I was thrilled when aceartinc's director hannah_g agreed to an interview in the days leading up to Nuit Blanche. Not only is she incredibly conscientious and well-spoken in her work, she's just straight-up charming. While chatting in her expansive, bright work space, we touched on Nuit Blanche, the importance of thoughtful critique, and her hopes for the future of art and culture in Winnipeg.
Full: Can you describe for me what the place will look like on the night of Nuit Blanche?
hannah_g: When people come into ace, they will see Esther Simmonds MacAdam’s “Seperates the man from the horse” along with the artist's talk available to listen on headphones, which I strongly recommend, because it really breaks open the work. And then we’ve partnered with WNDX. They will be screening a film. We’re also working with The Manitoba Craft Council, because they do their fundraiser every year. They’ll have a bowl filled with chilli to eat and keep. On the street, you’ll see steam rising from two chilli bowls into the street, and people can come in and buy one or not, and they’ll come into the aceart stable, with the sleeping horse over there in the corner, and then wander into the flux gallery, where WNDX’s film will be screening. Their festival is gaining steam.
Full: How is the experience of Nuit Blanche different from the regular crowd you see?
hg: It has the same kind of feel to it as a First Friday, but as if that experience had drunk a lot of coffee. It’s a mixed crowd. There are the people who regularly hang around and work in the arts community, there are First Friday-ers, and then there’s a young professional scene that comes down to enjoy the night.
Full: How would you describe your role leading up to the event?
hg: I’ve learned that I don’t have to create huge fanfare or a big shebang. I see my role at ace being more of a facilitator, so being able to partner with WNDX and get more recognition for them, and the MCC, who we partner with anyway. To increase visibility for different things going on in the city is our major role. By doing that, we’re increasing visibility for contemporary artists who are more niche. The people who come out for Nuit Blanche might never have heard about the WNDX film festival, and so by partnering with them and facilitating screenings for them, we’re able to robustly fulfill our mandate of supporting emerging artists. Our mandate is very important to me as the director of ace, but also personally. I feel I’ve benefited from some of the pillars in the mandate, and I want to pass on those benefits to other people.
Full: In your mandate, you talk about putting forward contemporary artists, and you also refer to them as “cultural producers.” Could you tell me more about what that term means to you?
hg: Referring to someone as a cultural producer is another way of trying not to pigeon-hole artists, to allow an expansive definition of what contemporary art is, and how an imagination can be articulated and presented. It’s trying to be an inclusive term as well as being a sort of socially and artistically relevant term for people who may not identify themselves as contemporary artists, and may have a problem with the label “contemporary.” By citing oneself as a cultural producer, it can be a term that’s less problematic and more expansive.
Full: How do you go about selecting artists for your exhibits?
hg: We have five regular exhibitions a year, and for each exhibition we adhere to CARFAC fees, which means we pay professional fees to the artists. We mount the work professionally and promote it professionally. Those five artists are selected by an open call for submissions which is local, national and international. It eschews a curatorial vision. I’m a programmer, not a curator. My job is to facilitate the artist’s own vision rather than fulfill my own theoretical or aesthetic vision.
A program that’s selected by jury can allow for surprises; it can challenge me, as well as opening up opportunities for people we’ve never heard of. We get between 130 and 150 applicants every year. We have a jury of around six people - a couple staff members from ace, a couple of our board members, who are generally artists as well, and people in the community who are involved in the arts and have a good understanding of contemporary art and production. Then we spend a couple of nights arguing and hashing things out. We agree on five shows.
Full: Is there any special consideration for the exhibit you put on during Nuit Blanche?
hg: Putting together a year-long exhibition schedule presents many challenges. I do think about Nuit Blanche, but there are also things like artists schedules, which can change at the last minute. For example, this exhibition wasn’t actually due to be mounted until October, but the artist had a change in her circumstance, so I had to shuffle it.
I do thing about it, and try to be cognisant, understanding the exposure it can bring to artists, but there are different pressures that come into forming that schedule. This time we’re not showcasing a local artist in the main gallery, this is a work that comes from out east, which I think is extremely valuable, but then we’ve also got a local component through our partnerships with MCC and WNDX. It’s very much a process of trying to find the right nutrition, to make sure everyone gets fed.
