Episode #9 - Awareness of others: Applying emotional intelligence to perceive feelings, attitudes, and society
Host: Robert Leckey
Guest: Sara Angel
In this episode, Robert Leckey interviews Sara Angel, the Founder and Executive Director of the Art Canada Institute and an expert on art restitution and art crime. They delve into the changes in how the world is experiencing art and communicating art, the work being done by museums to increase access to art and to increase inclusion of different communities, both past and present, and about the changes in the very definition of art that are taking place today.
Welcome to the Communications and Sharing Knowledge series of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Brave Spaces podcast.
Sara Angel holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. She is an expert on art restitution and art crime and teaches on both subjects at York University. Angel is a frequent media commentator on Nazi-looted art. She has appeared on The Agenda, and her writing has been published extensively in The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Maclean’s, ArtNews, and other venues.
Angel is the Founder and Executive Director of the Art Canada Institute, the only national institution with an exclusive mandate to further the education and awareness of Canadian art and its history, and to promote it to a broad public audience, within Canada and internationally. Prior to completing her PhD, Angel had an extensive career in arts, journalism, and publishing, including as a commentator for CBC television’s On the Arts, an editor for Saturday Night, and a columnist for The National Post and editor-in-chief of Chatelaine.
Sarah Angel is a 2012 Pierre Elliot Trudeau scholar and sits on the Trudeau Foundation’s Development Committee. Sarah, it's great to have you with us today. Why don't you start off telling us a little bit about yourself?
Thank you, Robert. It's really a pleasure to be here in conversation with you. I am somebody who did my PhD on Nazi era-looted art.
So, I have a specialty in art crimes, but what I'd really love to talk to you about today is the art world inclusivity and how things are changing within the art world.
Have you observed a kind of change your evolution in communication in our society across sectors?
Robert, I'll speak to what I've observed in communication, in the field of viewing art: museums, galleries, et cetera, and online. And really, we are at a point right now in history where we're seeing an enormous change in how the world is experiencing art and communicating art, and I'll explain why. And it's basically like this: public art museums were founded in the 1700s. The idea was, put out the material and people will come. And really that model hasn't changed. Very-very few cultural organizations have a robust online presence. And as a result, our cultural heritage, our visual art is restricted to those who have access to a bricks-and-mortar museum and who have knowledge of the subject.
However, the Internet is really shaking that up. Really, really changing things, because now artists no longer have to wait for a curator to say, I deem you an artist, for an art historian to say, I deem you an artist. Artists are able to put up their own content on Instagram, on online platforms like Artsy. And so, there is much more of a democratization that is taking place among artists through online means. I would say, however, that many museums are still working in a somewhat antiquated mode.
You talked about the contemporary moment and the changes you're witnessing. I think there's a lot of agreement that we're in an increasingly polarized society. And I'm wondering, what for you is the importance of communication and knowledge sharing in that context?
We're in a polarized society when it comes to the art world, because there's disparity between economic factors, geographic factors of people that are able to physically get to a cultural institution. In other words, we're polarized because our art institutions aren't offering access to all. They're offering access to all if you’re willing to go and pay an admission ticket and enter. I see a lot of polarization there. But the optimistic news is that through online means – the sort of work that the Art Canada Institute is doing, the sort of work that social media platforms are doing – the polarization is dissipating.
So, you took us through a kind of social polarization, I guess: who has access, cultural capital, and who has the means to get into a bricks and mortar museum? I'm wondering… another way we think of a society being polarized, maybe politically, with increasingly extreme views. And I wondered if you had a sense, how communication and knowledge sharing, including through art, fits into that piece.
I think it fits into that piece in terms of a political belief of where you stand in terms of access to culture. I will tell you, Robert, shockingly, there hasn't really been a significant amount of attention paid to cultural policy in Canada since Pierre Trudeau's government. Really, there has not been a tremendous amount of thought about, how do we make culture accessible to all and available to all? Something called the Museums Act was passed, which meant that there should be more museums in smaller places. We are at a moment right now, politically, where a deep amount of thought is required, in terms of thinking about how do culture and digitization intersect and what can we do? So, in that respect, I think it really depends on where you are on the political spectrum, in terms of thinking about who should have access to culture, how do we make culture accessible and available to all.
