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Cheryl Sim, A Montreal Visionary

by Grace Sebeh Byrne

May 6, 2019

You may have already heard of Cheryl Sim, Curator and Managing Director of Fondation Phi pour l'art contemporain, formerly DHC/ART, or seen her guiding you through the current YOKO ONO exhibition taking place there. If and when you do, you can thank her (and owner Phoebe Greenberg) for bringing world renown artists to our humble little city. The workings of this highly dedicated curator comes with a great degree of passion and sensibility. Artist, musician and yoga teaching in her "spare" time, she's our true Montreal renaissance woman!

Grace Sebeh Byrne: I just want to say first off, thank you so much for having me.

Cheryl Sim: No problem! Yeah, my pleasure.

G: I’ve been watching your work for a while Cheryl. It’s extremely interesting!

C: Yay! Thank you!

G: Apart from being a curator, I love that you are an artist, and come from that perspective. Tell us a bit about your journey.

C: At first, I was interested in documentary film and I did a Radio and Television arts degree at Ryerson in Toronto. But I’m from Montreal, so I wanted to come back here. I then worked for the National Film Board, where I managed to get a contract at Studio D, a feminist studio, and a new program called New Initiatives Film. This was a program that was meant to address the under-representation and misrepresentation of women of colour and aboriginal women in cinema. I came on as a production co-ordinator there, and then got very inspired by all of the work that I was seeing. This developed my interest in going from documentary to video art. There just seemed to be so much more freedom there. Freedom to play with genre. I started working at artist-run centres like Group Intervention Video and OBORO. I worked there for a long time, and that’s where I really gained experience working within an organization: writing grants, also understanding what the needs are of artists in terms of presentation, residencies, publication. I spent a lot of time learning: how to serve artists…how to serve the community. How important art is for providing an outlet for people to express and others to share that expression and then have their own thoughts. It’s a very healthy society when that can all work together. It just increased my interests in wanting to contribute, not just through my work but also on the back end. As a result, I was hired out of OBORO into DHC/ART (now called Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain) just a few months before it opened. I was pretty much here from the ground up.

G: What time period are we talking about?

C: March 2007. I was at OBORO from 1997 to March 2007, then came to DHC/ART. I knew how to organize transportation and insurance and all of the logistics of putting a show together…technicians, and then publication; any kind of printed matter, signage, cartels, whatever I had, I brought that experience here. Eventually, I became an associate curator. When my predecessor left…

G: Is that John Zeppetelli?

C: Yes. John went to the MAC, so it seemed natural for Phoebe Greenberg, who is our founder/director, to bring me up as curator. It was an incredible honour. I was really touched that she wanted to do that rather than parachute in someone new. That was an incredible opportunity and DHC (Phi Foundation) is one of the best mandated organizations that you can imagine. Phoebe provides a space for artists to have and to realize to the best of their abilities their top idea for their installation, for their work. Then, we are permitted to offer all of this for free to the public.

G: We talked a little bit about your evolution as an artist…and I know that you were making documentaries…would you say that was your favourite medium?

C: Well as far as a genre goes, I think documentary was the one that I thought was the most effective for consciousness-raising and getting people to think and be affected, you know? To become aware. Documentary is a great form, it’s not just a magazine piece, you can go a little deeper because you have more time than say, a 30-second piece on the news, so that was what was appealing about documentary.

I was so fortunate to come up at that time and to not feel that there were any limits in terms of what I could do or want to do. But after 10 or 15 years of working in artist-run centres, I needed to nourish myself again and I felt like I needed to understand what discourses in contemporary art were really prominent.

Often behind those dialogues are theoretical texts by philosophers and I needed to dig my hands into those. So, I went back to school. The same year I started at DHC/ART (Phi Foundation); I started an MA in Media Studies at Concordia. That was really amazing because they have research creation which allows you to create a work as part of your thesis. There’s a written component as well, but it got me reading Foucault, Stuart Hall and all these people who have deeply affected my world view. This led to my PhD at UQAM.

