The Gardiner Museum is an internationally known hub for clay and ceramic art with a collection of works from around the globe, but a unique, locally driven arts initiative has been taking shape inside its walls.
Since 2016, the Gardiner has been home to the Community Arts Space, “a platform for experimentation and socially engaged art.” It’s devoted to local creators whose work delves into community histories to inspire social change.
“We provide opportunities to artists, makers and organizers who wouldn’t necessarily have a chance to showcase their work in a museum space,” says Rea McNamara, the Gardiner’s programs manager. “What’s really exciting is that it’s a co-learning process – mounting a community-oriented project in an institutional space is something that the artist and the museum are learning to better understand together.”
The Gardiner’s Community Arts Space works closely with a number of neighbourhood organizations – most recently, Akin, Art Starts and The 519 – to co-produce programming with a community-forward focus. Admission is free.
“A lot of people have this sense of what a museum is: you can’t touch anything, everything’s behind glass,” McNamara says. “What’s exciting about this project is that we’re rewriting what a museum visit can be.” McNamara says the space reflects the fact that cultural institutions are recognizing who does or doesn’t have access to art, and which artists are given a platform.
“Toronto’s culture of making doesn’t just happen in the core,” McNamara says. “Museums need to do a better job of telling the stories of their constituents.”
Although not everything that happens within the space directly involves ceramics, McNamara says that the democratic nature of clay acts as a jumping-off point for much of the programming. For example, members of the public were invited to produce one of a thousand clay monarch butterflies that will become part of the Sin Fronteras exhibition opening on August 22.
Lending new context to the rest of the Gardiner’s collection is another part of the initiative. McNamara points to Hair We Are, a project led by VIBE Arts with Art Starts. The group of young girls and women involved were interested in exploring the concept of self-care, which soon evolved into creating art in dialogue with the museum’s collection of European ceramics from the boudoir and other women-only spaces.
Eventually, the project culminated in a series of workshops focusing on self-care, hair care and storytelling.
The museum has also been working to extend its community focus beyond the Community Arts Space. Some of the free programming organized by the Gardiner is taking place at The 519 or Art Start’s main hub at Yorkdale in an effort to keep things both financially and physically accessible to a variety of communities.
The Gardiner’s main collection, meanwhile, remains free to visitors 18 and under. The museum also just launched a $30 one-year unlimited pass that comes with discounts at the Gardiner Shop and CLAY restaurant.
“Museums often interact with certain types of visitors who grew up going to museums. Others may not have had that experience. Museums are spaces that don’t feel welcoming for them,” McNamara says. “To be frank, museums can feel like very white, privileged spaces.
“With the Community Arts Space, this could be the first visit someone’s had to the Gardiner – and then the next thing you know, that person has a history of seeing themselves in museum spaces. We want to write that narrative.”