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.

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.