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NATASHA S. REID: Vision For Change

As a curator, art educator, scholar and Director of the Visual Arts Centre – which is comprised of a school, a contemporary art gallery and an outreach programme – Dr. Natasha S. Reid wears many hats. Her driving force: art as a catalyst for change. Her mission: bringing Montreal a space for reflection and engaging discourse using rich programming in exhibitions, education and out-reach programs to broad audiences. Tackling difficult themes, such as in her current show IN/VISIBLE, sexual violence is part and parcel of her modus operandi. Here, Yellow Pad Sessions had the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the mind of one of Montreal’s cultural vanguards who is guiding us into new directions. The show runs till the 29th of June at the McClure Gallery.

Grace Sebeh Byrne: As a curator, what was the impetus for IN/VISIBLE?

Natasha S. Reid: The In/Visible: Body as Reflective Site (In/Visible) exhibition is an outgrowth of IMPACTS Project on Addressing Sexual Violence in Universities (IMPACTS), a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project at McGill University , directed by James McGill Professor Shaheen Shariff. Through this research project, Shaheen and her team are examining how to better understand, deal with, and prevent sexual violence in universities and societies in general. Years ago, Shaheen invited the Visual Arts Centre (VAC) to become a community partner on the project, along with a number of other community and university partners. My predecessor, Victoria LeBlanc, enthusiastically accepted the invitation. When I became the Executive Director of the Visual Arts Centre in (January 2017), I was so thrilled to learn about this partnership, as the project aligns with my personal orientation towards social justice art education, interdisciplinary learning, and contemporary approaches to education. Importantly, the project also promotes the ideas expressed in our gallery’s recently revised mandate, in which we state that our primary aim is to increase awareness of and engagement with art as a form of knowledge, communication, research, and a tool for better understanding and connecting with our collective and individual experiences. I knew that this partnership could be a phenomenal way for us to really explore the essence or our mandate and for me to dig my heels into a project that is so aligned with my interests.

Soon after commencing the project, with Shaheen’s approval, I invited another community partner, artist and McGill University’s Art Hive Initiative Facilitator Dr. Maria Ezcurra, as well as Dr. Lori Beavis, an independent curator, to co-curate the show with me. Having worked with Maria and Lori in various capacities in the past, I knew that they wholeheartedly believe in the power of art to stimulate dialogue and action in relation to social issues.

For this exhibition, our goal was to create a dialogic, reflective, and creative artistic space for diverse audiences to explore the conditions that both promote and combat sexual violence. To do this, we focused on the body as a site for expression, empowerment, and resistance and we wanted to ensure that voices often pushed to the sidelines of institutions and society are highlighted in the show. Six remarkable contemporary artists who often work with the body or reference the body in their work, who have addressed sexual violence in their practices, and who mobilize under-voiced realities through their art were invited to participate in the exhibition – Hannah Claus, Dayna Danger, Maria Ezcurra, Sandeep Johal, Kama La Mackerel, and Nadia Myre. The resulting exhibition and educational programming surpassed our expectations.

GSB: Why is this significant at this time in our society? And what kinds of discourses are you hoping will emerge?

NSR: It is clear that sexual violence is a very present yet under-discussed issue in our society. With #MeToo now being a prominent force in our society, the IMPACTS research, including the In/Visible exhibition, is even more aligned with current discourses than when first planned. It is truly wonderful to finally see open and regular discussions about sexual violence in the media and more personal scenarios. But, much more needs to be done. Every individual needs to be implicated in this discussion. Even with such prominence in the media, some shy away from or even push against the dialogues surrounding sexual violence.

Art offers such a powerful way to open up discussions about difficult social issues, as it can elicit empathic responses and understanding, provide alternative narratives, present powerful metaphors, and often works with the visual culture we are so accustomed to.

Through the In/Visible exhibition, I am hoping that the work will make discourses surrounding sexual violence resonate with people in new ways and will lead to innovative possibilities for change.

GSB: As existing news has shown us recently, insidious sexual violence is sadly part of our current culture and needs to be exposed and better understood. As a curator, what sorts of challenges do you face when creating a show of this disturbing nature?

