Curating Before and After the Pandemic

Matthew Ryan Smith – Curator & Head of Collections, Glenhyrst Art Gallery
Matthew Ryan Smith – Curator & Head of Collections, Glenhyrst Art Gallery

Curators and other cultural workers are seldom tasked with reflecting on previous exhibitions or projects that they’ve organized. I assume it’s because most of our programming exists in the intangible future. By this I mean that we labour today so that we can ultimately forecast the outcome of events months and years down the road. I believe that most curators have made peace with the unknowable future.

Recently, though, everything has changed. And my relationship with the future is no longer so comfortable.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives, it has also exacerbated problems that already exist with our systems and communities; namely, that the vulnerable are pushed even further to the margins. I see people complaining on social media of the boredom and banality that comes with isolation. But the very ability to isolate is one of the most overlooked privileges that the fortunate among us share.

Isolation impacted me in ways I initially failed to consider. I often think of my Grandfather whom everybody calls “Sandy.” He’s now 90 years of age and loves to walk outside and smoke his pipe. He moved into a senior’s residence in Scarborough only a few weeks ago and it does not allow visitors for fear of contagion. Depending on how long isolation lasts, I may never see him again.

We talk on the phone every few days, but it’s not the same.

We would do well to remember that immunocompromised people are not just the elderly; that some of the most susceptible to sickness are those faced with extreme income inequality, struggling with mental health and addiction issues while experiencing un/sheltered homelessness. What exactly is “isolation” when you have nowhere to isolate?

My friend Peter Lebel is an artist and social worker. We talk a lot about our relationships with targeted community members facing vulnerability and marginalization. Before the pandemic began, Pete and I were in the process of organizing an experimental curatorial project. The objective was to facilitate indirect but tangible social change in precarious communities using art as the catalyst. The project is still alive, but we cannot know what it will look like after restrictions lift. We’ve decided to shift our focus to another project as a direct response to the pandemic. On Monday, Peter disclosed that he is self-isolating after experiencing symptoms and being tested for Covid-19 after working overtime in the shelter system since the pandemic began. The results will determine whether or not he must quarantine while he recovers.

Jeff Bierk and Matthew Ryan Smith, opening reception for CURTAIN at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery, 2019

It is the work of artists to not only visualize the pandemic but also, I feel, to reflect on what our relationships mean in a time of crisis. This is nothing particularly new, though; artists have always responded to (or even predicted) critical events so that the rest of us can make sense of them. They alleviate the fears of today and stretch optimism into tomorrow. This is another reason why we need art and artists.

The same folks who cut funding for the arts or detract from its social (and economic) value are the same who now, living into isolation, turn to television, film, music, video games, and other creative media for salvation. So perhaps “ordinary working people” do in fact crave art amongst the banality and silence of their one-bedroom apartment when the cat naps and the chip supply is running critically low (me included). Now, as gatherings in public places are unsafe and even illegal, as sequestration normalizes, in a time when many of us have become the most disconnected, creative expression allows us to connect once again.

Of course, Indigenous communities have been forcibly isolated on islands of land for many decades. They have always known that art and other forms of cultural expression strengthens the connections and relationships between people. (And that’s precisely why governments chose to suppress them).

I was asked to look back upon the year that was and consider the future as it stands now, something that, as I said earlier, curators have a knack for. But is it irresponsible of me to look ahead when so many suffer right now?

The past is what I know to be true, so I’ll start and end there.

Jeff Bierk speaking about his photo album during the opening reception for CURTAIN as the Glenhyrst Art Gallery, 2019.

I find myself thinking most about Jeff Bierk’s exhibition “CURTAIN” often. I curated the show for the Grimsby Public Art Gallery in 2016 and it later travelled to Glenhyrst, where I work as curator & head of collections, in January of 2019. During my tenure at Glenhyrst, Brantford has registered among the top five cities in Canada with the highest rate of hospitalization from opioid poisoning. Canadian cities like Brantford, Kelowna, and Thunder Bay were in the midst of a social crisis that required serious political mobilization. Fortunately, Brantford’s regional newspaper, The Expositor, continued to write stories on the crisis and keep it at the forefront of local consciousness.

At the time Jeff’s show opened deaths were spiking. It was cold outside. We decided that, instead of a formal artist’s talk, we would host an informal artist’s tour of the show. The fourth and final gallery displayed a plinth with a big blue photo album with polaroids, 5” x 7” photos, cut-out newspaper articles, and other ephemera from Jeff’s early life. That scratched and dented book, placed in the centre of the room for affect (and respect), mapped Jeff’s experience with addiction, loss, and recovery. That night it became a vehicle for one of the most frank, honest, and moving discussions around art that I’ve seen. And it was time to talk about what’s really going on in the community.

Jeff Bierk, Untitled, (from the series CURTAIN, c-pring, 68.5cm x 101.6 cm (2010). Collection of the Glenhyrst Art Gallery.

Weeks after “CURTAIN” closed, Brantford’s mayor acknowledged that “people are suffering, […] people are dying and these deaths are preventable.” As it happens, a person wrote in the comment section accompanying the article, “Stop helping them. It’s sad but they’ve made their choice.” Maybe if that person had seen the show or heard Jeff speak, they would have had a change of heart.

In the fall of 2019, community activism coupled with political pressure led to the opening of Brantford’s first residential treatment centre at 135 Elgin St. However small Glenhyrst’s role in this positive step, I believe we fulfilled our mandate of serving members of our community and actualizing resources for positive change. That feels good.

The global pandemic has havocked the economy, the working/non-working class, our safety, and our relationships. The impact on our cultural institutions is still to be determined. As is what our exhibitions and events will look like, who our audiences will be, even how the value of art and culture will change. Postponements and cancellations have become catchphrases for many of us. Yet, with so many unknowns lying ahead, the present moment is so valuable.

Matthew Ryan Smith is Curator & Head of Collections at Glenhyrst Art Gallery.
Permission to use the images was granted by the artist and the Glenhyrst Art Gallery.
Join the Conversation


  1. says: Ron

    Hello Matthew Ryan Smith,
    Thank you so much for your insightful and empathetic review of Frances Thomas’ and my exhibition at the Woodstock Art Gallery. I appreciate the fact that you pointed out Mary Reid’s crucial role in the “conversation” that is evident in the curated work in the gallery and in the organization of the exhibition. I am also very grateful for the exhibition catalogue with the complementary critical essays by Mary and by Emily McKibbon. This publication, itself, adds to the “conversation” with the elegant and spacious design by Katie Thibert and the skilled photography of Joseph Hartman.
    Best wishes,
    Ron Shuebrook

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