by Ed Varney

With the Annual General Meeting of the Comox Valley Art Gallery coming up on April 9th at 10:30 am, I think it is time to look at the Gallery’s performance over the past year. Unfortunately for us all, I think it rates a D+, a barely passing grade. There was one excellent exhibition, the Salish Weave Show (which originated and was curated in Victoria) but most of the rest were quite forgettable.
One of the most important functions of an art gallery is to present art. The art should reflect the talents, concerns, and diversity within the larger community and it should exhibit the best available work and let the art do the talking. CVAG also claims that “community development”, education, and social services are part of its mandate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but I think it is the art and artists shown in the gallery that should engage these issues – if that is part of their vision.
At this point, I have to admit that I have been on the board of CVAG for the past two years. The gallery and board are like a huge ocean liner and my voice has been drowned out by the drone of the engines. It is the most pedantic and boring board I have ever been on. This cumbersome liner is unable and unwilling to change its course though numerous artists and others in the community have questioned its crew about its direction.
The board has refused to take a role in the actual assessment of the art exhibited in the gallery. It has preferred to be concerned only with policy and management of the boat. The board is dominated by legalists and policy wonks and by academics from North Island College. Maybe that is why so many recent exhibitions in the gallery have been by North Island College teachers and students. (One instructor had 3 exhibitions in the past 2 years). The curator, who has complete control over what exhibits are chosen, has also been a North Island College instructor.
It’s no surprise that art selected for exhibition has been essentially didactic, often obscure (requiring written explanation couched in “art speak”), and academic. The curator is from Winnipeg and a number of exhibiting artists are also from Winnipeg. The curator is also a performance and video artist which explains why there have been so many performance and video-based exhibitions. (I checked out Arts Canada magazine to see if video and performance art was really dominating the art world and found that only 5 out of 48 exhibitions featured in their “national and international round up of the season’s best exhibitions” involved video.)
In the last 30 years, a new functionary has appeared in the art world – the curator. The root of the word comes from “to care for” but the curator has become the arbiter of taste – coming up with ideas for exhibitions and then finding artists to illustrate these ideas. Curators are the creation of art schools, they generally begin as artists but find the actual business of making a living from art to be too difficult. The function they perform is really an administrative one where they can exert some influence over the creative process. Curators are czars in their small kingdom and often become quite dictatorial about the art and ideas that find a public forum in art galleries. (As a director on the board of CVAG, I was asked by the administrator not to talk to the curator about the exhibitions. I suppose it might be seen as applying some sort of influence over her.)
In the past, the question of quality in the visual arts was the purview of the art critic. The critic was an independent voice from outside the system who talked to artists, attended gallery showings, and then wrote about it in the media – mostly print media. The critic’s job was to educate the public through research and explication of context, and then making value judgments based on evidence and informed opinion. The job of the critic has disappeared along with the diminishment of print media in our electronic age.
Most artists are reluctant to speak out publically about CVAG’s performance and the curator because they think they might be “black listed” – or they just don’t care. The curator holds all the power in this equation. Other artists simply say that CVAG is no longer on their radar. When the public is mystified by the work in the gallery, it tends not to say anything for fear being seen as ignorant and unable to understand the convoluted verbiage (jargon) that is often used to justify the work.
You might think that the CVAG Annual General Meeting is the place to address these concerns. Not so. The CVAG constitution (recently overhauled) is designed to stack the board so that the ship will continue on its current trajectory with the same crew. Under the current bylaws, the board consists of ten members nominated by the board and up to three members nominated from the floor at the AGM. But these three additional members have also been vetted by the board before the meeting. Doesn’t sound very democratic. When I suggested that the length of the exhibitions and the time in between exhibitions be discussed by the members at the AGM, I was told that this was not a member’s decision, it was a staff directive. (Currently, exhibitions last six weeks with two weeks in between exhibitions. This means the gallery is closed one quarter of the time and only allows five exhibitions year, six if you count the Christmas Craft Sale.)
So why bother to attend the AGM? Last year only two members, beside the board, did bother. I, for one, am abandoning ship at the end of my term. I now prefer to work outside the public (and publically funded) art gallery system and support various “pop up” or spontaneous art events which always seem to draw a large crowd and give regional artists a chance to address the public uncensored. As far as I am concerned, and numerous other artists I have talked to, the CVAG ship is headed for the rocks.
Ed Varney is a poet, visual artist and public art consultant. He has served on the board of numerous arts organizations in Vancouver and the Comox Valley.