Curating (and Directing) Contemporary Canadian Art
Powerhouse art maven Gaetane Verna impacts the Toronto art scene from multiple vantage points. As the Director of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, she determines which cutting edge exhibitions the city’s public will be able to experience on a rotating basis. As Board Director and Co-Chair of the Visual and Media Arts Committee at the Toronto Arts Council, she affects the city’s arts policies and funding. While Verna has well established herself here, she’s also worked extensively within other communities from Paris to Montreal. She spoke to us about the different art scenes and what you can’t miss at the Power Plant this March.
You worked at a couple of art institutions in Quebec before becoming the Director of The Power Plant in Toronto. How would you compare the art scenes in Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto/Ontario?
For 8 years I lived and worked in Paris, France, and upon my return to Canada, I worked in the Eastern Townships running the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University and then in the Lanaudière region as Director and Chief Curator of The Musée d’art de Joliette. I never worked in Montreal but since both Sherbrooke and Joliette are outside of Montreal, contact with and proximity to the city was key to all of our exhibitions, media, and professional relations. If one wants to compare Montreal and Toronto, I would argue that each scene is distinct but there are a lot of similarities and ongoing conversations between institutions, artists, collectors and patrons alike. Many artists from Quebec are represented in exhibitions in the GTA area. Some Quebec commercial galleries have opted to open galleries in Toronto – Division Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain are key examples. Both cities have topnotch collectors who are dedicated to supporting both local and international artists. The cities are different in terms of scale, and so direct comparisons would be a challenging task. One thing is similar, however: in each city, I have found unwavering support for the institutions that I was leading. The support that I speak of is defined by the audiences, the funders, the donors, the partnerships and the artists that contribute to the life of the galleries. I feel comfortable in both environments because they are different, which makes for the richness of Canada’s artistic landscape.
You’ve been a Director at the Power Plant for five years and a Board Director at the Toronto Arts Council for a little over two years. How do these roles allow you to impact Toronto in different ways?
Contributing to the Toronto Arts Council is about contributing to policy making and implementing and supporting the many artists and arts organization that are part of the fabric to Toronto. At The Power Plant, it is through our exhibitions and our education and public programs that we define a curatorial vision, which shapes every aspect of the work done at our gallery. We are responsible for all of the experiences that are brought forward within the physical space of the gallery and through our social media and offsite activities. We impact the artists that we present and the public that comes to see their work through the many lenses that we created in order to bridge the work of the artists and the diverse public that we welcome. We are continuously establishing and engaging in conversations about the works exhibited.
At the Toronto Arts Council, I support an organization that serves the many institutions big or small that take part in broad art-making in Toronto. The team at the Toronto Arts Council are professionals that have mastered the disciplines that they serve. As a board member, my work is more about governance and ensuring that we safeguard the work of the TAC, which serve numerous and diverse stakeholders. It is rewarding work and it also provides me with a better knowledge of the many institutions from the different corners of Toronto that we support. In this position, I am not curating the work of my colleagues but providing insight and support for an entire community that goes beyond the visual arts.
The Power Plant is exhibiting work by four very different contemporary artists this winter. How do you see these shows connecting / informing each other?
For this season, Winter 2017, invited Jonathas de Andrade, Maria Hupfield, and Kapwani Kiwanga, as we consider their artistic approaches to be extremely important as they touch on pressing issues facing our world today, such as immigration, colonial pasts, the promises of a neoliberal future, African diaspora, climate change, so on. We consider each exhibition independently from each other, as each is its own world so to speak. But it is great to see how the works presented in the different exhibitions in this season have the capacity to form connections between one other, almost through their own means.
I for instance see a connection between Jonathas de Andrade’s O que sobrou da 1a corrida de carroças do centro do Recife (What’s left of the 1st Horse-Drawn Cart Race of Downtown Recife) and Kapwani Kiwanga’s installation pink-blue, as they talk about power structures and the decision of authorities to remove parts of society from certain areas, that these authorities consider as “undesirable”. The starting point of de Andrade’s project was the decision of Recife’s municipal government to ban farm animals from the city centre. The blue fluorescent lights in Kiwanga’s installation are used in public toilets. The light reduces the visibility of veins on one’s arms, and is installed with the goal to deter intravenous drug-users from frequenting these areas. The contexts addressed by both artists are certainly very different and also their artistic strategies, but I hope that visitors reflect on those issues also in their own cultural environments.
In the centre of the first floor, Latifa Echakhch’s site-specific work Cross Fade is still on view, which we opened in October 2016. Rendered in cement on the walls, her sky is no longer just a motif but also an object, which can be destroyed. While we usually associate the sky with permanence, it loses its stability here, taking on the state of a ruin that underscores the uncertainty of the present and speaks to the loss of a common space.
It is also interesting to compare how Maria Hupfield’s new two-channel video installation The One Who Keeps On Giving is grounded in personal memories, shared with her siblings, the contributors to the two performances presented on the screens, and Jonathas de Andrade’s approach in Cartazes para o Museu do Homem do Nordeste (Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast) that is based on the widespread narrative of the eponymous museum in Recife, in order to be revisited and de-constructed.
The Gallery’s 30th Anniversary is coming up at the end of February. Congrats! What do you hope to see over the next 30 years–for The Power Plant, for yourself, and for the city itself?
My greatest wish for The Power Plant is to see it thrive as an institution that is profoundly focused as much on providing a professional environment for living Canadian and international artists, by continuing to offer opportunities for living artists to produce new works and take part in the global conversation about visual arts. Financial stability and growth is a key element of any and all institutions’ futures. I wish for The Power Plant to continue to grow and always be on the forefront of intellectual discourse. Our gallery is a forum for discussions that advance the artistic culture of our time, and engagement of audiences that reflect the community in which we are embedded. I wish that The Power Plant stays a dynamic, forward-thinking and generous public, non-collecting, non-for-profit organization that will see all Torontonians cross the threshold of The Power Plant – and feel welcome whether it is their first visit or if they are returning visitors!