Q: Describe your background as a curator and how you got involved with CNC?
A: (Baker) After graduating from school (BAH from Queen's University and a MA in Art History and Graduate Diploma in Curatorial Studies from York University), I felt kind of lost. Not only within the global art community but in Toronto. School gave me all sorts of theory and expertise, but not necessarily the practical tools that are necessary to build a career as a Curator (such as how to light a show). There are so many paths that people take to become a curator, but I needed to find my own. After looking at the successes of some of my former classmates I came to realize that a pre-existing place for me didn’t exist, I had to carve out my own niche through practice.
I joined CNC in the fall of 2014 after looking for my place in the Toronto arts community. Upon going to one of the Curatorial Hardware Series sessions I knew that I had to become involved with CNC and join in their mission to support independent curators.
A: (Underhill) I began curating shortly after finishing my BA in Art History. When I was at the University of Toronto, I had some very cool professors of modern and contemporary art, I went to visit New York City and these amazing museums for the first time, was a member at the AGO, and worked at the Justina M. Barnickie Gallery - this whole huge world of curating opened up and got me really interested in making exhibitions as this thing I could do as an art historian. What else do you do with an art history degree? I figured out that I wanted to make art accessible to the public, advocate for artists and share their work - so, I would be a curator. When I graduated, I had this degree and not a lot of relevant work experience so I started volunteering - with Gallery 1313 and with curators Maiko Tanaka and Sarah Todd for their Toronto Free Library project at Toronto Free Gallery. Both the organization and these wonderfully brilliant women gave me opportunities to try my hand at putting shows together and working with artists. From there, I went on to curate exhibitions for Xpace Cultural Centre and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. My desire to engage communities with art eventually led to opportunities in education, and it felt like a more natural fit than curating. Being an arts educator became my full time job. But I didn't want to stop curating, and when the meeting with Katherine and Peter came up in 2013, I went, hoping it would lead to more opportunities to keep practicing as a curator. I had a lot of people along the way tell me how important it was to make connections and build a network, and I took it seriously. Getting shows as an independent curator is super hard (particularly when you're already working full time and moonlighting isn't your forte), and getting grants as an emerging curator was even harder. So joining the CNC, getting to work with and learn from people like Katherine and Earl, plus being part of some sort of movement toward gaining critical mass in order to get funding support and more opportunities for independent curators was really a no brainer. It was exciting.
Q: Speaking more about the practice of curating, do you feel curation is an art form in itself? Why or why not?
A: (Baker) It wasn’t until someone asked me this question a few years ago that I was made to recognize that what curators do is indeed a form of art creation. I think that it’s often hard for some people to perceive it as such because it is creating art with other people’s art (ie. curators work with artists, but are not themselves). This couldn’t be further from the truth. A good analogy would be to think of an artist that works in installation, where they are trying to create a completely immersive environment. That’s how I think of curating an exhibition. When I am putting together a show I am attempting to create an experience for the viewer through using the work of artists. That being said, I think that it is unique to each curator. I believe that what I do is an art form, but other curators may not perceive their own work as an art form.
A: (Underhill) To me, this is a complicated question. In the colloquial sense, sure, curating is an art form. There are clear congruities with making art - as a curator, just as an artist - you must have taste, an aesthetic, intellectual and conceptual rigour backing the work you do, originality, creativity, skill, discipline...but as the curator, you're there to let the artist shine. So it must always be clear that the artwork and the artist are the most important. Otherwise it gets very problematic. As a curator, you can't take their work and make it into your own or turn it into your own medium to convey a message. You are not the author or the artist - you are a conduit. Without the artist, there would be no curator. And too often artists are exploited for the benefit of the curator. And I think this is what artists hate the most, really. The exception I see to this is when the curator and artists are actively engaged in exhibition making dialogue - as Micah Lexier was when he curated Silent as Glue, which he saw as one huge art work of its own, maybe more so than an exhibition. And this show was really about him and the artists collaborating together on which works would be shown, how they would be set out in the space and how the works engaged each other. But there really needs to be a defined agreement that it is a collaborative arrangement.
Q: Where do you hope to see CNC in five years?
A: (Baker) In five years we will be in our eighth year of operation and will have grown in membership numbers. Currently we are heavily concentrated in Toronto, but in five years we will have more chapters across the country. In order to have the needs of independent curators met we need to act as a collective voice.
A: (Underhill) Just like Adi said, I do hope that the CNC will have a more active membership across the country, and more communication and collaboration with ally groups like the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. I would love for independent curators across Canada to be meeting, sharing skills, educating and advocating for one another in professional, transparent forums without fear of competition or losing out on opportunities to colleaguesI would like to see the CNC influencing the types and numbers of grants that independent curators can receive - such as funding for research, travel, exhibition and programming projects. And I'd also like to see a policy set in place that standardizes fair wages and work practices for curators working independently and as guests at institutions.