Offering more than just a space where art objects meet an audience, exhibitions give artists the opportunity to showcase their training and creation efforts. For Karly Mortimer, Director of Artist and Program Development at the National accessArts Centre (NaAC), exhibitions also allow artists to explore their creativity in new and exciting ways.
“Exhibition making is a creative practice, so it can be a natural extension from the studio,” she says. “The root word of curation means to care for artwork, and during the pandemic, there have been many fruitful public conversations of what care means. It seemed like a perfect time to explore what care for artwork means with one of our artists.”
Karly invited studio artist Michelle (a.k.a. Magic) Bennie, who has been attending the NaAC for many years, to participate in a curatorial mentorship program. Having the opportunity to explore the creative practices behind exhibition-making was a first for Michelle, who loved the idea. It was a first for the NaAC, too.
“The program was truly an experiment and completely designed around our participant’s creative practice,” says Karly, who, after outlining the outcomes for the program, wasn’t quite sure where to go from there. But Michelle knew the way.
Michelle leaned into elements of improvisation and narrative to create a dynamic story that connects the works of several NaAC artists in a group exhibition she called Midnight in Space. “It is a phrase full of beautiful imagery and impossibilities,” says Karly, who helped Michelle come up with a list of words to describe what midnight in space might look like, including dreaming, shooting stars, and seeing Santa at midnight.
“I picked the name Midnight in Space because I liked it,” says Michelle. “I saw fireworks everywhere. When I was sleeping, I saw fireworks and aliens in outer space.”
With Karly’s support, Michelle selected works by NaAC artists that fit the exhibition’s theme and sometimes renamed them.
“She would describe what she saw in the works and how she felt they were connected. So we decided to create titled groupings and add Michelle’s titles and descriptions to the exhibition,” says Karly. “This was a practice that I had never seen in exhibition-making before. It was so creative and so true to Michelle.”
This way of working — letting artists lead their own learning — was very familiar to Karly. In fact, it’s a driving force behind program development at the NaAC, where artists are always the decision-makers in their practice.
“To have a process and presentation completely designed by Michelle gave her control over how we can care for artwork and ideas,” says Karly. “Michelle’s curatorial practice is about giving more life to artworks by adding another layer of interpretation and story.”
Midnight in Space was presented online with the help of Studio C Prospect Gallery. You can still take a digital tour.
Michelle and Karly teamed up again this summer, following this same process, to create a second exhibition called The Wild Thing in The City. The show features works by seven NaAC artists, all of which Michelle retitled as part of her curatorial practice.
The process was captured in real-time in a video that will be shared at the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation’s ImprovFest on August 14. The free, 24-hour festival will feature over 150 international performers of all disciplines, including music, dance, theatre, poetry, visual arts, and more. Watch the festival live at improvfest.ca/watch/
To learn more about the Curatorial Mentorship Program and how you can support artists living with disabilities, visit accessarts.ca/help/