Public Art on Campus – A Conversation with Barbara Fischer

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero, waabidiziiyan doopwining (to see yourself at the table), 2019. The Hart House Centennial Art Commission. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

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 Williard 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 Fischer is the Executive Director/Chief Curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and the University of Toronto Art Centre as well as an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream and the Director of the Master of Visual Studies program in Curatorial Studies at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.


Rosemary Heather: We are having this conversation with you today to ask these interesting questions: What is public art on campus, as opposed to elsewhere? What’s the difference in the kind of public sphere that it constitutes? Maybe you could just start with a quick overview of UofT’s campus collection, its history, policies, who manages it, and its current focus?


Barbara Fischer: It’s a big question. UofT is a huge apparatus: 80,000 students and three campuses. Across North America, university galleries came about because universities were collecting, in all kinds of ways, manners, and shapes, often with very eclectic results. UofT has an art collection that goes back right to the university’s beginnings. Alumni would give a piece as a donation; a faculty would commission something in honour of the opening of the building or faculty; alumni passed away and the estate would give works; and these things kept accumulating. In effect, the University is full of collections everywhere. Here and there and everywhere. Not all part of the official UofT Art collection. Faculties and colleges have their own: Victoria College; Massey College; etc. And then there are the libraries’ collections; the Medical Faculty collection, and so on. Eventually, it was clear that somebody had to take care of these things—and art works are specific objects of care. They’re not like books. They’re not like lawns. They’re not like trees. So then you have curators—sometimes part-time, then becoming full-time. Once you have the curator, you start to have the need for policy, because the curator can’t do everything or accumulate anything; and then you have to formalize the spaces, galleries and proper vaults, to take care of the collection. For instance, Hart House, which is a student-centered cultural centre at the University of Toronto, started an art collection in the early 20th century to serve its many spaces. With time, as the need arose to build a museum standard space to be able to properly care for works that had been there for nearly a century and had become ever more valuable—they were also in demand for exhibitions around the world, so someone had to organize and keep track of their whereabouts. Anyway, collections started in this very eclectic way and it still is a very eclectic assembly of things that belong to different faculties and so on. UofT doesn’t have a unified approach.

The Art Museum is responsible for four specific collections—you can see them on the website. To add into these specific collections, an art work has to go through our Acquisitions Committee and layered approval process. Meanwhile, others can continue to bring works into their offices and so on and those would not come under the purview of the Art Museum. That is the case with the outdoor works, as well. Faculties may commission a piece, or someone donates a work and it doesn’t go through acquisitions. I’m being very logistically oriented here, but that’s part of the story.

I should also say that the history of the Hart House collection is exceptional in many ways. The building was gifted to UofT by Vincent Massey. From the beginning it was the intention was to have art on display in the House, which is a kind of “art in public space” program because the space is open to students and to visitors and so on. The House also allocated financial resources to purchase works, with the idea that they would function in place-making ways. Art to be there for the visitor created an environment or a stimulating space of sorts. Active purchasing made it a very different collection. There was a capacity to actually invest in and develop its direction, rather than accumulating passively—which is, by the way, how most collections are assembled.


RH: Right, through donations.


BF: Exactly, and then become manifestations of class interests.


RH: Moving on from the overview, perhaps you could talk about the commissioning process, specifically about the Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero piece?


BF: Yes, it comes directly out of the Hart House story. The Art Museum and Hart House continue to allocate money for purchases—though it’s not a big budget. When I arrived at the JMB (Justina M. Barnicke Gallery)…


RH: What year was that, Barbara?


