26 February 2018




Winnie Truong, The Gauntlet, 2017. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew.
This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa Deanne Smith at OCADU’s Onsite Gallery about feminism, curatorial practice, museum muses, and Onsite’s current exhibition The Sunshine Eaters. Smith provided fascinating insights about making space, bodily knowledge, and engaging with diverse voices in the context of an art gallery. 

Lisa Deanne Smith, Curator at Onsite Gallery. Photo courtesy of Lisa Deanne Smith.  
Take a look at our conversation below*:

KL: Can you tell me about your relationship to feminism?

LDS: I have always been aware of feminism. I grew up in a family with a single mom and sister, and that was part of the discussion in my household. We made sure we could look after ourselves—independence was always important.

In the 70s and 80s, I was really involved in the punk movement. It was pre-Riot Grrrl, I did a couple zines and a lot of reporting. I was one of the few women who worked with touring bands. I worked with another female manager and we toured with MDC and the Rock against Reagan tour (the Dead Kennedy's headlined) with the Yuppies in 1983. I feel like I’ve been a grounded feminist from my family onwards. 

KL: Do you think your gender informs your artistic or curatorial practice?

LDS: Yes, I am really into conversations that are often female conversations. In this exhibition I’m interested in experiential knowledge and bodily knowledge, and I think a lot of those conversations come from female investigations. 

The Sunshine Eaters at Onsite Gallery. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew. 
KL: With current online discourse (ex. #MeToo movement) there has been an increased spotlight on feminism and women’s experiences. How do you think we can bring social action off our screens and into galleries?

LDS: We are in a moment where it's about systemic issues and problems that need to be changed. I’ve done a fair amount of work looking through the lens of a publicly funded art gallery. We use workshops and brainstorming sessions to think about how we can make Onsite Gallery a space that includes and is run by multiple voices.

Traditionally, this type of gallery favours a white, male, European-dominated conversation. We’ve put strategies in place to look through a lens of diversity. We support issues of equity and creating space for people as we know this will make a better gallery. We hire staff looking to receive input from a variety of voices. We look at ways to hold comfortable meetings—things like tea, food, and plants. If a big wig comes through, everyone is introduced from the student monitors to the directors. We are also re-structuring our board and committees to bring in different types of people. 

In the 80s and 90s identity politics was an important discussion, but little shifted behind-the-scenes. I think I can be a good segue. I grew up in a low-income apartment building complex at Martingrove and the Westway in Toronto. I was a high school dropout, I made my own way. I have so much privilege being white and eventually obtaining a master’s degree, but I understand what it feels like to be uncomfortable in the status-quo and to feel my voice is not valid. We need marginalized voices. We don’t know what a gallery can be until these unheard voices have input. People should be able to walk through the door, see something they relate to, feel comfortable, and see artwork that is deeply meaningful to them. 

KL: When creating an exhibition, how do you balance a feminist lens with other intersections (ex. race, class, sexuality)?

LDS: Traditionally curators decide what is programmed in the gallery. I’ve decided to change that platform. I’ll curate one show every year or two, and then open space for others curators with different research and experience.

The Sunshine Eaters is a large group show in which I wanted to create genuine intersections of age, race, art, design, and include emerging, mid-career, and established artists. That was the seed of the idea, someplace where different people, their categories, their ways of being in the world met—I found that in artists and designers who use motifs of the land and its plants, flowers, and trees to conjure hope in the face of crisis.

I’m also looking to balance voices across multiple shows. All arts workers are overworked, it’s easy to have the intentions to be diverse and not actually do it. Different types of voices are always available, but maybe certain people don’t feel comfortable in the gallery so you don’t see them, or their work isn’t on a website. Often to look for different voices you have to work harder with limited time or resources.

KL: Recently, I’ve been grappling with the approaches of increased women’s representation vs. a critical engagement with gender across all museum content. What is your take on these approaches?

