Museum Encounters of Another Kind: Indigenous Methodologies of Collaboration Lead the Charge
MUSEUM ENCOUNTERS OF ANOTHER KIND: INDIGENOUS METHODOLOGIES OF COLLABORATION
A scholar and curator reflects on the various projects the Winnipeg Art Gallery has undertaken to centre Winnipeg as the heart of Indigenous contemporary art in Canada today, from new curatorial approaches to the campaign for a new Inuit Art Centre, as well as the work still ahead.
Since the late 1980s, museums have been rethinking their engagement with Indigenous peoples to varying degrees of success. At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, this commitment is being made tangible through Indigenous-led projects and spaces, including the creation of the Inuit Art Centre. The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) is on a quest to figure out what a “new museum” looks like, feels like and acts like, particularly in relation to centring Indigenous ideologies. The WAG is experimenting with new methods of museum practices that are rooted in Indigenous worldviews. This is a radical departure from its past and from museum and gallery processes more broadly. It wants to unpack its mechanics, including guiding principles, protocols and values, dynamics (both interactions and relationships) and aesthetics (both visual and emotional). The gallery wants to become a space that pushes the boundaries of the twenty-first-century museum.
To date, there have been very few permanent positions of influence in the organizational structures and curation of Indigenous arts that are occupied by Indigenous professionals.1 While there has been some movement for Indigenous artists to contribute to larger collections and
exhibitions, institutions across Canada have not made concerted efforts to decolonize or shift their Eurocentric models, methodologies or practices. Such practices are based on an outdated, top-down model of avant-garde, object-based art that privileges a particular kind of art and artist—predominantly art created by and for an elite, white, male public. Past museum and gallery displays have given little space for Indigenous contemporary art, or have displayed these collections with very little input from Indigenous peoples, professionals or community members. In Canada over 25 years ago, Lee-Ann Martin created a list of recommendations to increase Indigenous participation in these positions.2 More recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has issued 94 calls to action in order to address and rectify the pervasive influence of colonialism on Indigenous peoples. Call to Action #67 states, “We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.”3 To date, neither Martin’s nor the TRC’s recommendations have been implemented on a broad scale.
Museums and galleries need to shift from these outdated models and move into the new era of collaboration, engagement and inclusion for all peoples across the globe. Art can rupture spaces, spark difficult dialogues and create knowledge for generations to come, in public spaces, in galleries and on the street. For me, the future is envisioned as Indigenous collaboration, communication and mentorship with all arts organizations and universities. The principles of Indigenous methodologies are collaboration, learning by doing, consultation with community experts, creative intervention, working with an intergenerational focus, knowledge, mentorship and listening to stories or voices of different stakeholders and community members.4 Whether it has been co-curating, co-writing, artist collaborations, Indigenizing institutions, developing new academic programs or building new museums, galleries, advisory boards or research projects, the crux of my own professional success is in the inherent value of working collectively. Transposed into the museum, collaboration builds capacity and at the same time allows institutions to radically push back against the boundaries of Eurocentric, masculine concepts of contemporary art, practices and methodologies. Indigenous scholars, artists, curators and administrators are agents for social change. Their presence alters the institutional environment because they bring with them their community and a cultural and embodied knowledge into that space.
At the WAG, I work directly with Indigenous curator and artist Jaimie Isaac, who is the Curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art, which was initially a Canada Council-funded residency and is now a permanent position. This is a massive gain for the WAG and marks a significant shift in Canadian art and museum practices. Our work at the WAG addresses the historical gap in the institution’s programming of and engagement with Indigenous artists, curators, administrators and audiences. By creating roles within the WAG for
Indigenous peoples’ contributions and employment, we have begun to address issues of reconciliation as well as the TRC’s calls to action. We will co-curate the first Contemporary Indigenous Art Triennial at the WAG for fall 2017, titled INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE, which is sponsored outside of the Canada 150 Fund.5 I note this because Canada 150 funding has been tied to the colonial anniversary of Canada as the birth of a country with very little reflection on the Indigenous history that predates that confederation. In a short time, we have built access to elders, students and advisors for exhibitions, events and support for the content and language. We have increased the amount of Indigenous people engaged with the WAG. In the past year, Isaac has curated some dynamic exhibitions, including Boarder X (2017), Quayuktchigaewin: Making Good (2016) and We Are on Treaty Land (2015-16). All have been directly linked to learning opportunities for students from the University of Winnipeg, such as conferences, community events and other programming. She has also built lasting relationships with the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba and the TRC, among others. The WAG is also working with these organizations and others to further their programming and exhibitions.