BF: I started at the JMB in 2005, and then in the new configuration of UTAC (University of Toronto Art Centre) and the JMB federating happened in 2014*. Arriving at Hart house, the collection was very much driven by its history of class interests and a certain nationalist and colonial settler idea of art. It was focused on painting. It had deep roots in the Group of Seven and their circle of advocates, many of whom were connected with UofT, Hart House, the Arts and Letters Club, the Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Canada, all of that (the racialized underpinnings of which was the subject of Deanna Bowen’s really important exhibition). It was also almost exclusively centered on painting as the idea of art—which still today if you ask someone to think of art, they think of painting rather than anything else. That was the focus of the collection under my predecessor. So I decided we really needed to start first of all to look into a more expansive range of work and artistic concerns, including photo-based works considering principles of meaning-making through reproduction, but also to really move to include works that had a different way of speaking in public spaces. That is, artists who were coming with a different consciousness about what the idea of art was to space: Will Kwan’s piece “Flame Test”, a series of flags apparently set ablaze by various protests around the world; in other words, looking at the contestation of nationhood and nationalism, globally, is one of the works we got in the very beginning, as well as Michael Fernandes’ participatory conceptual work Room of Fears. More recently, we were able to acquire some of Jalani Morgan’s photographic works documenting events in the Toronto history of Black Lives Matter, and Erika DeFreitas’ embroidery—just really expanding the idea of how art works in this public space that Hart House is, reorienting or shifting what the politics of art in public spaces might be. When the Centenary of Hart House came up, 1919 to 2019, shortly after the release of the TRC’s (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) call to action, including to cultural institutions, from an indigenous perspective, it was a critical opportunity for the House to address its history, but also to look forward, and to insert an Indigenous voice, thinking about that. It’s not even really a question. It was more than time to address the place, where we were, where this house is, what the legacy was of that, of what settling in this particular place had meant. Also, how to look differently forward; and so we thought of the Great Hall because that’s such a symbolic place and is often considered the ceremonial centre of the University. There are graduation ceremonies, big inaugurations, Chancellor and Presidential speeches are held at Hart House in the Great Hall, so it’s really a very important centre, and there was that one wall that was empty. The North wall. White and open—this amazing potential space, and all along the side are portraits of the wardens, the history of the wardens of the house. It’s a portrait gallery in the traditional sense. It has all of the trimmings, if you will, of the way in which aristocratic spaces were constructed, or other white, Western ceremonial spaces were constructed, by having the portraits of historical figures aligned on a wall to tell you about the history of a place. So it was really really important to think about that space. The centenary project is really one of the most important art projects to have been mobilized at Hart House in terms of art and what art might be able to do in this public space—which it is, it’s shared by people from within the University, but also so many others. I don’t make a distinction between outside and inside for the idea of “public”. For me, that doesn’t make sense; especially not in the University. Many multiple publics come through the spaces inside and outside and are equally considered, I think, publics in the multiple sense. From the beginning, it was a very intensely consulted commission. A lot of conversations with Indigenous Elders, faculty, and administration—from engineering all the way to VP Students. Multiple constituents were involved in every part of the process, and we appointed an all-Indigenous jury. They were the ones who recommended names of possible artists who they felt could address the situation. Who had the experience in making projects of a certain scale and place and sensitivity and sensibility. We also invited others to submit names to that list and then the jury made a short list. Each of the nine shortlisted artists were commissioned to make a proposal, which was then exhibited. This became a way of talking through how individual artist projects resonated, considering potential limitations and strengths. It was a very interesting process because the exhibition was up for, I think, something like six weeks. Then the jury met and decided on the final work and then there was another process of review considering the resonance or connotations of the work. Even though there were five people on the jury, they would not necessarily see all the nuances that might be involved and it was too critical of a space and occasion to not know as much as possible about what a given proposition entailed, how it would speak, how it might act in that space. In the end, it was clear that Rebecca and Osvaldo’s work, Waabidiziiyan doopwining (To see oneself at the table) was the right work, and just struck the right questions about past and future. Central to it is the role of the mirror—as something that can reflect what has been or was, or is, but also maybe the potentiality of that space: who else might be at the table, or who was not yet conceived to be at the table. So it just offered this big opening of ways of thinking and place-making in this particular space that, I think, everyone felt was really strong, a strong gesture. It’s meant to be a permanent piece. It relates of course to the portrait—to see yourself at the table is an idea of portraiture, and there are still the portraits in this portrait gallery and in some ways it’s very site-specific. As for Rebecca and Osvaldo, neither of them really spoke about the portraits that are there, the other paintings that are in that space. I think I’ve always been someone who argued against the tradition of portrait galleries at the University, for many many multiple thousands of reasons. For some reason in this instance, I am thinking that there is something very site-specific and disruptive and ingeniously questioning in Osvaldo and Rebecca’s work, about what else there is in this room and how it speaks, how their work speaks vis a vis the other works that are in the space. There is a question in there that is very productive. I think in the long run I’m looking at this place and believe that we need to further the conversation about the role of the portrait gallery. I believe that some other thinking has to be mobilized.

[* In 2014, the University of Toronto’s two major art venues—the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and the University of Toronto Art Centre—were combined to create the Art Museum at the University of Toronto.]


Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero, waabidiziiyan doopwining (to see yourself at the table), 2019. The Hart House Centennial Art Commission. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.


RH: Is your thinking analogous to the symbolic removal of statues?


