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Week 7 – Institutional Criticism

Dernière mise à jour : 12 mai 2020

Making Silences Heard / Making Voids Visible

The term "institutional critique" refers, among other things, to an artistic genre and a specific historical period in the wake of conceptual art. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first wave of institutional critique resulted in works that studied the internal workings of art institutions. Conceptual artists working within this genre reject the idea that a work of art is neutral, merely aesthetic, and therefore apolitical. They instead consider it as an object inscribed within a system imbued with power relations and ideologies that must be brought to light. Artists seek to make art institutions (the system) transparent, focusing on its donors, staff, board of directors, the type of works collected, their modes of presentation, in order to uncover inconsistencies between image, mandate and actions. A famous example of this strategy is the project Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, created by Hans Haacke for his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1971. With this work, Haacke denounced the fraudulent practices of a real estate group that owned buildings in poor condition and speculated by taking advantage of marginalized populations. Cancelled a month before its opening by the Museum's director, the exhibition led to the dismissal of the curator who had organized it. Following the Museum’s reaction, many suspected that the institution's board of directors or patrons had ties to the real estate developers, although the work, which was not exhibited in New York until 1987, did not mention this. Since advocates of the autonomy of art (art valued solely for its aesthetic qualities) still formed the majority of the community at that time, Haacke’s "instrumentalization" of art for social and political criticism was shocking.

In the 1980s and 1990s, museum practices are studied from the perspective of contemporary social movements and specifically issues of representation and equal opportunity for minority identity groups. Artists such as the Guerrilla Girls denounce, with statistical evidence, the lack of women artists in museum collections; Rebecca Belmore, with her performance Artifact #371B (1988) reveals the contradictions of the exhibition The Spirit Sings, organized by the Glenbow Museum during the Olympic Games in Calgary to celebrate First Nations, that only presented artifacts from the past, as if these communities had disappeared; and Fred Wilson , with his project Mining the Museum (1992), used the collection of the Maryland Museum of History to reveal another side of the story of colonization and slavery in the United States. What all these artists have in common is their posture: they directly attack the modern postulate of the autonomy of the artistic sphere.

This rapid history of this artistic movement, still present in current practices, shows that, a priori, criticism came from artists and aimed to denounce artistic institutions. Today, institutional criticism has been integrated by institutions (museum curators, exhibition curators, art critics, directors) as a tool for the self-analysis of their practices. With the potential effect of making institutions more open to change, more responsive, more inclusive. A turning point outlined by Simon Sheikh in an article entitled: “Notes on Institutional Critique” (2006) [].

The recent re-hanging of the Canadian art galleries at the National Gallery of Canada is part of a desire to respond to critics. It now includes Indigenous art, which was previously confined to its own galleries (implying that Indigenous art is not part of Canadian art, a statement that is subject to debate). The creation of the position of Curator of Indigenous Art in 2017 by the Art Gallery of Ontario, since occupied by Wanda Nanibush, is another gesture towards ameliorating representation within institutions. Large museums usually take more time to react to critiques, but smaller institutions, for example artists-run centres, act faster.

At the Musée d'art de Joliette, we recognize that our collections do not include enough works by women artists, artists with diverse cultural backgrounds, and Indigenous artists, and we are trying, with recent acquisitions, to change this situation. In recent years, the program of temporary exhibitions has deliberately made more room for these artists. The first group exhibition at the Museum since its reopening in 2015 was curated by Wendat curator Guy Sioui Durand. The video La mallette noire [The Black Bag] (2014) by Caroline Monnet and Daniel Watchorn was then presented in a section of the permanent exhibition dedicated to the theme of the sacred. The exhibition Of Tobacco and Sweetgrass. Where Our Dreams Are, produced in partnership with the Aboriginal curatorial collective, brought together the works of nine Indigenous artists from Quebec, spanning several generations.

Caroline Monnet, a multidisciplinary artist of Anishinabe origin, has teamed up with Quebec artist Daniel Watchorn to produce this fictional video inspired by the traumatic experience of residential schools as recounted by survivors. The encounter between this work, the religious heritage highlighted in the room, and the history of the Musée d'art de Joliette, founded by the religious congregation of the Clerics of Saint-Viateur, was powerful. Hearing, amidst the images of saints, the echoes of a crying baby in the Indigenous residential school, would give you chills. This exhibition was presented at the same time as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where testimonies of thousands of residential school survivors were heard. It was an opportunity for the Museum to forge ties with the Centre d'amitié autochtone de Lanaudière (CAAL) [Indigenous Friendship Centre of Lanaudière]. Young people who attend the CAAL came several times to discover the works. These young people gave a tour of the exhibition to museumgoers and other members of the CAAL, including Elders who grew up at a time when residential schools were commonplace. Everyone was very moved by this work, which sparked discussions and moments of sharing.

By inserting this video in the heart of the room dedicated to sacred and religious art, Guy Sioui Durand and I wanted to bring out the elephant in the room: the difficult reality of the hidden misconduct and breach of trust, which the religious works presented in the room do not directly attest to. Thus, by inviting artists and curators to interact in its permanent exhibition rooms, the Museum seeks to engage in an open dialogue on its history and practices. It recognizes that the works give voice, are arranged to tell a story, and bear witness to a point of view, all of which we must be able to challenge. Similarly, the McCord Museum runs a residency program that allows artists to immerse themselves in its collections and question them in the form of exhibitions.

Caroline Monnet et Daniel Watchorn, La mallette noire [The Black Bag], 2014. Installation view at Musée d’art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland

Caroline Monnet et Daniel Watchorn, La mallette noire [The Black Bag], 2014. Installation view at Musée d’art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland

Caroline Monnet et Daniel Watchorn, La mallette noire [The Black Bag], 2014. Installation view at Musée d’art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland

Caroline Monnet et Daniel Watchorn, La mallette noire [The Black Bag], 2014. Installation view at Musée d’art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland

This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.

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