“Can Artists Really Save the World?” panel has no easy answers

Queen's Journal
16 January 2018

By Ramolen Laruan

Noted artists, critics and curators evaluate the politics of artwork

Some of the foremost names in Canadian contemporary art gathered in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre last Saturday to debate whether or not art could really save the world.

The panel’s title “Can Artists Really Save the World? Exhibitions, Exchanges, and Other Moments in Trojan-horse Diplomacy,” refers to the Trojan tale in Homer’s Illiad, in which the Greeks concealed themselves in a wooden horse to enter Troy and win the war.

Kelly Langgard, Head of Partnership and International Coordination at the Canada Council of the Arts, invited those present to rethink the Trojan-horse analogy.

“Cultural exchange is not a violent metaphor,” Langgard said, explaining art administration is about encouraging mutual understanding and collaboration. For her, this includes thinking of art leaders as a part of an international network.

In cultural diplomacy, culture becomes a tool deployed to advance a political agenda. In this case, artists and cultural workers are the soldiers in the horse, agents of social justice and tactfully considered as “cultural diplomats.”

The panelists shared their experiences in the context of international relations, offering a full account of the positive and negative aspects of representing their communities in an intercultural context.

Curator, critic and art historian of Cree descent and other heritages, Richard Hill offered a poignant account of his own experience. At the event, Hill opened up about the responsibility he felt to represent the Indigenous community while working at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Hill wanted to subvert ideas of nationalism through his curatorial practice, but was met with resistance. Oftentimes, there are political interests within institutions, donors and even other nations that result in projects being deferred if not completely terminated.

Gerald McMaster, Plains Cree and Blackfoot artist and curator, reflected on his focus to bring new perspectives to Canadian institutions, fitting with the panel’s theme of a Trojan horse infiltration.

“Being head gives you an opportunity to change and not just tell history, you can start an exciting discourse, which is what’s happening in contemporary Canadian art,” he said.

McMaster’s comments raised the prospect of artists sneaking alternative agendas into established institutions.

On the other hand, visual artist Nadia Myre was candid in telling the audience about feeling utilized in projects where her Indigenous identity and her work were used for the benefit of somebody else’s career. The present panelists similarly reflected on their experiences of the government marketing their Indigeneity.

“Sometimes you feel like you have to represent,” Myre said, reflecting the time she worked on a project where she felt she was hired for her identity. She explained that given a platform to communicate something to the world, she feels a responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity.

This pointed to an underlying faith in the arts. While the panel outlined the pressure and uncertainty in today’s art world, there was a fundamental belief that artists could still play an important role in their communities, regardless of external politics.

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