BF: I would think definitely, but maybe more nuanced. I think Osvaldo and Rebecca’s piece actually asks the question a bit differently. It doesn’t talk about removal, it talks about presence and absence, which I think is a more nuanced approach to this question. It opens it up as the future horizon, in a way, of who is not there yet in this space and who has been excluded for centuries, from before the space even existed, through colonization, and all of that. I would say that there is a power in negotiating a removal. It’s a powerful and interesting—and needed—question. Like defunding the police. I would not call for the destruction of these particular portraits—though I am for strategic removal. We may consider moving them into a space where they are in different dialogue with something else that can talk about this question: what is visualized, what’s made visible, what is permanently visible, what’s tangentially visible, what’s excluded from visibility? What/who is a part of, speaking in the symbolic, visual field of this place? Which the University has to ask, and must ask really, in terms of seeing place as an opportunity for other visibilities, for a change of the visual field. It’s a matter of the politics of the visual field really, the physical place and visual field as the matrix, as the ideological matrix in which we function, which reproduces certain things by virtue of a permanence. To not reproduce this idea of permanence and evoke other possibilities, I think, is so critical. Osvaldo and Rebecca’s work does that so brilliantly because it doesn’t substitute a presence per se by virtue of the mirror. I think the dynamics of what is art in public space, that’s the question, period. What is there long or short, and what remains and what doesn’t remain, what’s permanent, what is ephemeral, and what kind of commitments will be made to what is there for long and what’s there for short. As a culture, as a place to which many belong, to which many don’t have access in the same equal ways, that’s really the question of art in public space. Art can contribute in really unique ways, because it speaks to it, it is reflective of that situation and condition in a way that architecture often isn’t, because it asserts itself as a presence that’s immobile and that is a monumental structure of our public space. Architecture is the structuring of our public space, whereas art can actually talk about it and take it as a subject and contest it and contend with it and warp it and détourn it, and all of that.


Yan Wu: I think it’s an important conversation because it’s about the infrastructure and how you have to go out and make a space for art, and what you have to do to make that happen. We also spoke with Emelie Chhangur and Lisa Myers and they did a beautiful project on the Glendon Campus at YorkU. I’m curious about how everybody works and how things happen and if there is a model we can learn from and reapply it elsewhere. Something I learned from Emelie and Lisa is how to open up the process of art making and it is part of their curatorial strength that through the process they develop a sense of ownership and sense of belonging, and then build a community and then community becomes part of the maintenance plan of the work. Because usually we have the annual maintenance work— the bronze has to be polished and waxed every year—but now this idea of maintenance has shifted. So how do we develop policies that will encourage and ensure artworks like Rebecca’s can happen?

BF: Yeah that’s a really good question. What your example brings out is a deep questioning of the current understanding of public art, which often is understood to be a permanent fixed thing in the visual field that needs to be, regardless of its value and story, needs to be treated like a collected work, with all the maintenance and all the protocols and all of that, which is a certain idea of art and a very particular kind of art; and whether to shift into the temporary only is a question. I mean I think there are two things: one is the UofT campus is already a visual field right now with permanent work, and just to be frank, I think every single outdoor work is by a male artist and most are portraits of men. So what is the commitment that we indicate with that, as a campus and as a space, and what permanence does that have? What it provides is a question: do all the other voices in the rupture with the permanent become ephemeral only, the voices that come and go, and is legacy of this a kind of permanent that will be passed on and live after all of the ephemeral voices have come and gone? That cannot be, is really not an option! We have been approached and asked: why are there no other type of portraits? It’s not just the artists but also that the portraits are pretty much exclusively of white folk. It’s this old problem that is the problem of public art in cities everywhere, in Europe and North America, not everywhere but in the western-colonial context. People are asking: why are there no portraits of black folk? Why are we not there, literally and permanently also to be recognized? Then the question becomes: what does the permanent and the ephemeral do to each other, and how do we renegotiate that towards a different understanding of how art works. Ideally, there needs to be some strategic thinking about invoking permanence at this time—and the calls for action are definitely in that direction, I would say. In terms of my interest on going, what interests me a lot about the campus is that it is a space, a public space where a multitude of voices are possible, and new voices and new voice making is possible and interdisciplinarity is possible, and how to engage that and activate that as part of the visual field, as part of the conversations that can be had, I think that is sort of the future possibility. I think that’s where our next question really lies. I don’t know, what do you think, in terms of this permanence?