Most of the thinking politically around culture of late has been about who is included in the cultural conversation, which is a really important conversation to have. Specifically, the conversation has been like this: until, really, about 10 years ago, indigenous art was separated into a different cultural sphere. Most indigenous art would be placed at the museum of history or in ethnographic collections. Right now, what we are seeing is a very, very important shift, where indigenous art is becoming part of contemporary art, and there is no longer the separation, which is entirely how it should be. So, that conversation is happening. And yet at the same time, in terms of access to art… while, for instance, Inuit art is becoming part of the mainstream conversation, part of the mainstream collections and museums across the country, however, what we don't yet have is an ability to provide our Northern communities with access to art through a digital means.
I want to pivot a little bit to talk about meaningful interactions and specifically mindful interactions. And I wondered, in your view and experience, what kind of skills and actions, situations, attitudes, environments, or other aspects of emotional intelligence help us foster mindful interactions?
Robert, I'm so glad that you asked me that question, because it's something that I think about a lot. And what I think about is this: I'm always thinking about art. And what I would say is how to get people on the bus, how to get people interested in art, how to make all Canadians feel that our cultural output, our visual culture is for them.
And in terms of emotional intelligence, I think the first thing that we all have to think about is that everybody wants to be a part of the conversation, but the conversation is for everybody. But if we want everybody to be a part of that inclusive conversation, it means using a language, a rhetoric, a welcoming type of sensibility to make all feel part of the conversation.
In my opinion, for far too long, there has been a stratification of an art elite who understood what the art conversation was about. And then, everybody else who could try to figure things out if they chose to, but often they didn't, because they felt that the conversation wasn't for them. So, in terms of skills, I would say, the most important thing when it comes to making sure that art is accessible, is simply to say it clearly. I work with over a hundred museum professionals, art historians on a daily basis. And one of the things I will say a lot is, what are you trying to say? What is the message that we're trying to get? How can we engage an audience who doesn't know about this topic and make it feel relevant to them? In terms of attitudes, the attitude and the piece of wisdom that we need to keep in mind is that art, I believe, like so many other things, is a language of sorts, and it's a language that if one has access to and a familiarity with at an early age and is made to feel that it is for them, that it is a language that they can understand, that works really, really well. And as well, it's important to know that that language is a language that, again, can't be overly complex, can't be impenetrable, has to be considerate of all cultures, backgrounds, and the diversity of our country.
Hearing you speak, Sarah, about saying to artists, what is it you're trying to say? The same kind of instinct of trying to make things accessible, I think, applies, certainly, to researchers and scholars in many other fields within the Trudeau network and elsewhere. A lot of people who produce a lengthy scholarly article need to be asked what they're really trying to say, if they're going to spin that out to a broader audience,
You've talked about this a little bit, but let's make it a little more personal. So, how do you personally work to initiate mindful interactions? And, from your perspective, what are the attributes of a really impactful, mindful interaction?
The way that I work personally, Robert, is that… again, thinking about art, the subject that consumes about 95% of my head space… what I think about is not trying to address it all in one sitting. In other words, if I am taking a group of students into a museum space, I will think about, rather than showing 25 works of art to, maybe, show three. So, three I will think about in a classroom when I'm talking about art, rather than to try to get through decades of history, to point out five, six or seven critical moments in history. I think, by reducing the broad picture to key elements and providing insight around those moments or around those works of art, subject matter, it allows one to really begin to be able to focus, to be mindful, to remember the instances, to remember the stories, rather than being overwhelmed by the multitude of information.
It's fascinating hearing that, Sarah, and it's making me think of my personal journey as a teacher. I look back at the volumes of reading I might have assigned in classes at the start of my career. And over the years, you sort of reduce, reduce, reduce, and you realize, it's better to have a meaningful discussion with something the students have had time to really read, rather than these masses that they've just been skimming. So, I find that really rich.
