Report from the Academy: Q&A with Harbourfront Centre Curator Patrick Macaulay

by Sally McKay on June 20, 2011 · 3 comments Interview

Stop.Look.Listen, installation view

Installation view of STOP.LOOK.LISTEN, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

Curator Patrick Macaulay's job isn't ordinary. He's the Head of Visual Arts for Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and he programs contemporary art for unusually broad audiences. Harbourfront Centre is a tourist destination hosting children's day camps, theatre, dance, and outdoor music festivals. There are four craft studios including an active glass blowing facility and the building is infused with a plethora of public exhibition spaces. A large gallery for visual arts is also housed within the centre.

With only a week for each installation, Patrick simultaneously curates and administers the large gallery, a project space, a series of eight small hallway vitrines, a large vitrine, a photo passage, an architectural gallery, and outdoor installations. I talked with Patrick about some of the curatorial challenges and rewards of undertaking such ambitious programming in such a very public institution.

Sally McKay: I just saw your spring exhibition. There’s four major installations in the big gallery show Stop.Look.Listen with Lois Andison, Peter Flemming, Marla Hlady and Max Streicher. In the project gallery Joanne Tod showcases her painting installation. There's also the photo passage and outdoor billboards with photo-installations by Alex McLeod; the big hallway vitrine which has Robert Hengeveld's installation Pickled Tense, and I Witness in the smaller vitrines, with Johan Hallberg-Campbell, Surendra Lawoti, Jesse Louttit, Mike Andrew McLean, Meghan Rennie, Erin Riley, Kate Subak and Sami Siva. On top of that there's the architecture gallery, which I didn't even get to! That's a lot of artists, some with really ambitious works, in a diversity of venues, all at once.

Patrick Macaulay: Yes. Over the ten years that I’ve been at Harbourfront Centre I’ve been trying to expand the way the building acts as a venue for art. When I first started we had the main gallery and the secondary photo passage in the hall. They were very traditionally distinctive spaces. We’ve tried to diminish that kind of value on the space and more actively present work in the very public venues.

I Witness, installation view

Installation view of I Witness, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

Joanne Tod's Oh Canada - A Lament, installation view

Installation view of Joanne Tod's Oh Canada — A Lament, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

We’re also trying to make it so that the whole experience is thematically linked. Right now the theme is “witness.” This idea ties together all the exhibitions, whether it’s Stop.Look.Listen, which is asking you as a viewer to become an active, rather than a passive witness to temporal works of art; or Joanne Tod’s painting installation which is a memorial witnessing of what’s taking place in Afghanistan; or Robert Hengeveld’s slowly forming salt pile, which you have to spend vast amount of time with in order to see it actually take place. The photo show, I Witness, is about photographers witnessing events and giving direct presence to them without digital manipulations. We create a narrative structure with key markers — really big didactic panels spread all throughout the building. The idea is to make it a whole, so it’s not just a main gallery with ancillary spaces, but an entire building which is actively engaging art.

Stop.Look.Listen, installation view

Installation view of STOP.LOOK.LISTEN, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

S: Out of the fifteen artists you're showing right now, eleven are Toronto-based.

P: I don’t have a ton of money, so I’m reliant on local artists. But this is also the best way to be reflective of what’s around me. At The Power Plant, or MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art), the mandates are a lot more national and international. I talked to artists when I started here and asked them, “What should we be doing?” The answer was, “We don’t have a place to show.” It’s pretty basic. My colleagues in smaller venues around the province are giving presence to people from Toronto, but our artists end up having to travel to show their work. We need a space for Toronto artists in the city, and that’s the role I play.

S: So, is working with Toronto artists the result of financial limitations?

P: No. When I can put together a travel budget and/or put somebody up from out of town I’ll do it. For example, we were recently able to do a big Saskatchewan show and it was a great opportunity for me to do studio visits in another province. But I’m always trying to re-evaluate what I do and right now I’m thinking about Toronto more and more. It's clear in my own mind that what I’m supposed to be doing is giving representation to people within my city, to give them presence. Harbourfront Centre is a very public space. How do people understand what is going on in the visual arts community if there isn’t a venue that is very public?

