An Interview with Kitty Scott

Photo: Craig Boyko, AGO

In roughly 25 years as a curator, Kitty Scott has worked in some of the most prominent art galleries, institutions and art venues in the world, along with many of its most accomplished artists. Currently the Carol and Morton Rapp Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, she previously worked at the Banff Centre in Alberta as director of the Visual Arts program; was Chief Curator at the Serpentine Galleries in London, England; and Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) from 2000 to 2006.

Scott has curated exhibitions of work by artists such as Francis Alÿs, Stephen Andrews, Janet Cardiff, and George Bures Miller. She has also written extensively about contemporary art for catalogues, books and journals, and frequently lectures at art schools as well as for curatorial programs across North America.

Scott is also a curatorial advisor for the Biennale de Montréal 2016 (BNLMTL 2016) Le Grand Balcon, on view until January at a number of locations throughout Montreal. Established in 1998, the BNLMTL is a noted exhibition of contemporary art which partners with the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal and numerous other venues. In 2017, she will curate Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer’s work for the Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and in 2018, will be co-curator of the Liverpool Biennial.

In this interview, Kitty Scott talks about the evolving role of the curator in nurturing, presenting and collecting art for generations to come.


NGC Magazine: You are one of three curatorial advisors for the Biennale de Montréal 2016. How did it feel to be invited to work on this exhibition, and what was your specific role in working with this team of curators?

Kitty Scott: I felt very honoured to be invited to work alongside Art historian, curator and critic Philippe Pirotte on The Grand Balcony, the exhibition he developed for the Biennale. My role was very modest. This is one of the few large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions in Canada. I want it to continue and be successful. Philippe has great energy, and is a very talented curator. He is sensitive, and collaborates with artists in an intelligent manner. Hopefully, my knowledge and experience brought a little something extra to the activity of exhibition-making.

NGCM: What did you learn?

KS: I liked a statement Philippe made about the importance of the curator having a humble attitude. He said “As the curator, I am the exhibition’s first audience. I’m not making a statement about the world.”

NGCM: The Biennale de Montréal is entitled Le Grand Balcon [The Grand Balcony], loosely named after the play, Le Balcon, by French dramatist Jean Genet. In the play, the balcony represents a revolutionary uprising in microcosm. What do you like about this theme, and how it is expressed in this exhibition?

KS: It seemed that the curator was more interested in opening up a discussion than in having an all-encompassing theme. He presented us with a wide-ranging, open and worldly approach — one that allowed for an organic process that included work by a lot of women artists and expressed curiosity in many young artists. Philippe brought in work by some of the most significant artists of our time, such as Luc Tuymanns and Kerry James Marshall, but also invited Moyra Davey, Janice Kerbel, Frances Stark and Haegue Yang, as well as younger figures such as Anne Imhof, Celia Perrin Sidarous and Luke Willis Thompson. Anne’s performance during the opening week was a highlight.

Installation view, La Biennale de Montréal 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Montreal featuring Celia Perrin Sidarous, Notte coralli, 2016, photo by Daniel Roussel, courtesy of La Biennale de Montréal

NGCM: What does it speak to, or satisfy, in your curatorial inclinations?

KS: It is clear to me, in the way that the exhibition was presented, that Philippe wants to foreground artworks and exhibit them in collaboration with the artist.

NGCM: You are currently the Carol and Morton Rapp Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. You went to the AGO with a very specific goal or vision. Can you explain what that vision was?

KS: At the time the call came from the AGO, I was at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and we were deep in work on dOCUMENTA (13). I was enjoying my time at the Centre. I especially loved the mix of creation, exhibition and extreme nature. The AGO is a very special place. I wanted to turn up the volume on its commitment to contemporary art, and encourage others to become involved. In particular, I hoped to introduce new generations of living artists to the city, and to bring major works into the collection. I think I have managed to be successful on both counts.

Installation view, La Biennale de Montréal 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Montreal featuring works by Haegue Yang, photo by Daniel Roussel, courtesy of La Biennale de Montréal

NGCM: Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer, who has become internationally acclaimed for his epic sculptural works, including Leaves of Grass (2012), will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale from May 13 to November 26, 2017. He asked you to be the curator for this prestigious exhibition, for which Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGC will be project manager. How do you feel about being asked to do this?

KS: Thrilled! We have a long history, and have worked together many times over the years. The first time was his inclusion in a group show I curated in Vancouver, called Browser (1997). His work for that exhibition — a video and accompanying archive called The boss log (1997) — has since made its way into the national collection. This acquisition was followed by Trailer (2002), which was on display for most of my time at the NGC. It was a work that surprised viewers, and stopped them in their tracks over and over again. Geoffrey really impressed me with his curiosity, intensity and reach, in a way few artists did at that time. It was great to work with him on Leaves of Grass, which he first made for dOCUMENTA (13). We had no idea the project would be so epic.

NGCM: What is your vision or goal for the Venice Biennale?

KS: Well, you go in wanting to do your very best, striving for something called excellence. Where you end up is the consequence of many factors, and hopefully you steer the project where it needs to go.

Canada Pavilion, Venice Biennale

NGCM: You have worked with Geoffrey Farmer from the late 1990s to the present day. How have you seen his work evolve?

KS: Those who have been watching closely have begun to understand Farmer as a creator of scenarios, and as someone who is deeply interested in the “exhibition as a form.” You could see it in the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? (2015). Although it contained many of his most important works made over the course of his career, including Trailer, The Surgeon and the Photographer (2013), and Make the Water Turn Black (2013), as well as many other works, the entire display was conceived as a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.

NGCM: Obviously Venice is an incredible honour for Geoffrey Farmer, but what does your involvement mean for your career? Why is it important?

KS: It is a great honour to be invited by Geoffrey to accompany him as he creates a work for this particular exhibition. Venice presents an opportunity for a curator to work on an international platform. Here, we see the art that an international array of experts has deemed to be most relevant to our time. As a curator, it is part of my job to see this exhibition every two years, and to think about it with respect to our collection and future exhibitions. It becomes a part of my visual vocabulary. My work with Geoffrey will be seen and judged by my peers.

NGCM: You were the Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada from 2000 to 2006. You once said that when at the NGC you “had a sense of purpose.” What did you mean?

KS: I believe building a collection is one of the most important aspects of a curator’s job description. While exhibitions come and go, the collection remains and is what makes the museum distinct. Few curators are involved in building collections of significance, or in working with collectors and with institutions to leave something for generations to come.

NGCM: What were some of the highlights during your time at the National Gallery?

KS: While at the NGC, I very much enjoyed building the collection. (Then) Director Pierre Théberge was very supportive. Some of the acquisitions that I am very proud of include Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (1999), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Paradise Institute (2001), Steve McQueen’s Once Upon a Time (2002), Peter Doig’s Grand Riviere (2001–2002) and Brian Jungen’s Shapeshifter (2000).

NGCM: You have had a number of impressive achievements in your career as a curator. What would you like to do next?

KS: I am looking forward to working on the Liverpool Biennial, which opens in the summer of 2018.

NGCM: As a curator, what advice do you have for artists?

KS: Look at lots of exhibitions. Learn from art with which you share the same space. Think with others. Make the best work you are able to. Be generous and supportive of peers.

The Biennale de Montréal 2016 Le Grand Balcon is on view at various venues in Montreal until January 15, 2017. For more on Geoffrey Farmer and the 2017 Venice Biennale, please click here, and stay tuned to NGC Magazine for upcoming features on both Geoffrey Farmer and the Biennale.

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