by Jaimie Isaac
How does what is owned define the owner? In the Manual of Curatorship, Peter Cannon-Brookes stresses that the “process of collecting cannot be considered separately from the cultural characteristics of the society undertaking it.” Institutions still beholden to outdated mandates and protocols will have collections that are reflective of that. Many curators working within these institutions are attempting decolonial methodologies, in a recent and expanding move toward museological reform, to include the work of underrepresented, misrepresented or never-represented artists. When institutions haven’t had major contributions to their collections of contemporary Indigenous art, it’s simply because they haven’t had someone with the specialized knowledge or the initiative to advocate for it.
I started at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) with a curatorial residency supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. When I was hired as the curator of Indigenous and contemporary art after my residency, in 2017, I was one of the first Indigenous curators hired in a full-time and permanent position. Standing on the shoulders of activators before me who pushed to make such positions available in Canadian institutions, I’ve been an activator in shifting the imbalanced narratives in collecting and exhibiting practices. When I applied for the two-year residency, I set goals to work toward during my time. I began with an analysis report of the collections, specifically looking at First Nations, Métis and Indigenous artworks.
The WAG has the world’s largest collection of Inuit art, but in my analysis, I found that work by First Nations or Métis artists made up only 1 percent of the WAG’s collection of more than 24,000 works in total. My analysis then examined who is represented in the collection. How can we increase representation within a given budget? How can the WAG better reflect its region when, as of 2019, Indigenous people make up 11 percent of Winnipeg’s population of over 800,000? Winnipeg is home to one of Canada’s largest urban Indigenous populations, so it was important for the WAG to prioritize exhibiting and acquiring art by First Nations and Métis artists. The forthcoming Inuit Art Centre, which will house over 8,000 works by Inuit artists, indicates the WAG’s dedication to collecting and exhibiting Inuit art. But the gallery is also accountable to considering and responding to Treaty 1 Territory to holistically reflect the population around it, including representations of womxn, artists of colour, minorities and non-binary and queer artists—all underrepresented in collections and exhibitions.
Based on my analysis, I recommended goals to review museum policies and practices, and for the institution to further acquisitions beyond the extensive Inuit art collection. The first goal was to complete the collection of all the members of the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (PNIAI), otherwise known as “the Indian Group of Seven.” I was curious to see if we had all seven members of the significant group, consisting of Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez. The group was established in Manitoba, and the WAG held a groundbreaking exhibition of their work called Treaty Numbers 23, 287, 1171 in 1972. It turned out that the collection was incomplete, so one of my first recommendations was to connect with collectors who have those works in their collections to see if they would be open to making donations. We’ve collected work from the Indian Group of Seven from throughout the decades, and are working toward completing the collection. It’s important to keep chipping away at those areas of relevance—not only to the WAG’s collection but also to the region, to think about the collection’s mandate through the lens of critical and cultural regionalism, and the history of artists producing in Manitoba. When artists have asserted territorial relevance and made significant bodies of work dedicated to this region, it’s important that we can support those artists with acquisitions.
My second recommendation was to collect work from the WAG’s signature exhibitions. Acquiring works from institution-authored exhibitions is key to inducting the exhibition into the institution’s memory and cultural time- line. With the INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE exhibition, for example, which I co-curated with Julie Nagam in 2017, and which centred around cultural resurgences and political and social insurgences, we commissioned new work from 12 artists out of the exhibition’s 29 artists. The WAG acquired works by Ursula Johnson, Dee Barsy, Linus Woods and Joi T. Arcand commissioned for that exhibition. Through the commissioned artwork and subsequent acquisitions, we established vestiges of that exhibition through storied objects and a lineage of artistic scholarship. The WAG just acquired a donation from Kent Monkman, from his Urban Rez series, which is based on Winnipeg’s iconography and urban landscape, and will be featuring it in his Shame and Prejudice exhibition in fall 2019. The exhibition Boarder X presented contemporary work by artists from Indigenous nations across Canada who surf, skate and snowboard, and new acquisitions will mark the exhibition history and national tour in our collection. In an exhibition called We Are On Treaty Land, which focused on Indigenous contemporary artists working in Treaty 1 Territory, we exhibited work by members of the Indian Group of Seven. Daphne Odjig’s Thunderbird Woman (1973), which is in the collection, was rendered as a massive mural by Peter Thomas and Mike Valcourt, to activate the collection and introduce Indigenous art histories into contemporary narratives in public spaces.
As a curator at the WAG proposing acquisitions, I consider the factors of both past exhibitions and possible future exhibitions. The process of acquiring an artwork involves a curator making a justification for its purchase to the director and curatorial department. Once approved, the curator presents their proposed piece to a works of art committee, consisting of institutional staff and members of the arts community, like artists, collectors and scholars, and justifies its relevance to the collection and its relation to an important exhibition or a period in the artist’s career. They explain its significance and its ties to the collection specifically, to art history in general, and to the artist’s work based on where they are in their career.
Logistically, budgets are always a challenge, and more broadly, it’s been complicated to think about the ethics and methodologies of collecting. A key to practicing decolonial methodologies is to understand the attitudes that have historically informed the lack of institutional engagement with contemporary art by Indigenous artists. Acquisition strategy, therefore, has to be informed by knowledge of the collection as it stands, while bearing in mind the goal to fill the gaps within it going forward.
The momentum for reform has been building for over three decades, though there have been ebbs and flows of that negotiation for space for Indigenous art. Some of the shifts toward museological reform in Canada began in 1991, when the Canada Council for the Arts released a game-changing report by curator Lee-Ann Martin, titled The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion: Contemporary Native Art and Public Art Museums in Canada. Then in 1992, Canada’s 125th anniversary of confederation, the Canadian Museums Association and the Assembly of First Nations jointly issued the Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples, which Martin authored. Both demanded an urgent call to action for Indigenous inclusion. They challenged art institutions to hire Indigenous curators and staff and to enact fair representation by exhibiting and acquiring Indigenous art. Twenty-five years after these reports, the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples echoed their demands, urging the re-examination of museum policies and practices concerning Indigenous artists and curators, and seeking community input in the cultural sector.
The dance of inclusion and exclusion of Indigenous art and curation in mainstream galleries is often critiqued as being driven by the availability of targeted funding initiatives rather than by an investment in contemporary Indigenous engagement. Leading up to and throughout 2017, during the Canada 150 celebrations/anti-celebrations, conversations around the TRC questioned the extent to which institutions would sincerely engage in its calls to action in the context of nationalism. Government and leadership inform how funding systems support institutions, which directly affects the way that they collect, exhibit and program. This dynamic contributes to larger national narratives, in turn informing interpretations of current holdings and justifications for future acquisitions.
The WAG has been addressing the TRC’s calls to action in different capacities. In 2016 the WAG held a consultation with artists, curators and administrators based in Manitoba to explore possibilities of Indigenizing the gallery. The gathering aimed to explore opportunities for the WAG to create spaces and experiences “aligned with Indigenous worldviews and perspectives, and to be a leading innovator in the presentation of Indigenous art.”1 Key goals and potential actions suggested by the participants were to “support the professional careers of Indigenous artists,” and to increase “commissions and greater acquisitions of Indigenous contemporary art for the WAG collection.”2
Indigenous artists have received significant national attention recently, which justifies expanding collections to support them. We’ve also seen an increase in institutional positions for Indigenous scholars and curators. But how can structures of change be supported systemically and sustainably? It’s not enough for institutions to make performative reconciliatory gestures. True museological reform must be based on a sincere desire for change-making that can be sustained past temporal governmental focuses on reconciliation, with a commitment to dismantle normalized institutional exclusion. Passing policy on a governance level is crucial to enable permanent staff positions and support the careers of independent curators. When curators that make changes leave these institutions, what is the sustainability and institutional memory of their work? Can the recommendations on the collection still be maintained and furthered? Can these positions be maintained? Can the shifts that have begun continue? My hope is that yes, these things can happen, if the work and dedication continue at the leadership levels.
There is a historical legacy of Indigenous representation in galleries and museums that reduces the complexities of Indigenous cultures to oversimplified clichés and colonized narratives and myths, instead of supporting sustained in-depth interpretations from the communities we are collecting and whose cultural production we are looking at. Colonial mindsets formulated reductionist narratives of Indigenous cultures, and museums and art history still perpetuate them. Like many, I have questions: can we truly decolonize or Indigenize institutions if the leadership still subscribes to a colonial mindset toward the systems and structures that these spaces are originally built on? Museological reform is an ongoing process.
In spite of the lack of institutional permanence, curators committed to anti-racist methods have worked within institutions to break conventions and decentre colonialist knowledge and protocols, confront the art historical canon, exercise human rights and challenge exclusion. Decolonial methodology allows for the transmission of knowledge and under- standing, so before we can address the ongoing absences in the collection, we have to address and acknowledge the colonial mindset of exclusion in the first place. Decolonial methodology centres on self-reflection. We are aware that collections still consist of overrepresented groups that have taken up too much space. And while there’s a sincere individual and collective desire for inclusive policies within museums, it’s still difficult to change what has been normalized. The whole movement of the machine needs to be disrupted and dismantled to enable change. It’s easy to theorize about it, but we need more than a few people at the table to actualize it.