Full: When I looked over your schedule for exhibits this year, I noticed that four out of five of the shows feature female artists. Is that a conscious decision by the jury, or is that something that just happened naturally?
hg: Our selection process is a meritocracy. Before the jury is sat, I read our mandate to remind them we’re looking for contemporary art, emerging art, and to bear in mind all kinds of diversity, but we don’t have a quota system. We don’t have to have this many women, this many people who are indigenous, this many francophones, or people of colour. In order to address that, I think that the challenge is actually getting that work to the jury. It’s a year-long process of making the gallery a welcoming place to artists, so that artists who may be from diverse backgrounds know that this is a gallery which accepts their work and wants to see their work.
Full: What are some of the things you do to try to get as much work in that represents different kinds of voices or showcases different perspectives?
hg: One of them is the simple process of always talking to people about ace. Anytime someone visits or wherever I am representing ace, I’m always inviting people to be in touch with me. Another thing is trying to find different routes in. For example, we’re very lucky to be awarded a grant by The Winnipeg Foundation for an Indigenous curatorial residency. By doing that, my aim - after consulting with Indigenous people in the community and curators, so I wasn’t replicating a colonial model - is to bring in more work by Indigenous artists. We haven’t had a high number of applications from that group. It’s troubled me and the board.
Full: Earlier you mentioned that sometimes the shows challenge you personally. Can you recall a specific show that’s an example of that?
hg: There have been several. I think the one which I found a very interesting challenge, was a show submitted by Michael Dudeck called Amygdala. Michael is a rigorous artist; he’s very serious and engaged in his practice, but he’s controversial as well. And I didn’t want to exploit the controversy, but I also didn’t want to pretend it wasn’t there. Part of it was his use of imagery. There were people talking about appropriation. I’m a fairly transparent person; I like things to be open, and I like people to voice their criticisms openly so that I can learn from it and the community and artist can learn from it. To facilitate that criticism in a way that didn’t threaten the artist, I invited a lot of people to the artist talk that we had. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who I had heard perhaps having interesting points of view on the exhibition didn’t come and take the opportunity to actually talk. That was an interesting process for me in trying to understand some of the machinations of criticism. But then I commissioned an essay from Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, who was at the time the direct of Urban Shaman Gallery, and she wrote a really good response. It was balanced, it had depth to it, she addressed concerns, but she was also fair I think.
Full: How you feel about that kind of atmosphere that Nuit Blanche offers - diverse crowd, a wealth of free shows, late night?
hg: I think it’s great. I think that contemporary art and a lot of culture should be free. Having a lot of things going on late at night is a good thing. It’s a shame it gets so cold here at the end of September, but whatever. I wish there was a way that artists could be paid a fair amount of money for what they do [at Nuit Blanche]. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, and I understand that it’s a community thing where everyone is kind of mucking in, but at the same time that spectacle is happening because of artists making work. It’s hard in a city like Winnipeg sometimes.
Overall, I think Nuit Blanche is a good thing. I do support it. Questioning it, for me, is a mark of respect, because I’m invested in it.
Full: Do you see a way for those two things to coexist? To make art free to the public while offering more money to artists?
hg: I think that if every gallery charged admission [on the night of Nuit Blanche], our attendance would drop massively, and even if it didn’t, if we retained the numbers that we have now, I don’t know if that would still pay everyone enough money. So I don’t think admission is the key.
It’s more that if Nuit Blanche is seen as a celebration of culture and art in the city and invested in that way. If it’s seen as a festival, you don’t necessarily expect festivals to make a lot of money. Everyone’s learning, and it’s this fun, cultural thing. So I think that’s important for people to recognize that this is perhaps the only time of year that so many different people actually come down to see galleries and artwork, and those people are not going to be standing in a gallery contemplating. It’s boom, boom, boom. It’s performance and that immediate stimulation, that’s the nature of the night. But maybe it would mean that people would come back. So I think it’s more of a long-term investment, but perhaps that’s idealistic.
Full: Perhaps, but there’s an extent to which the engagement with and promotion of this kind of niche artwork is a kind of idealism of itself. And I mean that in a positive way.
hg: I think that engagement with culture and art is a wider issue that involves things like major media outlets dominating and not producing much work that respects the intellect of their audience. And I think that it’s a shame that there’s only one national outlet for art and culture discussion in Canada - the CBC. So I think there’s actually a much wider problem with appreciating art and culture. Really, the pre-requisite for engaging with contemporary culture - art, short stories, theatre - is feeling confident in your own capacity for being critical and also being intellectually open: being prepared not to understand, and not being threatened or angered by that, but just spending time with something. That’s something that goes back to the need to teach philosophy and criticism in schools.
You can engage with aceartinc's three exhibits as part of Nuit Blanche this Saturday, September 26th from 7pm-6am. It's always one of my favourite parties of the year. Check out Nuit's website for a full summary of all the events taking place.