Curators roaming the streets in packs and
the demise of the outpost Canadian art museum:
An Interview with Ihor Holubizky,
Chief Curator, Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Ihor Holubizky has worked in Canadian art galleries and museums since the mid-1970s. He has been with the AGH in Hamilton, Ontario since 1989. Apart from his self-described oblique curatorial activities, and all the unmentionable things that come with the job, Holubizky has contributed to exhibition catalogues and critical journals in Canada, the United States and Europe, and most recently for two "outposts"; "Harold Klunder: Love Comes and Goes Again" for the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, and "Jiri Ladocha: Time After Dusk" for Galerie Pecka in Prague.

ABM: What are the two hottest issues currently facing the Canadian art museum curator?

IH: First, there are as many answers as there are current definitions of curator - journalist, revisionist, historian, custodian, adventurer, promoter, entrepreneur, author, essayist, archivist - and all the variants between.

The other issue - perhaps the only issue of importance - is, how can the museum remain vital, justify its existence... justify continued public funding and continue to operate in the public trust. They all say they do, in some form in the museum mission statement. But now that the "easy money" is disappearing, many are rushing to redefine the terms of museum existence ... the so-called new paradigm.

Is it bound to a new art practice ... to create a climate of relevance by promoting a new aesthetic ... the artist as prophet in the emerging (Western) world order of technology, fear and despair?

The art of cautionary tales?

Curators are talking, but who's listening?

ABM: Would you define, for our readers, the old "paradigm" of the Canadian art museum? And can you describe the "new paradigm"?

IH: That's a really good question, and one which I can only provide a speculation - for myself - but not answer to everyone's satisfaction or agreement. But we're not worried about that, are we?

Perhaps the old "paradigm" for Canadian museums came about as a result of our colonial history and condition. This "paradigm" was straight-forward - a declaration of principles - to collect, preserve, display and educate. Prior to a clear and independent history, the New World fell in step with the Old World, and saw it as a model for cultural aspirations. Nothing wrong with that. You have to start somewhere. But apart from the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), the rest are outposts bringing culture to the wilderness. I can't go into the difference between the NGC and MMFA, but suffice to say that our two cultural solitudes set out a different path for the MMFA.

The practical also comes into play, and tempers the idealism of the four fundamental principles. Treasures (by consensus), would never leave the Old World unless there was new money to pry some loose in the manner of the American industrialists ... god bless 'em, every one ... private ambition becoming a public spectacle of "achievement."

What could be achieved in Canada was a modest accumulation of lesser-known objects, and sometimes objects of questionable intrinsic value, directed by well-meaning individuals - the missionaries. This continued until real money appeared ... the intervention of government. The old boy and good old boy system - the artist as director/curator as custodian - gave way to a breed of professional administrators. With it came professional curators touting revisionism. Away with the old and in with the new paradigm.

And what exactly is this new paradigm? Again, any brief description will offend many and please none. There are many brands of revisionism ... some with value, some of lesser value i.e. to stand the hoary "test of time." But a die-hard revisionist would say it doesn't matter, if the objective is Mao Tse-Tung's perpetual revolution. The consequence of this activity has been to displace the past, to leave it on the trash heap of history as if none of it mattered. Much of the art of the past and the near past, is relegated to the dark corners of the vaults. A harsh summation, to be sure, and perhaps lacking a spirit of generosity ... which is lacking in the current climate. Some museum workers have done the right thing, but their voices and insights have been muted by the din of "out with the old." One of the four principles of the old paradigm - education - is not only lacking, it sucks. In stating this, I count myself among those to blame. It took me close to two decades to appreciate what had come before and to do something about. It's not glamorous work and it never seems to be enough.

As I write this, I have on my desk an exhibition press release from a New York gallery, dated May 1989. A brief passage:

In the course of preparing this show there were countless occasions when,
to satisfy someone's curiosity, I had to run through the names of the eight
artists in it. What never ceased to surprise me, as I listed the European
artists, was that the majority of my peers had never head of Poliakoff, Van
Velde or Vieira da Silva. The name Hartung usually brought a glimmer of
recognition, but rarely more than that.


The invisibility and ignorance is of course the result of the long-standing critical consensus in New York that nothing of much value was done by European abstract painters in the 40s and 50s. And that in turn was the result of the successful promotion of Abstract Expressionism as infinitely superior to anything being done in Europe at the same time.

