Culture | The growth of a gallery

Concordia’s Ellen Art Gallery explores the evolution of art collections

Walking into the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia’s McConnell Library, I realized that I had luckily shown up right as a tour of the gallery’s newest exhibition, Inflections of a Practice, was starting. The tour was conducted by Michèle Thériault, the director of the gallery, and Mélanie Rainville, the exhibit’s curator. I could have just wandered around, looking at the paintings, but Inflections of a Practice is really about a process, and on my own I might have missed the real meaning of the exhibit. The pieces on display are props – illustrations that serve as the subject of a story, but certainly are not the entire story. The story is actually about vocation, politics, the smell of donuts, and owning ideas.

The entire exhibition is an attempt to show how practices in collecting art have changed since the 1960s. According to Rainville, there are “practices that need to be re-evaluated, practices that are outdated.” Some of the pieces on display were painted and donated by the directors of the gallery (it’s not cool to do that today), and some of them have no documentation whatsoever – the current directors have no idea where they came from or if the gallery even officially owns them. Another problem with some works is their lack of presentation documentation. In other words, the directors don’t know how the artist meant a work to be arranged for viewing.

Rainville was asked about the extent to which the artist owns a work, especially when the work requires specific construction for proper presentation in a gallery. Does the buyer of a work own the idea? Or the physical object? When does art move into the realm of material property? Like genes, can art be patented? These are questions with controversial and varied answers.

Like the question of ownership, there are also questions of integrity. Art is not static – it decays and changes colour when exposed to light. So there have also been changes in conservation and restoration practices. “Artists are way, way more concerned about the future of their work [than they used to be],” said Thériault, but added that “some works live so long and they fall apart, and that’s okay.” Such things are part of the identity of the artwork. Art is allowed to be dynamic and transitory, but some collecting and conservation practices don’t take that into account. The disintegration of a piece is part of its reality, especially when preservation practices threaten a piece’s integrity.

Dynamics aside, though, society wants art to survive for the benefit of future generations. Instead of having paintings pushed up against the glass of their frames, as some works in the exhibit are, paint is deliberately protected now. Lighting is carefully modulated. Better ventilation prevents the smell of Tim Horton’s donuts from permeating the artistic experience of the gallery. Sterility and stagnation rule gallery practices now. The Ellen gallery currently has a moratorium on collecting, simply because they have no more room. While this is a very practical move, just knowing this makes the gallery feel musty and old, lost in a little corner of the university.

Inflections of a Practice invites the viewer to think about how exhibitions and art collections are formed, how they evolve, and how changing processes affect what viewers are exposed to. When presented with both outdated and current modes of collection and presentation, we have to ask – how long will it be before these “modern” ways become outdated? By focusing on the past, the exhibit fails to address an important part of the “inflections of a practice” – namely, the future – and gives the collection itself a somewhat outdated atmosphere. Nonetheless, the exhibit presents an important perspective on art – one that is not often made so readily accessible to the public – and is worth seeing for that reason alone. It provides a chance, as viewers, to look behind the scenes of the processes by which gallery art eventually ends up on the wall for us to see.

“Inflections of a Practice” is on display at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery (1400 De Maisonneuve O.) until February 13, Tuesday-Friday 12-6 p.m., Saturday 12-5 p.m.