Wayne Baerwaldt on ACAD’s Dissolution of His Director/Curator Position: “It’s an Issue of Public Trust”

Iran do Espírito Santo, "En passant 8," 2011. Illingworth Kerr Gallery. Photo: Richard Rhodes

A recent scuttling on social-media signaled a disturbance was underfoot at Alberta College of Art + Design (ACAD), where the well-reputed Illingworth Kerr Gallery resides, and at its helm for nearly ten years, director/curator Wayne Baerwaldt. It became clear that the art school’s administration issued a memo to its faculty in late May, stating that, upon his imminent retirement at the end of June, Baerwaldt’s position would not be filled.

The implications were vague at best, but suggested a new structure where roving faculty, volunteers, and/or students would potentially be doing the work of a full-time director/curator. This is a curator whose CV includes former posts at the Power Plant (director, 2002-05), Plug In Gallery (director, 1988-2000), and as co-commissioner and curator of the award-winning Cardiff + Miller exhibition at the 49th Venice Biennale (2001).

I spoke to Baerwaldt over the phone. He demonstrated gratitude for his institution, but also grave concern over the implications of its recent decision.

Do you know to what extent – if at all – you’ll be involved in shaping the gallery’s structure going forward, in lieu of a director/curator?

No, not at all. I won’t be involved; I haven’t been asked.

Is it something you’d want to participate in doing?

I thought so, yes. I thought this whole process and discussion around the gallery would be more transparent. And if there is a crunch, one might suggest that the staff work part-time, to start the process, for instance.

But what happened was in April I approached HR and inquired whether they would have any early retirement packages available, as they did about three years ago when about ten of our faculty retired, so to speak, and were given a package to do so. When I asked about it they said, “no. There isn’t, and there won’t be.” I said, “ah okay, well I’m thinking about leaving in a year or two anyway, so I just wanted to know what kind of packages would be offered on a group basis, not just for an individual.” The next day, HR said, “well as a matter of fact, there is something you should know. That in this restructuring process that is going on, they’re going to dissolve the position of director/curator, so maybe you do want to talk about early retirement.” [laughs]

I thought, well, if they’re being honest – who knows – and you actually don’t have a package after June 30th, and they make some announcement in the depths of summer, you could be left with maybe six weeks of pay, and that’s it.

So I figured I better see what can be done here – while still offering my services. I’m concerned about the gallery itself. “What do you mean you don’t have a plan? What do you mean you think faculty is going to be doing the programing? What about the collection itself?” It’s an issue of public trust. You can’t see the faculty or an ad-hoc committee taking responsibility. Where do the liability issues come into play? I haven’t had much of a response, I don’t know if they’ve thought about it. Their issue, really, is operating dollars and the lack [thereof].

In what ways has the Illingworth Kerr taken a hit in recent years? Was the writing on the wall?

Our internal baseline budget had been reduced by ten percent over the past couple years, but really on an ongoing basis. Except for our two contract positions, which are union positions – for the assistant curator and the head technician – and I’m on a management-exempt contract, so our salaries haven’t increased in years. These have been stagnating. The few programing dollars that we have have been reduced every year for the past six years. But I’ve raised over 2.5 million dollars in the last nine years for programing. So we’ve tried to be self-sufficient in terms of budgeting for exhibitions, for catalogues, visiting artists, etc. But again, those monies are in-and-out programing dollars, not operating dollars. And when you have unionized people and faculty, in particular, and that’s the bulk of your budget, and it increases each year, the gaps between revenues and expenses are going to be considerable.

The icing on the cake is they’re going to try to launch their first MFA, in craft media, this September. I think there’s one person enrolled and they’ve had probably 70 or 80 inquiries. That will tell you that there is no money for scholarships, no money for TA-ships, no money for materials; virtually no space. It’s all wrong.

So in fact it’s a good time to be leaving. [laughs]

I was going to say …

We’re so myopically driven by fiscal crisis that we can’t look at the way the gallery operates properly and try to figure out how to drive operating dollars. That’s the point at which you have to go.

You produced a successful conference in Stronger Than Stone, just last November.

Yes, I should say, I care about the programing and that’s where I get my indicators for how we’re doing. In November we co-sponsored and co-produced Stronger Than Stone: (Re)Inventing the Indigenous Monument with Jen Budney and others, over thirty academics and non-academics, between Calgary and Saskatoon. It was an amazing, electrifying conference and there were amazing papers delivered, all of them streamed. It was a great success.

But there was not one comment from the administration, afterwards. And that had me thinking, there’s something wrong here. Because I would see that kind of success as opening the doors to – if you want to be crass – Aboriginal services dollars. Or extending the whole research around monuments in a number of directions that would attract money; to expand research capacity and reputation. None of this came up, and it was, again, another indication of a system in crisis, where you can’t respond to whatever it is that’s making … you actually can’t identify it.

Right. So you track that oversight or negligence to a paralyzed administration.

