I think you’ve summed it up nicely. I hope my comments didn’t suggest that the interest-value of this show is only in its content, or the national identity or origins of the artist, so much as in the way it deals with their representation.

    Just for fun a disagreement:
    To an extent I’d argue the show IS an autobiography of sorts, even if that’s not the artist’s intent. But to the extent that the work represents a self (I think it does to a surprising degree considering the often charged “public” content), it does so in a rather unconventional way. It would be a subject who is dispersed and assembled out of a number of fragments and practices. Of course that’s the sort of viewer it imagines or wants to produce as well, at least as I read it.

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