YW: My understanding is on the practical side. My idea of permanence is tied to budget size. It’s become clear to me that with public art on campus as a capital project on the university level, or a public art project as museum public programming, ultimately it’s a different level of funding support and budget size. Then because of the size of the budget, there is a tendency to ask for the work to have permanency to make it worthwhile—it’s an understanding of the value. Process-based work, for example, has less tangible materiality, but the impact it creates can be more permeating and has a larger audience and a larger concrete impact on the individuals that constitute the community, but it is considered less important because it’s not tangible. The professional labour tends to be less recognized as value and all the impact on the community is hard to quantify as value. I think this idea of permanence is really tied to ideas of where the value lies.

BF: Yes. It’s odd how un-interdisciplinary we are when you think about performance and music, and all of those are “intangible”, they’re performance, they’re living moments, and we are completely accustomed and comfortable in that zone of intangibility; but when it comes to visual art, we have it as a sort of permanent marker, as a marker of history, as imbued with the visual image of history that came up in those monument destruction comments: “It is our history, so we have to leave it because it is a visible marker of our history.” I think there is something that is also part of that question, the Western idea—and I think a lot of artists might be upset with that—but the Western idea of a permanence around art, as held in a collection, is very enshrined in the constitution of ideal culture, really. We have a culture—James Clifford pointed out how possessive that terminology actually is in Western culture. We “have culture”, culture is having something. It’s a physical thing that we have. Considering Robert Smithson’s entropic project does art have to live past its lifetime? Can art live and and expire, I mean in the sense of its last breath, by being given to the elements it is in? There are certain strange contradictions that befall things that have to be permanent. I’m thinking also, is deliberately disrupted and queried in performance work, like Diane Borsato’s work where she retrieved the tea set from the collection, or in so many aspects and potential of repatriation, the re-introduction of an object into a living context.


YW: To use it is to decrease its value.


BF: That’s right. We have to protect things at all costs to be permanent, even if they weren’t even meant to be permanent. It’s a very specific construct, so I find that fascinating. On the other hand, when we work with the permanent collection and have the ability to look back at historical things that are from outside of our time and bring them back to see them in the present, they are of course not the same as what they were then, or they become richer or more complex or we see them differently because of the present, or the present already produces a change to what a permanence might be; it is already not what it was, always.


RH: The best example of that is the reception to the statues that people see as symbols of colonial power and tear them down. The context changed.


BF: That’s right. A different lens makes them into something different, literally, palpably different. In terms of artworks that do reside in a collection that are not necessarily permanent in the sense of “marking physical space permanently”, they are an archive, if you will, of potential meanings that can be invoked also to have other meanings, with whom the living can have a dialogue that invokes something new. So with the Art Museum, we still collect with that intention of having works in the collection that can be activated and become new reasons or produce prompts to have a new conversation with. But, I think in terms of public space and permanence in public space, it’s really fraught.


YW: The whole notion of permanence is questionable. The very definition of it is questionable. Whether it is in administrative terms, materiality terms, or in ideological terms. The idea of permanence as a cultural representation also requires a certain level of the unified voice and unified view, and then that is the problem right, because it’s a depiction of a certain thinking.


BF: It fixes itself in the visual field to be there and is of course a part of reproducing that sphere, in a certain way. And currently, we are questioning on all fronts what is being “reproduced” there.


RH: Yes, exactly. Especially in the university context.


BF: I think I’m maybe at that point, where there could be a monument and a counter monument.


RH: That’s a nice idea.


BF: To invoke history but in a counter-narrative way that points out the limits of history and its supposed “permanence”; thinking about signs to un-permanentalize them by détourning, estranging, disrupting their truths.


YW: You kill the permanence that was injected at the moment by juxtaposition with the present context. In Chinese, we’d say it’s another way of incarnation. It’s a temporary permanence that’s constantly being renewed.


BF: And it shows you that meaning is inherently impermanent, that inside of whatever we thought of as permanent there’s always the possibility of its demise, in a negative way, but also maybe reincarnation, or thinking new—the ability of thinking differently is so critical to thinking the visual field.


RH: I like the idea, Barbara, of a counter work because I really am against destroying artworks, in general. I understand the drive to remove, but I don’t know about erasure, because I get the value of historical works. That idea, “all art is contemporary” is very powerful to me.


BF: It’s the question of what we are leaving “in permanence” and what isn’t there, or would potentially never be there as well, though; after all the ephemeral is gone do you still have all the old permanent monuments in place? countering the arguments in space, in public space, can be really productive.


YW: Yes, the public and the counterpublic. We need to keep up with the times and renew the build, renew everything. Maybe it’s not a good analogy but some of the sculptures that use old style painting and the painting technology evolves over the years, so when the work needs to be restored, they restore it with the current technology for painting. The same idea for all cultural presentations. It needs a state of the art coat of paint.


Interview conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 5, 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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