"Hopefully, work by women and other underrepresented artists will be made even more accessible and integrated into local, national and international art histories"
Interview with Kitty Scott, CIMAM Board member, Independent Curator, Ottawa, Canada. for Tendencias del Mercado del Arte, Spain. Published on February 2023.
Which were your first memorable experience with Museums?
I love going to and working in museums. However, it was not so much museums but exhibitions of contemporary art that awakened something in me. In the early ‘90s I was living in London and travelling to Holland quite regularly. I remember experiencing the work of Tacita Dean, Nicole Eisenman, Douglas Gordon, Gabriel Orozco and Joëlle Tuerlinckx, to name a few, in Watt (1994), a large international group exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunstinstituut Melly (then known as the Witte de With) and the Kunsthal, curated by Chris Dercon and Gosse Oosterhof. The exhibition brought together young international artists in a very free and open way. It was so unlike other, more didactic collection-based exhibitions that had previously caught my attention at museums: projects such as Joseph Kosuth’s The Brooklyn Museum Collection: The Play of the Unmentionable (1990) organized with Charlotta Kotik, or Fred Wilson and co-curator Lisa Corrin’s Mining the Museum (1992-1993). While these were great exhibitions, they were taking very strong positions on topics such as censorship, race and representation. In comparison, Watt was focusing on new art, what was yet to be accepted and understood by more mainstream institutions. It took some time to grasp and opened up new possibilities for how you can be in the world.
You have been involved in the contemporary museum field for 25 years. How have the museum’s role evolved? What role should museums play in today’s society, and how they can keep their relevance and impact?
Since the mid-‘90s, museums have evolved against a backdrop of ever-increasing commodification as they have become an important component of cultural tourism. At the same time, museums have a complicated relationship to the voraciously expansive contemporary art market. In this context, how do museums or individual curatorial practices maintain some margin of freedom? One response sees museums incorporating critical modes of thinking into their practice and giving important institutional space to artists who have the ability to lead with powerful visions. Today this work is overlayed with an ongoing and long-term effort to redress historical inequities in representation, by foregrounding art by women and historically underrepresented groups. In Canada, there has been a particular focus on a coming to terms with legacies of colonization and the oppression of Indigenous peoples as we do the work of reconciliation.
Of late, it has become fashionable to critique the museum’s origins in the 18th-century enlightenment project as congruent with the Eurocentric colonial world system. This undoubtbly has its truth, but that same, enlightenment also gave us the museum—at least in its ideal form—as a vital component of the public sphere, the space for rational-critical debate, a space in which we can ask, collectively, how do we want to live?
In January 2020 you were the first woman to be named chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada. It was a moment of intense cultural reckoning around issues of equity and inclusion, the legacies of settler colonialism, and the politics of representation. Could you put examples of how these issues were reflected through the museum programming?
It was an unusual moment due to the pandemic, among other conditions. The National Gallery of Canada shut down in March 2020, so quite soon after I arrived, but opened again with Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition in July 2021, much later than originally planned. Rembrandt is a canonical figure and the exhibition had been many years in the making. However, much had changed in North America with respect to debates connected to that time of cultural reckoning—including a heightened sensitivity to the legacies of enslavement and colonization. We asked ourselves, how do we acknowledge this moment? In order to respond to the mythology of the Dutch “Golden Age,” we worked with the curators and external experts Joana Joachim, an art historian who looks through a Black feminist lens, and Indigenous scholars Gerald McMaster and Rick Hill. In all cases these co-thinkers brought new perspectives and interpretations to the subject matter at hand. One of the most powerful narratives that emerged was the story of the Two Row Wampum Treaty (1613), a mutual agreement between representatives of the Five Nations and the Dutch government. The idea that these two groups recognized each other in Rembrandt’s era was a way of opening up a larger conversation around this particular project and its grounding on this side of the Atlantic.