LDS: I think both approaches are needed. There are women and research that needs to be empowered by a female only exhibitions, collections and spaces. That said, these spaces and work can become ghettoized and viewed as less important when separate. Regardless, safe spaces are needed. With this exhibition one of my agendas was to bring different voices together. Brian Jungen is well known in Canada but isn’t recognized internationally the same way as Nick Cave. I wanted them to sit side by side in an exhibition. I wanted artists of different races, ages and experience levels to exhibit together and be part of the Art with a capital ‘A’ conversation. I put people together in mainstream conversation, it was a very conscious thing. 

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2011. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew. 
KL: Could you speak more about how The Sunshine Eaters connects land to the body and your vision behind the exhibition?

LDS: I’ve been thinking about the land as a body and human bodily knowledge for many years. My graduate thesis was on pain as a cathartic experience. In The Sunshine Eaters, I am interested in enacting and exploring these differing types of knowledge. I’m also interested in creating a space where people think about how value is created and why. The Sunshine Eaters is a hopeful exhibition. Hope is feeling like you have agency or pathways to create change. I’ve always deeply felt that one of those paths to change is through validating and listening to the knowledge that comes from the body.

Some of the works in this exhibition provoke a bodily experience in the viewer, for example, Nina Leo & Moez Surani's Hereseries which you experience by smelling, or Jim Holyoak's The Thicket which envelops you. Some of the work is made very intuitively. All of the works are visceral and exquisitely crafted. Validating these different types of knowledge is important. 

KL: What is your proudest moment thus far in your career?

LDS: I was talking to my daughter recently about when I decided to go to OCAD as a student. I was 25 and had left school when I was 17. It took me 3 years to get in, I applied 3 times. I was extremely proud when I walked through the doors of an educational institution. It was a big deal because my sister was the first person in my family that had ever gone to college or university.

Right now, I feel very proud of this show. Threads I’ve been teasing out for a long time are settling well together. I got to work with a few of my all-time favourite artists. I’m bringing together people with fascinating work, provoking complicated conversations, and the show is being received very well.

KL: What has been your greatest challenge?

LDS: I am very challenged by the pace of the world. I need to go deep with certain things to do a good job. The world doesn’t always allow that, and I find that being a mother, I don’t have enough time. I need to do a lot of research, I need to always be reading. The pace we are expected to produce things at doesn’t allow for the depth that’s necessary to do them. Thankfully I love my work, I do it 7 days a week even if I'm just looking at artwork or reading about our world.

KL: What did you learn from facing that challenge?

LDS: You learn what battles to choose, you learn to let some important things go. I’ve learned how to pass on things to other people. I’m really interested in emerging artists, curators, and thinkers. I’m not teaching right now, but I’ve taught at OCAD for 8 years. I have an eye out for the next generation, because sometimes I know what would be great for someone else. I’m always looking for what I can pass along, and that feels good.

KL: Who are your museum muses?

LDS: My first mentor who really believed in me was Ruby Lerner. She worked in non-profit artist run centres in the U.S.—mostly film and video. She went on to form Creative Capital which is an amazing organization out of New York that gives money to all different kinds of art projects, it’s hugely successful and wonderful. She hired me straight out of grad school when I didn’t know what I didn’t know. She was encouraging even when I was rough, she saw a gem.

I also really like watching the work of Barbara Fischer, Luis Jacob, and Ann MacDonald. They have been working hard in their galleries through UofT doing some incredible programming. As for people to look out for, Genevieve Wallen and Emily Gove, both working out of XPACE, are doing incredible work. Jessica Karuhanga, who is in this exhibition, I also think is really interesting. 

Jessica Karuhanga, being who you are there is no other (still), 2017. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew. 
Thank you Lisa Deanne Smith for taking the time to be interviewed and speaking with such openness and grace on feminism, art galleries, and your professional practice. The Sunshine Eaters is definitely a museum muse! I highly recommend heading over to Onsite Gallery (199 Richmond St. W.) to see the exhibition before it closes on April 15th, 2018.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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