NSR: We wanted to make sure that we created a safe(r) space to explore the difficult and disturbing issues at the heart of the exhibition. To do so, we ensured that the work employed metaphors and actions that offer entry-points for discussion. We needed to have a balance – work that is aesthetically compelling, inviting, and open, yet pieces that also disrupt normative dialogues, provoke, and provide a sense of discomfort. It was important for us to create openings for discussion – a place for people to think about the issues possibly in new ways and to feel comfortable engaging in related dialogues in the gallery space and, hopefully, outside of the gallery’s walls. The educational programming associated with the exhibition (including two talks, a performance, an art hive workshop, and the catalogue) helps with these efforts.

GSB: What other challenging themes have you curated in the past that have touched you?

NSR: When I was Assistant Professor, Art and Visual Culture Education at the University of Arizona, I worked closely with the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA). Employing the museum as teaching and learning laboratory, I developed innovative coursework that invited students to work directly with the UAMA. We worked with challenging themes and found ways to activate the museum and mobilize diverse audiences in relation to these themes. For example, I developed a graduate-level special topics course on multicultural discourses in museums. For one of the major projects in the course, I asked students to develop what I termed “artistic interventions” in the UAMA. For these interventions, students were to develop their own philosophy statements regarding critical multicultural education in museums and then create artworks that opened dialogues related to these philosophies with museum visitors directly in the UAMA. The works had interactive elements and were meant to activate the museum. A wide variety of themes were explored, including who’s voices are present in museum spaces and society, issues of access and inclusion, and dealing with topics that are possibly considered controversial. The projects were very well received and the UAMA asked me to continue to work with the artistic intervention project in my future courses.

In a course I developed as a follow up to the multicultural discourses in museums course, I invited students to work with youth from the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF). The Community Engagement Curator (Chelsea Farrar) at the UAMA created a programme called Mapping Q, which engaged SAAF youth participants in critical explorations of the museum and identity. In particular, youth explored which identities are represented (or not represented) in the museum and how. The participants made art in response to these investigations. My students worked with the youth participants to develop interpretive labels of their work. The art was exhibited in the UAMA and the collaboratively developed labels were displayed. Through the labels, the words and thus voices of participating LGBTQ+ youth and their allies, were visibly and prominently included in the museum space.

GSB: Can you say that an art centre and gallery can be instrumental as a place of discourse and education? Social change? If so, how?

NSR: Absolutely! Art centres and, in many cases, galleries are often situated outside of formal schooling systems. As such, they can be considered sites for public pedagogy, which means that they are not formally bound to certain curricula (both explicit and/or hidden). Theoretically, public pedagogical locations have more room to experiment with difficult issues, as they are not bound to the constraints attached to formal educational settings (e.g. standardized testing, grading, government-approved curricula, and so on). With this freedom, art centres and galleries can also establish spaces, programming, and overall mandates that encourage community learning, sharing, and a sense of belonging, which sets the stage for discourse, learning, and social change. This means that public pedagogical settings can be important places of discourse and alternative education, especially in relation to social issues. At the Visual Arts Centre, we see this in our studios, within our gallery, and during off-site exchanges. We especially witness lively discourse, education, and opportunities for social change in our community outreach programming associated with our School of Art (ARTreach) and our very recently initiated McClure Gallery community education programme.

GSB: So, what direction would you like to take in developing The Visual Arts Centre’s future? What role does it have in our community (society)? And why is the centre important?

NSR: Since 1946, the VAC has offered a unique, inclusive arts-based learning location for diverse publics in and around Montreal. In our courses, we welcome people of all ages (from 3 years and up) and levels (from beginner to professionals). Our School of Art is the largest bilingual independent art school in Canada and the McClure Gallery is a very well recognized contemporary art space. With our ARTreach programme, we facilitate free art education programming for those who have limited access to arts education and/or who are experiencing difficult social and/or economic circumstances.

In our society, there is a great need for places that actively contribute to a sense of community, well-being, creativity, and critical engagement. The VAC offers all of this.

