by Merray Gerges
“I found my drive to diversify permanent collections. They are the beating heart of the art world. If you can change the collection, you can change the public story of art,” curator Helen Molesworth has said. I used this quote in a draft of an investigative piece I worked on for over two years—a draft that is no longer my intellectual property—in which I look at a skeleton in the closet of Canada’s largest collecting institution. I examine what its presence says about the omissions that persist in the gallery’s collecting practices and policies, despite its claims of inclusion. The quote encapsulates the recent upswing of attempts to change the “story of art” that collections tell, of reconsiderations of the space allotted to overrepresented artists in order to make space for those who are still underrepresented. Over the last year and a half, collecting institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and most recently the Art Gallery of Ontario made headlines when they announced they would sell work by dead white men to purchase work by artists of colour and women.
For the purposes of this issue, it’s important to assert the difference between exhibition representation and collection representation because of the latter’s potential long-term impact on how an artist’s output gets valorized and becomes historicized. Curator Sara Raza shares how she approached acquiring works by artists from the Middle East and North Africa for the Guggenheim. She talks about how the collection-based exhibition she curated evades the tropes of geographically specific curation to ensure that the artworks she inducted will have many lives after her tenure. Is entering a collection really the be-all and end-all, though? What does increased visibility mean within something as fraught and as “fucked,” as Tiana Reid writes, as the market? This is a question that Reid takes up in her assessment of recent auction records broken by Black American artists; while representation of Black Canadian artists may be increasing at non-collecting institutions, they are still underrepresented in collections here. Through interviews with collector Kenneth Montague and members of the Black Artists Union, Reid looks at what it might take to increase representation sustainably, and yet still asks: “But is that all we want? Who are we, anyway?”
Collections were founded on enforced hierarchies. So, can a collection, by definition, be anything but a colonial exercise? How can we decolonize collecting institutions when the collection is founded on the quintessentially settler colonial imperative to possess? Curator Jaimie Isaac describes the protocols and processes she initiated at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to Indigenize its collection—not just right now, but for posterity—towards “museological reform.” Because collections function primarily as repositories of cultural production, immaterial and impermanent practices— especially ones that cannot be documented—can tamper with the collection’s sanctity. Curator Marie Fraser shares how she acquired a Tino Sehgal piece for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; and, by asking “Could a collection be forever?” she reminds us that “preserving objects forever should no longer be what is at stake; what should, rather, is how to live with them, how to care for them and about them.” This concern is also at the heart of Adrian Stimson’s recollection of his work in politics, on repatriation initiatives throughout the ’90s, before he became an artist. Many Indigenous cultural belongings are living beings so sacred, he says, that not just anyone should handle them; they need to breathe, to be activated in ceremony. Yet he’s seen pieces of stolen material culture residing in museum storage spaces in conditions where they are not cared for. The collection’s apparatus of care—or lack thereof—is one of Sameer Farooq’s primary preoccupations. For his artist project, he reveals museums’ storage spaces—“the waiting rooms of history,” he calls them—in tandem with his own ceramic veils of museums’ storage devices.
Over the duration of this issue’s production, a woman sued Harvard for publishing and profiting from a photograph that the university still owns of her enslaved ancestors—in this, the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to North America. The Alabama anti-abortion law fuelled debates over the state’s ownership of women’s bodies. A Quebecois real estate developer announced that he would transfer 60 hectares of land that was central in the Oka Crisis 29 years ago to the Kanien’kehà:ka of Kanehsatà:ke. “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” Toni Morrison (RIP) wrote in Beloved (1987); so, who owns what does matter. Major institutions—public and corporate—acquired the work of several artists featured in this issue over the summer. Until recently, work by BIPOC artists hadn’t been entering collections enough to begin changing the “story of art” that they tell. But still, visibility does not equate to viability, and proclamation doesn’t always translate to practice. What are the structural and systemic underpinnings that could ensure the long-term viability of this visibility?