S: You do seem to always have audience experience forefront in your mind. Can you talk about curating for such a broad demographic?

P: Well, the audience ranges from young kids who come on school visits, to tourists, to people who are coming to Harbourfront Centre for other activities. There are some people who come specifically to see the exhibitions. But we have numbers, on weekends, that reach 2000-3000 visitors. It’s just huge amounts of people and for many of them it’s the first time they’ve ever walked through a gallery door — the first experience they’ve ever had with contemporary visual arts.

The numbers are so great — how do you engage all those people that just happen to walk into the gallery thinking it’s another hallway? You wander in with your ice cream and your pop and all your kids in tow and enter an exhibition space which asks for a different kind of attention. How do you slow people down?

Max Streicher's Sextet

Installation view of Max Streicher's Sextet 1996, part of exhibition STOP.LOOK.LISTEN, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

S: I like the title of this current show, in that context. Stop. Look. Listen.

P: And, you know, the lettering is pretty big! Something we’ve been trying to do for awhile is create the kind of entrance way that makes people stop, look and listen. The title came from thinking of an exhibition which would bring that to the forefront. The show coincided with a large children’s festival and kids would be just running into the space. The Max Streicher piece looks like a huge plaything, but it’s not. He says “It’s okay to touch it, don’t worry about it,” but”¦

S: Touching it is different than jumping on it and rolling around.

eter Flemming's Leak to Lower Lazy Levitating Load, installation view

Installation view of Peter Flemming's Leak to Lower Lazy Levitating Load, 2008, part of exhibition STOP.LOOK.LISTEN, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

P: Yeah! Or Peter Flemming’s piece which has cinderblocks hanging at kid height. Should we put up some kind of barrier or demarcation? Well, no, because that would change how Peter presents his work. We want you as the public to engage the kind of installation work that many artists are making now, which is very different from a painting or photography exhibition where you can have a kind of cursory glance through a space and say “Okay, I saw it, I can walk.” Here, Marla Hlady’s audio-video piece is really gorgeous and engaging — there's just an incredible noise that comes from the unravelling of those paper bags, but it also takes time to unfold. We're trying to make people stop and have first impressions of something that’s different from what they expect to see.

Marla Hlady's Paper Bag Machine

Installation view of Marla Hlady's Paper Bag Machine 2010, part of exhibition STOP.LOOK.LISTEN, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

S: Do you think there’s a pedagogical aspect to what you do?

P: Yes, it’s really important. We have school visits, we have summer camps, we have a lot of children coming through, and so there is a need to teach. One of the things we’ve been working on over the last three years is a labelling system which gives access to children. It’s called Kid’s Eye View.

Kid's Eye View label for Max Streicher's Sextet

Kid's Eye View label for Max Streicher's Sextet. Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre

S: To be clear, we’re talking about didactic panels. There’s didactic panels for adults that are at adult eye height, and others for kids at kids’ eye height.

P: The didactic panels for adults are written by the artists. The kids' panel is lower, circular, with a bigger font and one or two sentences in very plain language that reflect the artist's statement. These labels are also good for people for whom English is a second language and they often help initiate conversations about how to read, and how to engage works of art. Even English speaking adults sometimes say, “This is great! I’ve finally figured out what the heck I’m looking at by reading the little Kid’s Eye View label!”

It's also really important that the artists are involved in the writing of these labels. We pass it by them every time.

Kid's Eye View label for Peter Flemming's Leak to Lower Lazy Levitating Load

Kid's Eye View label for Peter Flemming's Leak to Lower Lazy Levitating Load. Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre

S: Do you ever run into resistance from artists?

P: Never.

S: Really? That surprises me.

P: I think it’s part of the artists’ understanding of what our space is about. The didactics are meant to enhance the value of the experience and also to give access to looking at art. Because, you know, looking at art is not an easy thing to do. A lot of people kind of shy away from it.

S: I have to say that you do have a reputation for being very artist-positive, particularly when it comes to installation. You and your crew will try to provide whatever the artists want — including building structures and sourcing equipment — which is quite a feat considering how much you take on with every show and how little time and money there is to do it.

