A call for accountability from our flagship contemporary art institutions

In a press release for the Glenbow’s latest exhibition Made in Calgary: The 1980s guest curator Jeffrey Spalding says “[In the 80s] Calgary went from being a place that was very peripheral to a place that said ‘we might as well be leaders — we might as well do something new.”

I want to look at our leaders — those who claim to be Calgary’s definitive contemporary arts institutions — and ask where are they leading us?

Both the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (MOCA) bear the namesake of Calgary’s visual arts community. They strive to be our quintessential cultural institutions — and they are to some extent. They show up first in Google searches for “contemporary art calgary” and are therefore the go-to venues for tourists and weekenders. It could be argued that their role as civically minded institutions is to whet the public’s appetite for art and to further guide interested culture-seekers to the city’s numerous other art events.

They should provide contemporary art for Calgarians and represent Calgary for the rest of the country/world. That’s a lot of pressure.

Much has been written about the Art Gallery of Calgary lately. Unfortunately none of it is very uplifting (see: CBC’s “ Former Calgary art gallery CEO apologizes for $100K fraud ”). Even with all the attention directed at their administrative practices recent exhibiting artists are claiming that contracts are still being broken. A participant of a summer group show — who desires to remain anonymous — laments that the promised payment arrived one month too late. “I was counting on that money” the artist said. Another exhibitor despite repeated attempts to tactfully inquire about the status of the impending fees is still waiting to be paid.

It isn’t this writer’s job to remind gainfully employed curators and arts administrators that artists are professionals too. Indeed it could be argued that when it comes to dealing with less-experienced artists the onus is on the institutions to ensure professional fees are paid on time and artists are fairly compensated for their contributions. These institutions should not be permitted to prey on those with less experience.

Still new AGC staff members Kayleigh Hall and Nate McLeod are working to improve perceptions of the long-standing gallery as they build ties with recent Alberta College of Art and Design graduates and unleash a slew of innovative programming efforts. At a panel discussion coinciding with the exhibition Garage Montage curator Hall expressed disappointment that the AGC’s governing board members have been notably absent from all public gallery events. “They’re not interested” said Hall. The same disinterest allowed former president and CEO Valerie Cooper to defraud the gallery of significant amounts of money.

This seems problematic.

At the same panel moderator Diana Sherlock mentioned that the AGC had “lost the trust of its community” referring to its inability to “put art first” as well as its well-publicized financial mismanagement. She implied however that she was willing to give the gallery another chance due to its apparent renewed involvement in the community of emerging artists.

MOCA has also attempted to mine the same emergent community recognizing that perhaps those without a past are most adept at seeing a future. But they are leaving out crucial demographics. The shows in MOCA’s brief catalogue have been decidedly male-centric in their purview — exclusionary to the point of sexist. This speaks not only to the problematic maintenance of an archaic status quo but also a downright refusal to be relevant to break the mould to “do something new.”

Ironically MOCA’s own Made in Calgary: 1980s (Part Two) draws from the same decade that saw the rise of art activists The Guerilla Girls. The Guerilla Girls became infamous for advocating gender and racial equality in the claustrophobic art world. Their most iconic billboard read “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women but 85% of the nudes are female.” Yet MOCA’s new exhibition features only six women among 25 total artists. This gross imbalance is becoming par (see: Fast Forward Weekly’s Made in Alberta fails to represent ”). Are MOCA’s curatorial efforts totally ignoring the social progress made in the last 30 years?

Is Calgary in the 2010s no longer a city of “leaders”? This is a prospect I refuse to accept. What’s more likely is that MOCA and the AGC are not ready to fulfil their eponymous roles.

So to the Calgarians who care more about art than art world gossip I implore you to search out other arts institutions and happenings. They may not have stuffy over-formal names but they certainly do a better job of representing our city.

Check out Truck’s forthcoming exhibition — they are just finishing an ambitious relocation and are still able to pay federally recommended artist fees despite the provincial budget cuts that plague every other worthwhile thing. Or visit Intersite and Phantom Wing a visual arts festival and a grassroots extravaganza respectively both run by artists who understand the importance (and the value) of being professional in a society where it is distressingly deemed acceptable to pay artists with “exposure opportunities.”

It’s been said before but I won’t hesitate to say it again: You can die of exposure.