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A & E ART | A Very Big Deal

Can a curator from Hamilton change the rules about how we use Canadian art?

By Tor Lukasik-Foss

The Passenger Pigeon Hunt, 1853
Antoine-Sébastien Plamondon, The Passenger Pigeon Hunt, 1853, oil on canvas.

A few years ago I had the privilege of contributing to a songwriting project up in Sudbury. It was based on the following premise: What would Stompin' Tom Connor's "Sudbury Saturday Night" sound like if it were written today by a group of street-involved Sudbury youth? It was exciting because it took an otherwise diffi cult discussion on homelessness, poverty, urban decay and made it accessible, humorous and altogether energized.

The project was the brainchild of an arts collective called DodoLab, a twoperson collective started by Hamiltonian Andrew Hunter and Guelph-based writer/ photographer Lisa Hirmer. DodoLab is a kind of project-based arts think tank that pairs community collaboration with unconventional artistic premises to stir up civic discourse.

DodoLab is also a fairly concise embodiment of what has been Andrew Hunter's process-oriented approach to Canadian art. Hunter has eked out a curiously wide-ranging career for himself in the last three decades as a kind of hybrid artist/curator/writer/designer/educator, happily blurring distinctions between art, activism, history and fi ction. It is easy to cast him as radical, anti-institutional even.

It therefore came as something as a shock when Hunter told me that he had been sought out by the Art Gallery of Ontario for the position of Frederick S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art. It's a big deal. Hunter suddenly has resources, prime exhibition space and an extensive collection at his disposal. He is in a position to wield signifi cant infl uence in how we use and understand Canadian art in this province.

It's also a big deal because the AGO's choice represents a shift in their thinking. Hunter's hire follows the appointment of Kitty Scott as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; both decisions can be interpreted as signs the Gallery is looking to be more active, outward and ambitious in its engagement of the community.

Explains Hunter: "My position has been redefi ned to include contemporary practice, and with a real emphasis on public engagement — that's why they were interested in me. Their new strategic plan clearly pushes accessibility, understanding history from a contemporary position… That means that I don't need to see myself as a missionary for art, someone trying to convert people into a set of beliefs. It means I can go looking for an exchange that is more open, public and dynamic — to engage with the public and have them change the AGO as a result."

"Things are very unstable in Canadian art right now. There is no single narrative anymore, artists are engaging in more than just art, fanning out to include a whole range of social and cultural activity. Culture is more fl uid, temporary, less precious and much harder to defi ne as a result. Consequently, you can't present Canadian art in a way that people feel they need a special knowledge to understand. You need to present it in a way that lets them bring the full heft of their experience into the discussion. That means being more humble as an institution, to admit what you don't know, to be excited about what you don't know."

To illustrate this point, Hunter starts discussing lesser-known works from the AGO's collection he feels can ignite a constructive response, precisely because they are not iconic, easy-to-categorize things. He points out a small Haida argillite and ivory sculpture of a sea captain that bristles with odd energy; it seems neither Aboriginal nor European, yet fl ickers with an intensity that can only come from the collision of those two cultures. He talks about Antoine-Sebastien Plamondon's The Passenger Pigeon Hunt, a polite, almost unremarkable portrait of three youths hunting, but a work that he feels has the potential to spur engagement.

"If the only thing we use [Plamondon's] painting for is to talk about the history of Canadian painting, then we miss a bigger opportunity to investigate the social issues behind it…to use it to examine the eradication of an animal species, or climate change, or biodiversity or a host of other issues relevant to our times. Provenance and technique aren't really the only important things to talk about."

It's hard not to be infected by Hunter's enthusiasm. Yet, his excitement and affability doesn't guarantee he'll have an easy time implementing his vision. Opening up dialogue and increasing community involvement sound great, but if it means knocking Tom Thomson's West Wind off its pedestal, or challenging entrenched myths of Canadian art, there might easily be some backlash. Nonetheless, Hunter seems excited for the challenge.

"One of my best instructors when I was at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) was the painter Gerald Ferguson, who shared with me a French idiom bete comme un peintre — 'dumb as a painter.' It is not a derogatory expression as many assume, it has more to do with the idea of the artist using the tools of art in a messy way to fi gure out things he/she doesn't know…So I am happy to extend that phrase into 'dumb as a curator' because what really interests me is using the position and its resources as a conduit, as a means to engage with the world. And the scale of engagement can be huge — it can spill right out into the street."