Our society moves fast, especially in cities – people tend to work a lot, travel as fast as possible, and take in an enormous amount of visual stimuli each day. By taking courses at the VAC, experiencing art in the McClure Gallery, participating in the Gallery’s educational programming, or participating in our ARTreach programme, people have a chance to take time to really look (and see), make, socialize, and discover, all through arts-based learning. Importantly, arts-based learning encourages people to notice diverse ways of knowing and experiencing the world and to discuss and discover innovative solutions for pressing issues. Ultimately, it is my hope that through artistic engagement at the VAC, our publics will become even more engaged citizens.

To further emphasize this, I am really excited about expanding the educational programming associated with our McClure Gallery. Contemporary artists create art that is made in our current society and they naturally draw on the world around them in creating, often with a visual language that we are familiar with. Many artists actively work to address pressing social issues in their work, offering alternative perspectives and entry-points for innovative problem solving and calls for action. This is very evident in the In/Visible exhibition. Educational programming can enhance the public’s experiences with such work, furthering the potential for enhanced citizen engagement. For this reason, I am really looking forward to further expanding our educational programming associated with the Gallery. We are starting to work with community groups, such as C.A.R.E., a charity that offers recreational and educational programming to adults with physical disabilities. Starting in the fall, we will host a pop-up art hive directly in the McClure Gallery on the last Saturday of each exhibition. We are also adding more workshops led by some of our exhibiting artists.

GSB: Your own experience and work in community and museum art education has been rich and comprehensive. How did you get involved with the VAC and this line of work?

NSR: I’ve been very privileged to work with a variety of community, gallery, and museum sites in Ontario, Quebec, and the U.S.A. Developing, facilitating, evaluating, and researching art education programming in such sites has been my passion for over fifteen years. Although I became the Executive Director of the VAC in January of 2017, my connection to the VAC actually started approximately 10 years ago. While conducting my doctoral work at Concordia University, I was the Coordinator of the internships associated with the Community Art Education programme in the Department of Art Education, and the VAC was one of the internship sites for the students. In 2012, I began teaching in the Youth and Teen Department at the VAC and I also had a student intern from Concordia’s Department of Art Education in one of the courses I taught. In 2013, I left the VAC and Canada to teach at the University of Arizona, where I was Assistant Professor of Art and Visual Culture Education in the School of Art. Three years later, I left my position at the UA for family reasons and we returned to Canada. I saw the posting for the Executive Director position at the VAC and immediately and enthusiastically applied. I was offered the position in the fall of 2016. It is truly stimulating and fascinating to see how so many aspects of my varied educational and professional background are essential to the work I do at the VAC today.

GSB: You take on many roles at the VAC and your own evolution has been nothing short of broad and rich. What are your hopes for your future?

NSR: As a student, postdoctoral fellow, and professor, I was a very active researcher, publishing numerous articles and presenting regularly. I view the VAC as a research site – a laboratory for teaching and learning. As such, I am excited about continuing my research practice here at the VAC. I will be conducting research on our McClure Gallery Art Hive, as well as other gallery educational programming. I’m very interested how the concept of the teaching museum, which is traditionally associated with museums on academic campuses, can be applied to an independent art school. There are many other research ideas floating around in my mind and I am very much looking forward to pursuing these. As part of my research, I hope to return to an art practice. Through an arts-based research practice, I intend to continue to explore social justice concerns, particularly in relation to critical multiculturalism. Also, the In/Visible exhibition was such an incredible experience. I would really like to continue my curatorial practice, also with a focus on social justice concerns.

GSB: How does Montreal bode as far as providing spaces of discourse, education and exchange within the art community?

NSR: Montreal is such a strong leader in relation to discourse, education, and exchange within the arts community. Returning to Montreal in 2016, I was so impressed with the thriving arts scene, rich exchanges between artists and between artists and arts organizations, critical discussions about social concerns through art, and innovative artistic practices that often involve community engagement. With the impressive number of universities and CÉGEPS, Montreal also has an inherent research culture. More and more, we are seeing interdisciplinary research projects at these institutions, which often emphasize art as a form of research. It is exciting! I feel very lucky to be able to experiment, connect, and grow in this dynamic city.

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