Culture  VAV-va-voom

Victoria Lessard talks art and democracy with Concordia gallery co-directors

Walking into Concordia’s VAV gallery on a chilly Sunday morning, I found the walls bare, stark white in their simplicity. The gallery was preparing for its next show, and co-directors Emma Siemens-Adolphe and Courtenay Mayse had agreed to take the time to discuss the various realities of running this unique space. The VAV is a student-run, democratic exhibition space – a designation that provides its own distinctive challenges and freedoms.
The McGill Daily: Tell me a little bit about yourselves, your background in art, and how you became involved in the gallery.
Emma Siemens-Adolphe: Well, my interest in gallery work, and my involvement in it, started with my first internship at age 16 in an artist-run gallery in Hudson, New York. Then, I had an internship at Eastern Bloc last year, and then I decided to apply for this job. My background is in art history, but I see myself partaking in exhibition spaces – my favourite part of the job is interacting with the artist. It just seems that the process of facilitating shows is very rewarding. I’m an art history major, but I see myself going into art management, or maybe the business aspect of art.
Courtenay Mayse: I moved to Montreal because it was more of a creative center than where I’m originally from, Edmonton. I started a gallery in a loft that I moved into when I was 19, and that was my first experience. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew that my friends were making really good work, and I wanted to have a place to show it. I converted this loft into a gallery space, the Paper Apartment Gallery, for two years. I think that’s what made me want to put on shows. I’m really interested in exhibitions and ways of showing art. I’m a studio arts major, so, I’m an artist, and I think that also helps with curating, having that different perspective.
MD: What is the mandate or goal of the VAV gallery?
CM: Well, our mandate for the gallery is to support undergraduate student artists. For a lot of these students, it is one of their first experiences showing their work, and so just going through everything with them is important. In terms of our goal for the space, I think it’s just to give first time exhibiting artists a taste of what it’s like in artist-run spaces around the city.
MD: Being that the gallery is a democratically run space, could you speak more about that process in terms of how you guys became the co-directors of the gallery, as well as your role within the gallery itself as a director?
ES-A: Yeah. I’d say that the reason for [our title as director rather than curator] is because the artists themselves have a lot of agency within the gallery. Especially in terms of what they want to exhibit, in what space, and what layout. Of course we do have quite a bit of say, and we tend to influence the artists in terms of suggesting what would look best. Also, because there is maybe on average four artists showing at a time, it’s always best if Courtenay and I can have the final say by suggesting pieces, but seeing as it’s democratically run, we have to be careful not to act with too much say, it’s more of a compromise.
CM: In terms of how we got the job, it’s not that democratic. It’s not like we were elected, it was an interview process, and we were selected for the job. However, it’s not just us that chooses the shows, we did select a jury. We got a student from creative writing, and then a couple of students are art history majors, and we also have another artist. There are equal guys and girls, as we just wanted to make it as unbiased as possible.
MD: How does the selection process work for the art-pieces granted a place in an exhibition?
ES-A: Last weekend only, we had a jury weekend, [where we reviewed] ninety applications, or a bit less, in about six hours. The committee was made up of about six of us and we had a grading system of different categories, such as: how people were going to show their work, the quality of the application, how comprehensive it was, and how their artist statement corresponded to the actual art piece that they were showing. Then based on that grading, it was a final grade out of 20. We just thought that that was the best way of somewhat simplifying the process of selection, because it can be quite subjective.
CM: I think it’s important to note too, that even though we had this process, there are some shows we are planning now, where we are discussing pieces that we would really like to show, but we just can’t. If the work is so idiosyncratic that it can’t really be programmed with other pieces, that’s difficult, because we never program solo shows, just in order to show as many artists as possible in a school year. Sometimes work doesn’t always get shown, even if it’s awesome, just because it doesn’t have the makings of a cohesive show if we had to curate it with other works.
ES-A: The programming itself is a long process, it’s so hard to minimize artwork to just a number, as there are so many other factors to take into consideration. I thought we could maybe finalize our programming within a day or two, but we’re still working on it – it’s also a matter of digesting all of the work too.
CM: It’s really intense, seeing 300 artworks blown up on a wall in one day. No, it’s cool though – another aspect of this job is we get to really see an inside look into what is being produced at Concordia and where people’s concentrations, trends and fixations lie.
MD: Do you start planning your programming with themes you want to create shows around, or do you create the thematic message of the shows through groupings of the artists’ work?
ES-A: That’s exactly the difference, between directing a gallery and curating, artists are not applying to a theme, we create a theme around their artwork.
The VAV gallery provides an important place in the artistic community for students to create their own space and have their creative visions fulfilled, and with an impressive twenty-two installations a year, there is plenty of innovative and exciting work to see.

Counterbalance is currently showing at the VAV gallery (1395 René Levesque Ouest) until November 4.