But it was really about feeling like I needed to ground myself, at least know what people were talking about, because there are a lot of feminist, post-colonial and critical discourses that are really useful, right? So that’s what led me to go back to school and actually re-invigorate the art practice.

Photo by Martine Lavoie, with permission of DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art

G: So, why and how did you choose to become a curator?

C: When I was working with artists at OBORO, I never thought of what I did as curating, and I've always been a little ambivalent about the term. I think it’s really important that curating became professionalized, and in some way, I think it was important for curators to be acknowledged. In the past, curating was something that was done really as a labour of love (laughter). It is actually a skill that requires so many different areas of knowledge. It can become very developed, but it still comes from love, it still comes from passion. I think of myself as a facilitator, mostly. Curator is the term that people understand within a certain structure, and I am okay with that, but I understand that my approach is really coming from service, facilitation, and helping the artist to realize their situation, what they want to do, all the while respecting that I am in an institution that I have to function within. I am fully in awe of the mandate that this organization supports, and so, honouring the mandate, honouring the incredible artists that show here, that's what has brought me to curating.

G: Bridging two areas of skills and making it all work, basically. Hans-Ulrich Obrist often talks about... how did he put it? …and I'm paraphrasing badly here…the form following the art, and not necessarily the other way around? I'm just curious, is there stuff out there that is inspiring to you and then you bring it in Fondation Phi? Or, do you have a theme, an umbrella topic, and you try to find artists that fit?

C: We do a lot of solo shows. In terms of the mandate, we're interested in bringing artists who are very well established but may have never had a show, in Canada, or Quebec, with the mind that we're responsive to the context of Montreal. So, I'm always thinking: "what work resonates here with people?"... understanding that it's a cosmopolitan city…that there's a confluence of history, culture, there's a lot of interest and debate. I think the Montreal public is incredibly sophisticated and can take a lot. You don't have to dumb it down. At all! Ever! And never should you as a curator... and so, I go and see art wherever I can. I do quite a bit of travelling. I try to take in as much of major and lesser acknowledged art offerings as I can. I'll go to Venice, for example but also New Orleans. It’s a great way to see what a wonderful gift for the Montreal public might be.

G: Are you referring to the Biennales?

C: The Biennales and Documentas and large-scale exhibitions, yes. I try to get around to as many of those as possible because they're basically a framework or introduction to an artist's work. I'm talking within the context of what the foundation is trying to offer to people. I see that there's the person who's thinking about programming for the foundation, and also thinking about what our founder’s interests are as well. And then there are my personal interests. Sometimes they overlap, and when they overlap, it's amazing! Mostly, they can.

The programming at the foundation also brings me into contact with international curators. I had the pleasure of working with Gunnar B. Kvaran, Thierry Raspail and Hans Ulrich Obrist on a show that they organized called Imagine Brazil. When we brought it to Montreal, of course it meant making a new iteration, re-working the whole checklist, thinking about how to cite the work in our spaces, and they were really generous and provided a lot of mentorship. I would describe my own work as wanting to aspire to this. And the kind of work that I'm interested in falls under this new term that I call politicized sensuousness. This would be work that has conceptual rigour and formal richness that results in a kind of sensual engagement. So, it can be very sober in its final form, or it can be spectacularly exuberant. I think that those all can play together – sensuality and strong critique. Where do people come into the picture? And what does it say about where we are, and where we have been? When the piece has those kinds of legs, it can stand a lot longer and our experience with the work goes way beyond our actual time spent with the work. And if I'm still thinking about it and it's still occupying my thoughts, then perhaps there's a good chance that it will have that impact here as well.

G: It's a very humanistic approach with sensibility. Because isn't that what ties us all together? It’s what we have in common. And so, when that is in the work, and it becomes felt versus just seen, it’s a language somehow that we can all share.

C: Right! And it can be iconoclastic. It can be difficult. It can be uncomfortable, or... controversial... it’s all good.

As an institution, you're always thinking about people.The people that are going to allow you to continue to bring art. It's a cycle.

