Michael Sweerts, Self-portrait with Skull, around 1661, oil on canvas. Gift of Alfred and Isabel Bader, 2004
Welcome to Agnes! As I write this, I am trying to picture the slow road to reopening that fall seems to promise, though I am interested neither in a return to the past nor a new normal. Much has changed since March 2020. And a foundational opportunity for transformation has emerged, offering us the occasion to reimagine old systems and usher in new priorities. Reversing audience development paradigms, and after 18 months of not counting “bums in seats,” we ask: how does Agnes attend to community?
Of course, this reversal doesn’t mean we are not poised to welcome you back to Agnes. Quite the contrary! A tremendous new roster of exhibitions, public programs, and participatory experiences are rooted in the inclusive and hospitable origins of the art centre itself when, in 1954, Agnes Etherington bequeathed her house to Queen’s to “further the cause of art in community.” It is with this spirit of continuity that we take our cue: “historical” exhibitions are set in contemporary galleries and vice-versa, but, more interestingly, there are no longer distinctions between time-periods as we mix it up, working across generations and geographies in search of new futurities. Evoking themes in Humour Me, an exhibition of the topsy-turvy world of caricature, it is time to upend hierarchies and societal norms!
Our rad new collaboration with Kingston’s Hysterics Collective keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, too! Launching in fall, this new online series of video performances “riffs off” artworks in Agnes’s exhibitions and permanent collections in ways that uphold the collective’s mission to raise feminist consciousness, punching-up mainstream narratives with diverse voices, mirroring our work at Agnes.
Given the scope of Agnes’s collections and our commitments to curatorial innovation— approaching even our historical holdings through a new sense of dialectic contemporaneity—two new collection-based exhibitions take their inspiration from our contemporary moment, as if historical images found in “the vaults” are prototypes. (Indeed, aren’t memes the new caricature?) In the context of the 2020–2021 pandemic, Studies in Solitude “considers how such images participated in the development of gendered and class-based conceptions of privileged space that are still felt today,” as Suzanne van de Meerendonk, Agnes’s Bader Curator of European Art remarks. Turning our own spaces upside down, we lend Agnes’s studio and resources to Studios in Solitude, a micro-residency for local artists designed to support solitary contemplation and creation without the pressure of production. Meanwhile, situating works from Agnes’s contemporary and historical collections in Etherington House allows a collective of curators to directly reprise and appraise homebound feelings of the pandemic, ranging from loss, to dread, to simple pleasures in Pandemical Loneliness.
Working along a continuum also means that some shows act as anchors and others as connectors, as they link across time periods and to other exhibitions. Lii Zoot Tayr (Other Worlds), an exhibition of commissioned work by six Métis women artists takes over the Historical Feature and spills out into the Atrium and beyond. It transports us to other worlds evoking relationships to unseen forces and concepts of spirit and in/visibility. In the Contemporary Feature, With Opened Mouths insists that the masks in Agnes’s African collection are treated as living entities. The installation remodels non-assimilationist museological practice around these items and their use: in masquerade, performance, ritual and ceremony. Masks are remixed with contemporary talismans by Nigerian, Toronto-based artist Oluseye and, staged within the crashing waves of the Atlantic and local soil from Kingston, evoke the diasporic nature of the collection. A new podcast series featuring artists, curators, spoken word poets and rappers rolls out this fall, alongside the first-ever Canadian iteration of the international Black Portraitures conference in October. Exhibitions also extend beyond our walls as we launch three curriculum-based school programs based on our critical curatorial themes and strategies.
Programming now happens behind-the-scenes, in particular through residencies. Agnes’s two Bader Fellows in Textile Research and Conservation’s work continues. Dr Laura Peers has used advanced imagining tools in art conservation to make Indigenous collections more accessible to remote/rural communities online, while Jason Cyrus’s analysis of the dyes and cottons in Agnes’s Canadian Historical Dress Collection reveals their connection to the transatlantic slave trade, resource extraction, and international supply chains. Opening in November, History Is Rarely Black or White featuring pieces from the collection alongside contemporary art and fashion by Karin Jones, Gordon Shadrach and Damian Jöel. Cyrus’s exhibition examines colonial history but, more importantly, envisions a radically positive future. Watch out for the related online speaker series.
Exhibition spaces turn over mid-season, too: we are no longer feeling tethered to seasons either! For instance, Agnes’s most recent acquisition, Zina Saro-Wiwa’s groundbreaking video-performance Worrying the Mask: The Politics of Authenticity and Contemporaneity in the Worlds of African Art (2020), is installed in the Samuel J. Zacks Gallery and connects themes in Other Worlds and With Opened Months. Come November, the space changes again to feature Ezi Odozor’s commissioned long-form poem, creating a narrative arc between the exhibitions History Is Rarely Black or White and With Opened Mouths. The poem invites guests into the space, offering a bridge in-between the other worlds we all inhabit.
We are working into the future. And we are preparing for the opportunity to build an entirely new structure around new perspectives. Literally!
Agnes Reimagined begins with prototyping new practices and culminates in a future-oriented facility that will: centre the social impact and civic role of art; work across multiple temporalities and diverse world views; enliven participation in visual culture through community-engaged, poly-vocal museological approaches; and amplify our capacity to foster and relay intersectional connections across the disciplines and communities that converge when a public, university- affiliated art institution is both civically-minded and pedagogically driven. Our Request for Architects goes out this fall. By winter, we hire Agnes’s new, endowed position: Curator, Indigenous Art and Culture.
Actively contributing to the well-being of Canada’s future art histories by working as a contemporary museum, Agnes is poised to lead change. We welcome you to join us on this journey as we embark on an intense period of experimentation, risk taking and re/evaluation.
Emelie Chhangur, Director and Curator