ABM: So, in Canada, we copied the Old World paradigm of the largely British model for our art museums. We began to collect, preserve, display and educate as they did in Britain (which is a thesis in itself). This explains the NGC and to some degree the MMFA. The explosive growth of the outposts, the satellite museums in sundry parts of the country, were the result of 1967 Centennial fever and loose government spending. And with this growth of art museums in Canada came the "professional curator" who picked up the banner of "more cultural objects equals a greater civilization".... you're right this is a huge question and sweeping generalizations only beg more questions.

However, you suggest that with the rise of the professional curator, came the beginning of the end of the 4-cornered old paradigm (collect, preserve, display, educate). The curators have, over the last few years, actually undermined the foundation of the museum -- and this foundation was the unquestioned value of history. History has become such a confusing place given the "revisionist" wave -- i.e.. looking at history through the eyes of the feminist, the Marxist, the socialist, the suppressed minority, etc. Many histories exist simultaneously.

OK, I think I understand this. It is a shocking change, the neglect of history. Can we describe the new paradigm as curator-centred as opposed to object-centred? How has the withdrawal of significant government financial support for Canadian cultural institutions affected this new paradigm?

And I'm going to ask you one more question. What is in store for the outpost Canadian art museum over the next 5 years?

IH: The old paradigm may have been British in tone, but it is also important to note our envy of the American model ... the vulgarity of new money laundered by the purchase of master works and then channeled into marquee promotion. This is not to say that European museums are not beyond promotion, but the tone is different. I recall an exhibition at the Basel Kunsthalle 20 years ago which "threw together" a dizzying proposition of historical, modern and contemporary ... artists' flying machines by Da Vinci, Tatlin and Panamarenko. Such an exhibition is not possible in the thin cultural soil of the New World, especially if that soil is transplanted from the Old World.

To continue, the American envy hangs on as the old paradigm wears the mantle - or climbs into bed - with the new paradigm. The recognition and promotion of "many simultaneous histories" is an important and critical distinction ... but it cannot constitute the only model, lest we suffer a
rhetoric of the month. This is my Old World conservatism coming to the surface. Another consciousness-raising experience (damn those experiences!), driving (as a passenger), from Paris to Prague. This was my first real overland experience in Europe. Staring out the window at 180kph, I asked the driver (a German architect), in a moment of dumb struck fatigue, why the landscape looked so different than that of North America. His answer was simple and to the point, "because the land has been cultivated for a thousand years." Of course. It doesn't make it better (necessarily), but different. This may be an answer about my "neglect of history" comment. It is impossible to neglect history in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Russia. You have to deal with it, even if it is abused and revised.

So you suggest that the new paradigm is curator-centred as opposed to object-centred? Of course!!! The new paradigm-ers want to distance themselves from the devotion to objects, and objects get in the way of curatorial propositions (the fast lane). For the most part, they're not even "our" objects ... and those modernist objects which we can lay claim to, are cast aside as poor versions of Euro-centric desires (i.e. John Mays' "criticism" of the Canadian Impressionism exhibition in Hamilton). I must, however, admire the curator-centered approach for its tenacity and maneuverability. It just keeps going and going ... and if things are repeated, who will remember, or care.

ABM: How has the withdrawal of significant government financial support for
Canadian cultural institutions affected this new paradigm?

IH: Don't know, but I don't think it has affected it too much. Declining government financial support is putting the lid on the remains of the old paradigm - research and scholarship, educational initiatives, collecting. These are the first things to be cut. In fact, the diminishing financial support may be giving the new paradigm curators a second wind ...independent curators roaming the streets in packs with their quick and cheap goods (although tech-geek shows are not cheap to produce), preying on embattled institutions looking for a new lease on life (okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit).

ABM: And I'm going to ask you one more question. What is in store for the outpost Canadian art museum over the next 5 years?

IH: I'd say the future is grim unless there is a sustained economic boom which pumps private money into these museums. I can't imagine governments returning to high levels of support. Some museums will simply have to admit failure and close. I can't say which ones, but they're out there. Others will be resourceful and find the means to determine their own future and destiny without government money, establish partnerships and forgo the vanity of stand alone operations. How this translates into "service" to the community and public is anyone's guess, but how effective is the "service" in the current situation. A small gallery often takes on many roles - a collecting museum, a loan exhibition space, promoting and supporting regional artists, and a community centre with education and workshop activities. Is it necessary for every gallery in every town to collect, when the results are, in many cases, duplication. Perhaps a more reasonable approach would be a regional storehouse for collection objects which could be drawn on for loan exhibitions, or allow for the "re-distribution" of works to places where objects have the most resonance. I would also hope that enough galleries come to their senses and work towards sharing and pooling other resources. Perhaps there will be a move to privatization.


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