Another enormous project currently underway is the WAG’s Inuit Art Centre (IAC), which is part of the larger Indigenization of the gallery. The centre will be the first of its kind and will house the world’s largest collection of Inuit art. What remains to be determined is how this space, activated and occupied by Inuit art and culture, will integrate into larger local ecologies, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and how this immense project will help the institution open itself up to become a space that engages the larger public and sets the tone for a new way forward for Indigenous relations and museum/gallery display and engagement. The WAG’s expansive collection came to be through the interests of its past director Ferdinand Eckhardt, who began his tenure in 1953, as well as Jean Blodgett, Bernadette Driscoll, Marie Bouchard and current Curator of Inuit Art at the WAG Darlene Coward Wight, who have all contributed in shaping this collection. Over the past three decades in particular, Coward Wight has built a collection totaling more than 13,000 works. In addition to purchased and donated works, the WAG has also recently acquired pieces from the now-closed Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto and holds in trust the Government of Nunavut Fine Art Collection. The government’s collection, which includes almost 8,000 pieces, is held at the WAG under a five-year contract. However, the reality is that this term will likely need to be extended even though there is a strong desire to have that material culture return home.
For Indigenous methodologies, it is crucial the WAG is committed to training Inuit cultural workers who will play a critical role in the management of this collection and these works. Within the larger Indigenous art community there have been little gains for Inuit artists, curators, administrators and scholars in terms of opportunities and training. The WAG hopes to depart from these precedents to build new opportunities in both the South and the North for Indigenous engagement in this kind of work, with a specific focus on Inuit advancements in the cultural sector. WAG Director and CEO Stephen Borys states:
The Inuit Art Centre project has enabled us to rethink and rework the pedagogies and templates used thus far to collect, document and present Inuit art. While the Winnipeg Art Gallery holds an outstanding international record of exhibitions and scholarship on the subject—over 180 exhibitions and 50 publications—the vast majority of this material has been produced by non-Indigenous scholars.
With the new centre, we must ensure that the voice leading and informing the dialogue on Inuit art and culture at the
WAG and across Canada is first an Inuit voice. This is not to negate the scholarship produced to date, including the respected work of WAG curators over the last sixty-five years; however, a diversity of perspectives, starting with the Indigenous perspective, is critical…if galleries and the IAC are going to succeed.
As the WAG moves forward with construction of the centre, the tensions of building and focusing on Inuit art and culture in Winnipeg have become increasingly present. The IAC will be built in the heart of Turtle Island, where great waterways meet, at the site of the origin of Indigenous Treaty Rights within the colonial state of Canada, Treaty One territory and the heartland of the Métis. Winnipeg is home to one of the largest and fastest growing Indigenous populations in Canada, and Inuit make up the smallest group of people who call Manitoba home. It is important to understand that there are many nations that fall under the umbrella term Indigenous and a colonial tactic has been to divide and conquer by creating divisions between Indigenous nations. For the IAC to be successful by any measure, the WAG will have to have strong input from these communities. As a foundational step, the WAG has created an Indigenous Advisory Circle, of which I am a co-chair along with my Inuk colleague and collaborator Heather Igloliorte. This Advisory Circle is made up of representatives from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, as well as urban Inuit, alongside First Nations and Métis representatives from Manitoba and two Indigenous members of the National Arts Centre. The IAC will draw on Indigenous methodologies of collaboration, bringing together layers of knowledge from this Inuit, First Nations and Métis advisory, community members and a curatorial team in order to put forward new methodologies and dissemination strategies. It will build on the work Isaac and I are already engaged in,
Indigenizing the gallery through more nuanced curatorial approaches grounded in cultural knowledge, environment, sovereignty, social and political issues, intergenerational relations and land-based knowledge. It will be crucial as we move forward that there is an equally strong effort to increase the WAG’s collection of First Nations and Métis art, to engage Indigenous art in all areas of the gallery and to welcome Inuit artists and community members into our territory. This is a tangible opportunity to work together, as we have historically done as Indigenous people, and, if there is dialogue, exchange and communication, we will create a space that is welcoming, inspiring and educational. The most important perspective in the building of the IAC and in the larger changes at the WAG is to centre Winnipeg as the heart of Indigenous contemporary art and showcase the importance of investing in this future.
Such radically progressive changes are only possible when institutions remain steadfastly determined to transform themselves beyond their current colonial structures. I have had the fortune of working with committed leaders at both the WAG and the University of Winnipeg towards this goal. I remain, however, acutely aware that this commitment can quickly shift if key individuals in positions of upper management depart, leaving room for institutional attitudes to change. It is therefore imperative that we, as Indigenous scholars, administrators and curators, stabilize our currently precarious positions within universities and art organizations. An essential and timely aspect of this involves training and mentoring the next generation of Indigenous cultural producers and thinkers to empower ourselves, our communities, our families and our youth with the knowledge and opportunities that education and art can provide. I know from personal experience that art can radically shift mainstream or settler ideologies and create a space for transformative social change. My hope is that the Winnipeg Art Gallery will continue to lead the charge to decolonize the art institution and become the front-runner in shifting museum practices to create encounters of another kind!
Winnipeg is home to one of the largest and fastest growing Indigenous populations in Canada, and Inuit make up the smallest group of people who call Manitoba home.
Previous: Opening of Boarder X,
November 18, 2016 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery Photo Winnipeg Art Gallery Ceramics from the Government of Nunavut Fine Art Collection in storage at the Winnipeg Art Gallery
Rendering of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre, designed by Michael Maltzan Courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery
Stone sculptures carefully laid on a table in the Inuit art vault at the Winnipeg Art Gallery