I think so. I think they’re understaffed. It can be one of those perfect storms, too, where you have people in administration who, with all due respect, don’t get it. Don’t get the gallery, how it operates within the college as adding reputation and providing a real resource for student-learning opportunities; faculty research, and community outreach. If your bottom line is only in front of your face, and you can’t qualitatively see the component parts – those of value or potential value – then you’re going to make short-term, shortsighted cuts like this.

We had gone through, two years ago, a year-long review of the gallery. And produced a 25-page report with good recommendations for how to further integrate the gallery into the college-course offerings. This is going on all over North America, with post-secondary museum and gallery staff members: they’re having to qualify and quantify all of their student-learning experiences. We know that. And we did that and Scott Watson, for one, was on our external, and we had student and faculty representation. That [document] went in and I don’t think it was read or taken seriously.

So we have tried to show the added value of the gallery and what it brings to the table comparatively, across North America. We’ve done a lot.

How has the environment of the post-secondary art gallery shifted, over the course of your tenure at ACAD, and what are you observing about the realities of other, similarly-scaled university galleries? 

In the past, I would say across Canada and maybe even in the States too, our university galleries have been run rather independently. I don’t think they’ve truly subscribed to this idea of supporting student-learning experiences. That’s changed, I think, now. There’s more of an emphasis on being aligned with the needs of faculty and the increasing demands by students for quality education. So you have to make sense of your exhibitions for them; otherwise it’s seen as being a detriment to your students. That’s changed over the last five years, maybe. Less independence.

[Further,] there’s more demands to ascribe to the mandate of the school, which is now looking intra-Alberta. We’re supposed to be connecting with our institutions within the province, not outside. It’s about student experience and about connecting with other Albertan institutions, as per the directives, really, of the former PC government here, who, as you might know, was in power for over 44 years.

The possibility of having a gallery that was national or international in scope became less possible. There was less of a budget for travel, so that we could connect with the world. So we’re not participating, not attending conferences, as we should be, or major art events like the Venice Biennale – someone should be. Very little of that happens, here, now.

In my past, I’d like to think that I was involved in a broader discourse that is global in nature, at least national in nature. I was both physically – not just virtually [laughs] – participating.

Lori Van Rooijen, the school’s vice-president of engagement, is quoted as saying, “We don’t think the programing is going to be impacted at all by this decision.” Is there an element of insult in all this?

I hate to think so. I think, again, it might just be a [case] where the vice-president isn’t attuned to what makes an art gallery in a college like this important. She has unfortunately underestimated its significance. It seems odd that they can think, reasonably and with a knowledge base that they might have acquired in discussion with other faculty, artists in the community, and curators … you would think that they might have had a different perspective. But they seem to be dead-set on making, what we commonly know, now, in neoliberalism, as hard decisions. Everyone in administration likes to be able to make those, in my mind. It’s a plus.

What’s curious to me is that this is, as David Balzer has widely argued, a curationist moment. We see it in art schools like yours, where curatorial programs continue to deliver young professionals into the field so that they can articulate, or, some might argue, over-determine, our contemporary moment. Then this happens – the proposal for a headless gallery. Do you see ACAD’s decision as being a trend we should nervously look for, soon, or as an isolated case?

An isolated case. Because I can’t imagine, with the sort of debate that happens at post-secondary establishments and in the community generally – you know, after things like this happen – that you can get away with it. I think that the stats are there. CAMDO [Canadian Art Museums Directors Organization] has done research, for instance, that really shows the advantage of having a college or university gallery attached to [an art school]. It might be a knee-jerk reaction, too, [that the administration] purposely made to attract the donor-sponsor base that supports the gallery. Anything’s possible when the chips are down.

I don’t begrudge them for working this way. I’m not holding anything against them. I wish them all the best and want to support this place. I want to play a role, and maybe that will be one of critique, bringing to the forefront, whenever possible – not rabble-rousing – but the reminder of reputation. How you develop it and how you maintain it.

Do you have an idea of what you’ll do next, and where you’d like to land? Will you be seeking another institutional gallery, or engage in freelance curating for a time?

I need to think about where I can contribute best, and where I think there will be a good fit. I’d like to focus on some of the ideas that came up through Stronger Than Stone, around Aboriginal-inspired design aesthetics, and inclusion or exclusion of Aboriginal women in the creative process. I have some ideas around programing for conferences and exhibitions that I want to continue with. And some of the other ideas I have in mind are much more speculative.

I spent a bit of time in Cuba in March. I’d like to go back there and spend some time thinking [laughs], about all sorts of things related to the artworld, including ethics and moral issues. Things to do with how we operate.



  • Corey says:

    I love that ACAD eliminated this position, excellent move. Collective contribution is vastly superior for a variety of obvious reasons.

  • Kirsten says:

    Corey, collective contribution is much more effective and possible with a leader. Otherwise, who will tie together the threads, who will enact an overarching narrative? Who will hold institutional memory, reach for long-term goals, and enact an overarching vision. Hell, who will raise the millions of dollars he was able to? There is always room for guest-programming, but any vessel needs to have someone sitting at the helm.

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