AGO boosts Indigenous focus in Canadian art department

The gallery has appointed a curator of Indigenous art, but there is still a dearth of Indigenous voices in leadership roles at major institutions across Canada


The year-long Canada 150 celebration has inspired art institutions to showcase Indigenous work and points-of-view in major exhibits.

Kent Monkman’s Shame And Prejudice was a blockbuster for the U of T Art Museum in the spring the intersectional Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) was one of the summer’s most-talked about shows and McMichael Canadian Art Collection is in the midst of an extensive Annie Pootoogook retrospective.

While the Indigenous canon is getting attention on gallery walls, the same cannot be said of the city’s curatorial offices, where Indigenous voices are notably absent.

In a hopeful sign, the AGO has made a move to change that.

On October 3, gallery officials announced plans to rename the Fredrik S. Eaton Canadian Art department as the Canadian and Indigenous Art department, and two curators have been promoted to lead it: Georgiana Uhlyarik is now the Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian Art, and Wanda Nanibush – an Anishinabe-kwe artist, and teacher at OCAD – is curator of Indigenous art.

It’s a rare instance of an Indigenous curator landing a leadership role at a major Canadian art institution.

“There is a real shift in understanding the place of Indigenous people within the art world and in Canada,” Nanibush tells NOW. “A lot of that comes from the Truth And Reconciliation Commission and the work that they and [residential school] survivors have done to educate people on the actions they can do to shift forward from the past injustices.

“I think we’ll see a lot of hiring going on, both in educational and art institutions, at a high level,” she adds. “That’s what creates real change.”

Nanibush likens her relationship with Uhlyarik to Canada and First Nations.

“We’re in a treaty relationship. We’re separate but equal,” she says. “We bring different perspectives to the table and multiple viewpoints on what’s going to happen in the Canadian and Indigenous art department.”

Although Nanibush’s promotion is a positive step, it coincided with a scathing Toronto Star op-ed by the AGO’s former Canadian Arts curator Andrew Hunter, who resigned in the summer after the launch of the Reframing Nationhood.

“As I leave, I worry about an institution wavering in its commitment to make space for new voices – voices traditionally excluded from senior roles at public cultural institutions in Canada,” he wrote, adding that the AGO’s key staff is largely American-trained and its track record for engaging with local artists and diversity is inconsistent.

Nanibush hopes to remedy that.

“I have a commitment to Toronto artists and Canadian artists, to Indigenous artists and community art,” Nanibush said when asked about Hunter’s criticisms. “I did the Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 show, which involved over 121 Toronto artists, so I feel like I’ve begun that. We have spaces geared toward Toronto, Ontario and Canada, and I hope to continue programming that way.”

But is this focus on Indigenous art just another trend or are the slow mechanisms of the Canadian art world grinding into place?

In July, the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) in Hamilton hired Rhéanne Chartrand as its inaugural curator of Indigenous art. She moved into the full-time position after completing one year as Aboriginal curatorial resident – another inaugural position.

“How we look at art is different than a Euro-Canadian or western view so we can contribute a lot to the interpretation and presentation of Indigenous and even non-Indigenous art,” says Chartrand.

Back in 1991, the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museum Association created a task force on Museums and the First Peoples. It created a report that stated: “There is agreement that increased involvement of First Peoples in museum work is essential in order to improve the representation and interpretation of First Peoples’ histories and cultures in museums.”

Fast-forward almost three decades and the number of Indigenous people in leading curatorial roles at major Canadian galleries and museums can almost be counted on one hand: the National Gallery of Canada’s Greg Hill Canadian Museum of History’s Linda Grussani Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Julie Nagam and Jaimie Isaac and now AGO’s Nanibush.

There’s also the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s Michelle LaVallee in Regina, and MMA’s Chartrand.

“It was impossible for me, in 2017, to be working in an institution that didn’t have an Indigenous curator,” says MMA’s director and chief curator, Carol Podedworny. “Ethically and morally it was wrong.”

She credits the support of McMaster University – and its “very strong Indigenous studies program” – with helping her find an Indigenous person to take on a curatorial role, and to right that wrong.

Podedworny echoes Hunter’s criticism that major institutions only offer short-term temporary positions to Indigenous curators, typically in the form of residencies.

“Everyone I talked to in the [Indigenous art] community repeatedly said these residencies don’t continue,” she says. “There’s no follow-up position.”

Indigenous curators hoping to break into the art world also land project-based or “guest curator” positions, says Ryan Rice, chair of OCAD University’s Indigenous Visual Culture program.

“What I see is a push for bringing in emerging curators,” he says. “But there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond that.”

Twelve years ago, Rice co-founded the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC), a group that aims to support, advocate and promote Indigenous curators, artists and critics.

“At that time, there were probably only five Indigenous curators within major art institutions,” he says. “Today, the momentum and recognition are shifting, but the positions are lacking.”

The dearth also has to do with low turnover. Jobs are limited, and non-Indigenous people tend stay in hard-won positions until they retire.

“[Indigenous] people who have worked in the field are in administration, director positions or switching over to the academic side, like myself, because those [curatorial] positions aren’t there,” Rice says.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) announced a plan to hire an Indigenous curator at the opening of the exhibit Anishinaabeg: Art & Power in June, but Rice notes a call for candidates has not been forthcoming. A ROM spokesperson tells NOW the position will be posted this fall.

“The ROM has had an Indigenous learning expert on staff for three years and is newly hiring six permanent and part-time Indigenous Knowledge Resource teachers,” the museum said in a statement. “We’ve also recently announced the creation of a new position, ROM Curator of Indigenous Art and Culture. This position will be held by a person of Indigenous heritage to ensure Indigenous perspectives are reflected in our galleries, exhibitions and programs.”

Meanwhile, Nanibush already has a checklist for the AGO. She wants to do more with the Inuit art collection – more than 5,500 pieces – add younger contemporary artists to the collection and build up the overall collection of First Nations art. “We don’t have a very large one,” she admits.

She would also like to create deeper relationships with Indigenous audiences.

“I’d like to see Indigenous artists go abroad, outside of Canada, and build international relationships,” she says. “It’s time we started touring Indigenous art. That’s my big desire.”

art@nowtoronto.com | @KellyKaliopi

Brand Voices

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *