Public Art on Campus – A Conversation with Barbara Cole

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

Esther Shalev-Gerz, “The Shadow”, Inauguration September 16, 2018, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Permanent installation
24000 three-shade concrete pavers, 100x25m

In this series of interviews, Markham Public Art looks at the topic of public art on campusWhat kind of a public does an artwork create or speak to in this context? How does it differ from works made for other parts of the public sphere? In these conversations, Yan Wu, Public Art Curator for the City of Markham, and art writer Rosemary Heather speak with four curators about the work they do in the context of university life. Emelie Chhangur and Lisa Myers talk about their work with Tania Willard on her commission for York University’s Glendon Campus; Barbara Cole speaks about being the Curator of Outdoor Art at the University of British Columbia’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, a rare position in the university context in Canada; and Barbara Fischer delves into her role as the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the University of Toronto’s Art Museum. Universities are highly complex institutions that serve multiple publics. Despite being dedicated to the production of knowledge, these conversations show how contemporary art finds ways to challenge and invigorate the production of the public sphere on campus.

Barbara Cole is the founder and principal of Cole Projects. She is an artist, curator, educator and curatorial consultant in public art. In 2017, she was appointed Curator of Outdoor Art at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia.


Rosemary Heather: Could you give us a quick overview of the campus collection at UBC, its history, policies, who manages it, and its current focus? We realize it’s a big question, but please feel free to answer it whichever way you feel comfortable.

Barbara Cole: The first artwork in the collection was commissioned in 1925, followed by a donated work in the late 40s. There were quite a few commissions and donations in the 50s and 60s, two works in the 70s, nothing in the 80s, and one donation in the 90s. The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery moved into a new purpose-built building in 1995 and it was after that that the Gallery became more involved in overseeing and managing the outdoor art collection. In the decades leading up to the 2000s, I think it’s safe to say the criteria for accepting works into the collection wasn’t as consistent or defined as it is now. In the 2000s, the University developed a Public Art Strategy, the role of the University Art Committee was more fully defined, and the Curator of Outdoor Art position was created. This position was pretty new when I came into it in April of 2017, and I’d have to say that even now, I’m still getting familiar with the collection and the workings of the University. I work closely with the Belkin Gallery team, but also with folks in Campus and Community Planning and Building Operations. I also work with a subcommittee of the University Art Committee that’s focussed on art in public space. The UAC deals with all acquisitions, outdoor art among them. I bring some of the more logistical issues to the subcommittee, ask for their endorsement and then bring forward requests for recommendation to the full UAC. When the Belkin curatorial team wants to purchase or commission an artwork, we present to the UAC and they in turn make a recommendation to the Provost. That’s how the process unfolds. There are only 25 works in the formal outdoor art collection, although there are many other works on campus, that have come to be there in a whole variety of ways that fall outside my purview. There are some works that have enormous cultural significance to the campus community, but they aren’t necessarily considered to be part of the collection. So, to offer a kind of summary of all of that, I’d say, from 2000 onwards, the Belkin took on a much more active role in the outdoor art collection, perhaps more in line with, and a subset of, the gallery’s overall collection—and you’ll see a real shift in the kinds of artworks that were acquired or commissioned from that point forward.


RH: That’s interesting that there is a specific role for the outdoor collection. I don’t think that’s always the case. What was happening before 2000?

BC: There were different versions of the University Art Committee in previous decades, but in the early 2000s it was broadened to include faculty, students and external art professional members. One of the first artworks the Belkin became involved with was Rodney Graham’s Millennial Time Machine.


RH: So that means it’s a much more intentional and conscious thought given to the collection, rather than it being a random series of donations or commissions. Can you say a little bit about that? Is there kind of a theme or overarching goals? You mentioned Rodney Graham. That’s a very prominent Vancouver artist. Would that be part of the mission, to collect artists of that stature who come from the city?

BC: Well, I can only speak for now in terms of what the curatorial direction is. And certainly, what we’re trying to do is address the context of the university as a site of experimentation, exploration and research—to take advantage of that as a context and as a situation for an artist to be immersed within. So, in terms of commissions, we’re looking first for an artist who is interested in developing an idea over time. In the outdoor art program, we can accept a donation, we can purchase a work, or we can commission. I’m talking about a commission here. While there are already completed artworks that might come our way that need to be sited, I’m most interested right now in artists who want to work collaboratively, across disciplines, to develop a project over time that is specific to UBC. So, the important focus is on research. And I think in general, a lot of folks aren’t aware to what degree research figures in so many artists’ practices. How do we make that research public?


RH: So that’s working within the university as an expanded field for art practice, but specifically with an emphasis on the campus, the outdoor campus itself.

BC: Yeah, it fits within the trajectory of public art, in that it’s really the spaces between the buildings that we value as citizens—we think of that space as a democratic space and a space that should be protected at all costs. There is a lot of learning to be done between the buildings, and on campus we can take those spaces and make them active.


RH: Would you say that’s also a characteristic of Vancouver? That maybe the urban context is so—I don’t want to say encroached upon—but it has such a strong component of the wilderness or nature. And there’s a heightened awareness of that in Vancouver, that maybe doesn’t exist in Toronto in the same way?

BC: I don’t know, perhaps. As an important aspect of this place of Vancouver, I want to acknowledge that UBC is on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam. As the curator of the outdoor collection, it’s really important to me that the gallery has made a commitment to building an ongoing relationship with Musqueam and through their guidance, furthering our understanding of this land and what it means to live and work here. So, in terms of Vancouver and public art, I’m seeing a growing awareness of territories, land, and histories from perspectives that extend beyond the settler lens.


Yan Wu: It’s interesting to hear you say that outdoor space on campus is a learning space, how the outdoor collection plays a teaching role, and how it can become the platform and vehicle for research. Because one main goal of the summit and this interview series is to collect working models, to learn how things are being done, how interesting projects are achieved.

BC: I think as you know, since you’re involved in public art, every project is completely different. Right? There’s no overall formula. This has proven true for me with the work I’ve done through Other Sights for Artists Projects as part of a collective working in public space, as well as through my work as a public art consultant for many years through Cole Projects. I mean, the thing about public art is that you can learn lessons, but they’re seldom lessons you can apply to the next one. Each situation and context is unique and the lessons aren’t really transferable.


YW: So, it’s really about the individual. What I learned is that a successful project really depends on whose hands it is in, which makes a huge difference. So just to hear the person tell the story is invaluable.

BC: Yeah, and another important aspect is that, whether it’s the consultant or the curator, it’s imperative you put the artist first. In a consulting role, you’re often expected to put the client first and I always felt that that was a really bad move. Anyway, as a curator of public art, the role evolves along with phases of production over a time span that can last as long as five years before a project is brought to fruition. Sometimes it’s about developing a curatorial framework and other times it’s about project management and oversight. When I started at UBC, I inherited a project that was already underway and that was Esther Shalev-Gerz‘s artwork, The Shadow. Esther was perhaps one of the first artists with a socially engaged practice to be commissioned by the University to develop an idea specific to the situation and context of UBC. Rather than acquiring an already existing work, or supporting an artist to realize an idea they had already developed, Esther was commissioned to begin a process of investigation. She started her research quite broadly, first in philosophy, then gravitating to the Botanical Gardens, and then boom, she had this idea that she wanted to see to fruition. By the time I came on, it was about how to make that project feasible and how best to realize it. There’s that kind of role to play in a project, right?

And then a very different project that started in 2018, with an artist in residence position in the outdoor art program with Holly Schmidt. Holly is a very experienced and quite brilliant socially engaged artist, who developed a research project under the overarching umbrella of Vegetal Encounters, a project that investigates how we might learn from the natural ecosystems of plants, the different ecologies that exist between the buildings, and how we might apply that knowledge during this time of climate crisis. The way we set this residency up was that it was to be a slow residency, one that didn’t have a fixed end date. We started with a moving target of at least three years and within that, we left open what the final outcome would be. The intention was for Holly to follow the trajectories of her research with manifestations of artworks of different durations along the way. It has been a really fantastic residency so far. Holly has worked with different faculties and students—coming into classrooms, mycology classes, botanical classes. She’s worked on a series of weather forecasts that are very poetic, that are installed on windows reflecting not only the climatic conditions, but the impact of the climate on the body. They’re very beautiful phrases, a kind of daily forecast that appear as reflective texts on windows. They mirror not only the outdoor environment, but the person reading the text. Another piece she’s been working on has been with a group of students to design outdoor classrooms that can be assembled and disassembled easily and move around campus to different locations. This is especially important now with the impact of COVID-19. She’s also working towards a series of fireweed fields, replacing lawns with fireweed as a metaphor of resurgence, hope and healing. Holly is an artist who very much embraces the notion of making research public. She’s not afraid of presenting herself as a non-expert. She situates herself within different situations and then brings people in to learn from in a very public way through walks, podcasts, talks, workshops, a whole variety of ways to participate. Within all of that, Holly is consistent in acknowledging our host, trying to connect with Musqueam as much as possible and drawing upon their knowledge in respectful ways. She’s been taking the Musqueam language course, amongst a number of other ways to connect.

This kind of slow, durational project is really important to include as part of the program. A commission doesn’t always have to manifest as a large-scale permanent artwork in order to have a lasting legacy. Things can exist in the public imagination for many years without there being a physical object. So we’ve been working towards more performative and temporary works as well. In the early months of the pandemic, when the University was shut down, we worked in collaboration with the School of Music to invite eight different student musicians and one composer to respond to some of the deserted spaces on campus—to make sound in this very altered sonic environment—to respond to this new set of conditions. We did a series of performances for the grass and the squirrels. The series was called Sonic Responses.


YW: Is there any documentation online?

BC: Yes. With COVID-19 and the new public health restrictions, we had to very quickly beef up our documentation of things that we do in order to reach our audiences. So yeah, we started working with Aya Garcia, who is a local videographer, and worked with her through Sonic Responses and continued working with her through the Belkin’s current exhibition Soundings.

With Soundings, I become more involved than I would typically with what’s going on inside the space of the gallery. But this one is quite a bit more integrated with the outdoor art program because so many of the works are being responded to in other places around the campus. The documentation needs have been huge because we’ve had to limit the number of people gathering. Videos and stills are up on the Belkin website. In the case of Sonics, you can see each of the performances, and there is a map showing where they took place. You can go on your own walking tour and hear the pieces in situ if so inclined.

All of that to say that we’re interested in a range of work—temporary, durational, as well as permanent commissions that relate more to research. That’s not to say that we aren’t pleased when donations come our way. Recently, we received a donation of Stela I and Stela II by Elza Mayhew, who is a Victoria based artist. This pair of sculptures first made their appearance in the Venice Biennial in 1964 and I think Mayhew was among one of the first women artists to be featured. This donation really benefits the overall collection, adding a woman into what is currently a male dominated collection. The sculptures are a really wonderful abstract pair made from cast aluminum, an unusual material for the time.


RH: That’s fascinating about your COVID response. Yan has done some very effective programming to adapt to the situation, with the Art Museum, and with Markham. But I haven’t heard of the idea of performances that the public experiences through its documentation, specifically, which happens to be online because of the pandemic, so that’s quite interesting, because that constructs a different type of space. We were talking with Barbara Fischer about the kind of space that’s being constructed online because of the pandemic. This is a different way to construct it, through, as you said, the imaginary space of the university and people’s experience of it. That’s super interesting. Can you say a little bit more about your role? Are you the sounding board with these artists—with Holly for instance—does she come to you with an idea and then you work through it together?

BC: Holly and I connect pretty frequently. Whether it’s planning or troubleshooting, trying to form new collaborations or new partnerships, it’s varied in terms of the things that we try to work through together. But yeah, it’s a pretty close relationship.


RH: In terms of your role to, as Yan said, create this space of knowledge production within the campus itself, do you create wayfinding maps, or something similar for students?

BC: There is an outdoor art walking tour brochure that relates to the information about the collection on the Belkin website. We’re working now on unifying our outdoor art signage across campus. The signage includes a QR code that takes the viewer to the website where you can see videos, interviews and access other kinds of information to help understand the artwork and how it came to be there.

My work is really three pronged. One is to commission new work; another is to steward the collection, maintain and take care of the works; and to refresh or enliven the works in the collection and invite responses to it. I’m super lucky working through the Belkin because it’s a really incredible team. The curation is rigorous and challenging. Naomi Sawada does most of the public programming at the gallery, including conducting tours of the outdoor collection. There’s also an amazing communications team for putting out information and building the website as a research tool.


RH: Just to follow up on something I said before, I get that you’re not interested in collecting monuments, but more creating experiences to activate the space. Is that correct? It’s not like a museum that has goals about collecting specific artists…

BC: I’ve always felt that a diverse collection is a good collection and by that I’m mostly referring to duration. I wouldn’t rule out doing a commission for a large-scale permanent work again. I just think there also has to be room for other projects from the immediate to the longer term. I feel the same way about municipal public art collections as well. They really need to be dynamic programs.


YW: You mentioned donations. For public art projects, placement is an important aspect. I wonder for those non-commissioned works that are donated, do they usually go into storage, or will they find a place on campus right away—how does that happen with the placement of a donation?

BC: If a work comes forward, we wouldn’t accept it to just go into storage. We don’t have any storage! If somebody approaches us with a donation, unless we feel like we can find a good placement for it, we won’t accept it.


YW: So siting is already part of the consideration when accepting the work?

BC: Absolutely. With the Mayhew, it was quite a process of finding the right location for it. In the end, I’m super happy with where it’s going. There are some great sight lines and the nearby architecture is of the same era and with a similar aesthetic. It will be in a location on campus where there aren’t many other artworks—It kind of extends the reach of the collection. I don’t think I mentioned that in addition to going through an acceptance process with the University Art Committee, anything that is installed on campus has to go through a development permit process. The Development Review Committee reviews the application and then the proposal goes through an open house to get comment from the broader campus community. So, beyond acquiring the work and it entering the collection, there’s a whole other kind of process that it undergoes before it meets the ground.


YW: Right. That’s interesting. And I guess, I have one last question. I’m curious about the shift: you have been in the field of public art for a long time, first as a public art consultant for many years, and now as a public art curator for a university campus. I mean, in terms of the type of work you do, how do you see this shift? What made you accept this post?

BC: It really brought together a number of strings from my career, making art, teaching, working for municipalities and private development and curating. I taught at Emily Carr in the 80s and 90s and it was a big part of my practice. I’ve always been really interested in art and public space and I gradually moved from art production into curation. I worked for Vancouver’s public art program as a consultant for about five years and then in 2005 I founded Other Sights and at the same time Cole Projects. Other Sights has always really fueled me, working collaboratively to produce temporary works in public space, and doing that alongside public art consulting was an interesting combination of experiences. I started to find that by around 2015, the work I was doing with private developers was becoming less and less rewarding. It seemed like the developers I was working with were not as respectful of the public art process as they used to be. I think to be a good public art consultant you have to be transparent about how decisions are made and maintain a high degree of integrity, otherwise, why would an artist want to work with you? So not wanting to compromise too much, I was starting to search for something else so the timing was good. When this job came along, it seemed like a really great opportunity to meld together these different interests and to have an impact. So, yeah, I decided to go for it.


YW: I am glad they created the position, a precedence set in the country.


Interview conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 10, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field. 

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