G: What would you say is a primary challenge facing contemporary art galleries today?

C: All kinds of things. Getting people to physically come out which, actually, a lot of large museums are doing a really good job at… engaging people, engaging society. I would say one of our challenges is inciting people to see that contemporary art is of them and for us -- that the questions that are raised, the issues, or even just the desire to express what one artist's view of beauty and joy something is that's for us all. You don't have to have a lot of schooling for it, and we want to get people empowered. I heard Olafur Elliason say at a press conference, that institutions, organizations, museums, can be involved in building trust. And I think that was really poignant, and totally echoed with our approach, and what museums, ultimately, should be concerned with. And not just building trust with the public, but building trust with artists, and building trust with I guess other forms, other than discreet works of art. There's been a lot of talk about bringing dance into museum space, which needs to be considered, needs to be a dialogue, always. For instance, does it make sense to have conditions that are important for something like dance in the museum space? So that it’s not just some kind of novel thing so that more people will come, but rather that it's really fused with intention, and makes sense for the work itself. For the bodies that are in there, for us as visitors. There's been a lot of discussion about technology and the use of technological tools in museums and particularly for contemporary art.

G: You're talking about the experience of the visitor?

C: Yes. Like the MET that’s hired a technological officer. I mean, at the bottom of it, it’s really about the content, over the form. It still comes down to building trust, showing your relevance to people. You know, people first. People are going to dictate everything else; they're going to make the trustees happy…it's them.

The concern ought to be the future and young people. Getting young people under the rubric of mediation or education. Getting people in here at a young age and getting them feeling like the museums and the kunsthalles and foundations are theirs and that they can feel comfortable.

We're taught that we're not supposed to touch and it's a very, disciplining environment and at the same time, you want people to feel relaxed and that they're part of this process. They actually complete this whole thing. So, I think that ought to be a major concern.

G: But I think that sometimes the work is so conceptual, that it might seem difficult to understand or uninviting, when that may not be the case at all. I'm thinking some people might feel that it's just a language they’re unfamiliar with. How do you tackle that? As a curator and as a place that shares and actually appreciates thought that's outside the box, that's not so obvious.

C: As a communicator, right? That's a really important part of the role too and there are various ways. I'm re-thinking how I write texts for the wall for instance. Re-thinking how I write the gallery guide as well. I think that there's a kind of trend in terms of the curatorial ways of doing that have spoken, or not spoken, rather, of a critical distance that you're caught in, that you're supposed to have from the work that's on display, and I'm starting to think that that's not the way I want to do it anymore. And so, my approach may be to speak very directly and honestly about what it was that brought me to this work, and, without telling you what you should be thinking, but rather, sharing with you some of the thoughts that I had, and what I was thinking and feeling when I saw this work…and I invite you in.

G: It’s a symbiotic relationship. And with all relationships, there's talking, receiving, giving, you know, listening... a lot of listening (laughter).

C: And, we want to challenge, and we want to be challenged. And it's something we're always trying to ask ourselves. Where are our blind spots? How can we be critical of what it is we're doing in a positive way?

G: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

C: Hmm! It's definitely working with people and to realize something incredible. That's really the time when we're like “what a wonderful situation to have, you know?” Yeah, that's incredibly rewarding. Little moments too when you see kids coming in, and having a moment with educators, and teachers who come back with feedback on how rewarding, how deeply affected and positive their students were and just seeing a process come together. I mean, what we're all working towards is for the end product, for the final results to be as good as the process that we had. And sometimes the process can be difficult, and the results can be outstanding. So, we're trying always to make that process as good as the outcome. And when that happens… it’s the best! (laughter). It's something you just want to keep working on or repeating, and then you see how that can happen in all aspects of life. That's what we're striving for. It's a work in progress I would say, but there are little glimpses of that, that are incredibly rewarding. It's kind of like the bliss moment, or the nirvana moment.

G: Thank you so much Cheryl. It was a real pleasure!

C: You're very welcome!

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