P: At points it's challenging, but we really try to go out of our way to make it a good experience for the artists. I’m lucky that I have someone I’ve worked with for about fifteen years, Marlee Choo, who helps me through all this. And we also have a great staff of freelance installers, most of them artists. I have a background as an artist myself and I know it's important. And curatorially we do try to be ambitious. We don’t sit back and say, okay five shows to do this year and let’s plug through them. We look at what we’re going to do and try to plan an exciting kind of time so that as staff we’re always engaged and having fun. It’s not the AGO, where it’s like a machine. We're very fluid, and what we do is very much about making things happen.

S: You have really been working in the trenches with your crew and last year you suffered a serious injury on the job. A lot of people in the Toronto art community were pretty upset by that because it felt unfair that someone who’s doing so much for artists would get stricken as a result.

P: You know, there is this structure where I’m the boss, but we have a small window of time for installation and if everybody isn’t working it’s just not going to happen. Those Friday’s at five o’clock before the opening — it’s pandemonium! I enjoy the activity of putting something together. I would always be up the ladder/ down the ladder, putting in drywall, and installing stuff. People called me “Dusty” because even at my desk I'd be all covered in drywall dust.

When the accident happened we had too much on the go, as usual. It was the night before the opening and all of a sudden we needed two more monitors from storage. It’s eight o’clock at night and who runs up the ladder but me. I actually had a serious fall, and it’s made me become more of a person who stands back and directs. Being somewhat reckless is something I have to stop (and look) and listen to other people who say I shouldn’t have been doing what I was doing. It’s also just about getting older. There’s lots of young people who can run up ladders now.

S: Good! I’m glad to hear that.

Alex McLeod's Hidden Mystery

Installation view of Alex McLeod's Hidden Mystery, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

P: The accident is important to me, though, because it made me really consider how I think about what I do. It's made me want to conceptualize more what we are doing within Toronto and nationally, and what we’re doing to present artists in a smart way.

S: Well that’s something I wanted to ask you about. I wonder how you are thinking of yourself as a curator — you have a really physical, hands-on practice dealing with issues of installation and display, but the conceptual side has always been really strong as well. Are you becoming more interested in that aspect of your work?

P: Yes, it's changing. As I mentioned I'm really trying to make it so that everything we do in the building can be understood as whole. It's a big puzzle. The relationship between Stop.Look.Listen with Robert’s Hengeveld's Pickled Tense is a nice example. There’s two generations of kinetic work being presented — you can talk about the “blue-bloods” of the Toronto art scene with Marla, Max and Lois, and then the newer generation with Robert in the other space. That was a conscious decision. As with the photography down the hall — these are all younger photographers getting their first chance to show together as a group, but the kind of direct witnessing in their photography represents something I see out there in the community that’s really relevant to now.

Robert Hengeveld's Pickled Tense

Installation view of Robert Hengeveld's Pickled Tense, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

I actively wander, I go into the city to look around and see what’s going on, and I try to construct exhibitions from what I’m responding to. This is developing into a more conscious practice. It’s not an intellectualization of what’s out there, but it is a very constructed plan for curating all the spaces as a whole. And it’s no longer just inside the building! We have these large outdoor stands to display photographs now, and that also extends how I think as a person.

Installation view of Alex McLeod's Hidden Mystery, 2011. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Tom Bilenkey

S: Okay, speaking of outside, let’s talk about The Power Plant. It’s a really high profile venue and it's right next door to you. Every once in a while they do a Toronto show, usually when a new curator comes in. It always gets a lot of press and there's scandalized talk in the blogosphere about how so-and-so wasn’t represented, etc.”¦ And yet, at your space, there’s constant, ongoing, incredibly sophisticated and hugely representative Toronto programming which doesn’t seem to get critical attention. Do you know why that is?

P: Nope. You know, I’ve often said to writers, “look we’ve got great shows going on, you should come and talk about it.” And nothing happens. I have to say that Leah Sandals is the one person who has been actively writing about us, and doing it in a smart way. And I’ve never met her! But whenever I see her name in our guest book I know that she’s engaging with the exhibition. I think it just depends on the person. Maybe what I do and what I present are just of no interest to most of the people who are writing about Toronto art.