You also have a solid trajectory as curator (of the acclaimed Canadian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017) and co-curator of the 10th Liverpool Biennial (2018), to mention a few. How do you see the role of a curator? Which projects stood out in your mind, and why?
When working as a curator, I want to be the best partner to the artist that I can possibly be. I want to ensure they can achieve their vision for whatever the given project demands. Artists generously share their life’s work and it is important to recognize this. This responsibility entails a tremendous amount of intra-institutional work in the form of education and diplomacy.
I am very proud of the Brian Jungen exhibition Friendship Centre (2019), presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario. When Brian and I first toured the AGO’s temporary exhibitions space, we discussed the observation that the two main rooms shared gym-like proportions. Brian immediately responded to this and started talking with me about the importance of gyms as community meeting spaces in urban Indigenous Friendship Centres and on reservations. He proposed that we transform one of the spaces into a gymnasium and designed a new black floor with a basketball court configuration and added benches, nets and lockers. We used this space for his sculptures derived from Nike sneakers and golf bags. It was a fantastic way to experience his work.
Before entering the space proper, there was a large-scale display of his archive. He kept all the Nike shoe boxes and repurposed them to store found objects, old identity cards of various sorts, 45s, sneaker remnants, family photos, drawings and the list goes on. The boxes were visible on shelves and their contents were presented via photographic documentation on large-scale monitors. I had seen an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s archive at MMK some years ago and they had presented the contents of his boxes on a monitor. It was a successful way into this kind of material.
During the research period, I decided to photograph the contents of every box, as I wanted to feature it as a section of the exhibition. In hindsight, this was an important decision. Tragically, in the summer of 2022, wildfires destroyed Jungen’s rural studio and barns. The archive was lost. For anyone, this kind of event would be traumatic, but for Brian it was doubly so, as he had lost both parents at the age of seven in a house fire.
A main challenge of art museums is to convince the young generation, which is more linked with the virtual world. How museums can connect with the millennial audience?
Are millennials as naively committed to the virtual world as you suppose? Of course, the screen is ubiquitous in our world. But these days it engenders as much wariness as enthusiasm. Our younger audience, no less that our traditional one, hungers for shared experiences in real space.
The CIMAM Annual Conference held in Mallorca explored the urgency for museums to adapt and become spaces of shared encounter and hospitality. What are your thoughts about this topic?
Yes, there are so many things that museums could be doing to make themselves more accessible. Of course they have to change and adapt if they want to become spaces of shared encounter and hospitality. We saw wide-ranging models and presentations at CIMAM. Sethembile Msezane’s presentation was deeply personal and very powerful. She challenged the collecting practices, more specifically the notion of permanence, in colonial museum methodology. In doing so she points to the challenges inherent in any notion of shared experience and hospitality.
Ultimately, however, I remain wary of the supposition contained in your question. On one hand, it suggests that the museum can step into the role of care that the neoliberal state has abandoned; and on the other, it seems to contain the suggestion of a warm, fuzzy consensus, implicit in its terms. Certainly, the museum must be welcoming, open to all, but with this it welcomes comes debate, argumentation, and what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus.”
Which are the current debates in the contemporary art world you are paying attention to?
There are so many debates at play. What do we collect and from where? What is the role of ownership in this moment? What are institutional priorities with respect to contemporary art? How do we deal with the canon? What is the role of money? Museums and art galleries are often large institutions and they require significant budgets. How do we define an ethical framework for philanthropy in a time when it is playing an ever-increasing role?
What do you predict will be the most significant developments in art in the next few years, and why?
On Turtle Island, there is a developing focus on Indigenous artists. They are the first makers on this land and it is time their stories are better known. Artists, curators and scholars here and in Australia have been doing important work in this area for some time. It is my hope that this collective work will become more visible and that these artists will be actively sought after for exhibitions, institutional collections and gallery rosters. Their visibility is all the more urgent given the backdrop of our ongoing climate emergency. Hopefully, work by women and other underrepresented artists will be made even more accessible and integrated into local, national and international art histories.