S: But it can’t be the artwork; you consistently show contemporary art of the status and caliber that’s part of the larger discourse.

P: Yeah, that’s true. I’m at a loss. I’ll present someone's work in a really great way and then they’ll have one small piece at The Power Plant and all of a sudden it's talked about. And I’ll think to myself, “that’s strange.” I just don’t know.

S: Do you think it has to do with perceptions about the Harbourfront audiences”¦do you think there’s a kind of snobbery about the general public demographic?

P: Well, you know, people who are on their way to the Power Plant do stop by to see what we’re doing, and I’m always appreciative of the strong feedback that I get from Toronto artists. But I think there’s something to what you're saying, because we can conceivably be called a community gallery, and that is typically not seen to be as important. I’m not going to go down on bended knee and apologize for running a modest space. Modesty is not a bad attribute. What happens in turn is that we produce and create and give presence to some really incredible works. People learn, like I learn, from every exhibition. So in terms of creating a presence of work within the community we’re fulfilling our purpose. I can’t look to The Power Plant and be angry at what they’re doing —it’s not anything to do with me! Our relationship depends on the curators too. I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen three or four directors go through the Power Plant and as many curators. Some of them want to talk. Jon Davies — an assistant curator who’s there now— is very engaging.

Installation view of Fishnet Project

Installation view of Fishnet Project, 2008. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Andrew Filarski

S: Can you talk a little bit specifically about some of your most ambitious work? For example, my partner said to me this morning, “when you see Patrick tell him that the Great Lakes project was the best art installation ever!”

P: It was amazing. FishNet: The Great Lakes Craft and Release Project came to us through Fresh Ground, which is a commissioning program at Harbourfront Centre. Claire Ironside and Angela Iarocci proposed it. I can remember being in a committee meeting to talk it through and having people kind of question it “”¦ is it art? It’s a community activity, is it art?”

S: Can you describe what it was?

P: They took every species of fish that lives in the Great Lakes and presented them in the gallery. Artists crafted the fish and grade four students within the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) decorated them. It was a massive installation with thousands and thousands of fish hanging in the air so you had to kind of swim around with them. They were at different levels to represent the depths they lived at within the ecology of the lakes. There was also a release program through the website, where you could “release” a fish by donating to environmental charities devoted to reviving and protecting the Great Lakes bioregion.

S: And the space was completely magic.

P: It was magic. It was an excellent example of us pushing everybody on the crew to the limits during installation. By the end everybody was totally beat, but the doors opened on time and it was just wonderful.

Installation view of Fishnet Project

Installation view of Fishnet Project, 2008. Harbourfront Centre. Photography: Sabine Feldmeyer

I remember that show as being one of the best things I ever did. And now people come in and say, “whatever happened to that fish thing?” It’s stuck in their heads as “that fish thing” because it was so memorable.

This goes back to audience experience. It took a lot of work to get the “fish thing” to happen, and I don’t think it would’ve happened anywhere else. It ended up having a value that extends beyond the visual art experience. It's made me think further about what I do and given me the ability to consider projects that are tied to a broader sense of community.

Patrick Macaulay is the Head of Visuals Arts at Harbourfront Centre. Over the past fifteen years he has curated numerous exhibitions and has moved the visual arts programming at Harbourfront Centre in new and exciting directions. He received his MFA from The Art Institute of Chicago, BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and has worked in the studio programme at The Banff Centre.


Libby Hague June 21, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  Pat has created more exhibition opportunities for Toronto artists than any other curator in the city. He has an open eye for craft as well as fine art and the fact he doesn’t get  the recognition he deserves doesn’t stop him from continuing to do his best. He should get a Governor Generals award.

Cironside48 June 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I agree Patrick should definitely receive the Govenor Generals award for his ability to continually deliver  in a  field that demands nothing less than innovation, insight and energy day in and day out . He and ‘all’ the staff at Harbourfront Centre, in all areas of programming  are beyond helpful and really deserve more recognition for the inspired work that they do. 

Keesic June 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Harbourfront Centre IS the most artist friendly gallery in the city! Pat is one of the hardest working curators out there working FOR the artists not just the gallery!

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