I think it is: reduce, distill… It doesn't mean that one can't go deeper, but I think, it provides the key touch points to focus on and then allow the conversation to broaden from there.
Now you hinted at this, when you spoke about how indigenous artists might be moving from the history museum into the art gallery, but the kind of question of who belongs in a museum or gallery has clearly been contested, subject to debate, and it's changed over time. Can you tell us, as you read things today, who has standing as an artist now, and has emotional intelligence been part of these changes or is that a separate conversation?
I will, first of all, say that the question of what defines art today, who gets to decide what is art today, what we consider as art today, is being radically transformed. As we are speaking right now, there are a few things that I can point to.
There is an exhibition that was recently on at the McMichael Art gallery in Kleinberg. It's opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery in June. It will then be heading to the National Gallery of Canada next year. “Uninvited” is a term that was created to describe all the women artists who were making art while the Group of Seven were making art and who were not invited to be part of the Group of Seven shows. It's really a brilliant title. And I'll tell you that the reason they weren't invited, it wasn't because they weren't creating good works or they weren't artists, or they weren't skilled practitioners. They weren't invited, because they were not a part of the Academies, the schools that the Group of Seven went to, they weren't invited because they couldn't go to the same clubs as the Group of Seven went in some cases, because they had families or because they had other pursuits. Or because, in many cases, they were addressing different subject matters than the Group of Seven was painting. The Group of Seven was very interested in landscape. Many female painters were interested in what was going on in a more socioeconomic sphere. So, all this is to say is that this exhibition came forth and has been really receiving profound attention. Because what we are seeing is people are going to the exhibition and they are seeing works by women artists who are from across the country, from across many different cultural backgrounds, geographic areas. And what Canadians are discovering is, wow, who are these artists that I have never heard of? But they're fantastic artists that have not been invited.
So, what it's really making art historians and museum professionals do is to reassess, what makes an artist part of a canon? In many ways it's been because of, as I mentioned before, the schools they went to, the associations they were part of… Sometimes it had to do with, simply, the materials that were used. So, for instance, something like bead work or textile work 50 years ago was not considered art that could be a part of a museum. That is shifting up. I don't know if that's so much emotional intelligence or simply just intelligence and a more inclusive way to thinking about what constitutes our cultural heritage and education.
That's fascinating and really important because, I think, sometimes the instinct is to say, oh well, I guess back then women didn't have the leisure, the space. They didn't have a room of their own, they didn't have the resources to create. And you're telling us, they were creating.
It's true, the perceived wisdom is “not a room of one’s own” and “not the means,” but what we are learning is absolutely that is not the case. It's really what the case has been, how do we define what belongs in a museum collection? And so, that is something where there is really a fundamental shift taking place. For the better, thankfully.
And I'm wondering if you can give us an example of where you've observed a really meaningful impact that flowed from trust-based and respectful dialogue and mindful interactions.
I'll tell you about one that has really impressed me, and I had an involvement in it personally. It was a commission that the Canadian artist Kent Monkman created for the Metropolitan Museum. It was a commission that was unveiled in December of 2019, then, unfortunately, was hidden from the world for some time because of COVID. So, I'll tell you this story. The Metropolitan Museum decided that they had to reconsider what they were including in their collections. They're very European. Western colonial approach to institution building. And in order to do that, they did a really interesting exercise and they asked Kent Monkman, would he create two works of art, two large paintings – a diptych – that would be installed in the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where literally hundreds and thousands of people go through every day.
And there was a lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue with Kent. What do you want to do? How do you want to have this approach? Incidentally, my involvement was that the Art Canada Institute published the book about those two paintings. So, that is how I had a conversation and was part of the discussion. In any case, Robert, what ended up happening was Kent said, what I want to do is I want to look at the collection in the Metropolitan Museum and I want to create two paintings that riff off the collection, but change the narrative of art and history. Because, one thing that Kent Monkman had observed is that in history painting, in North American history painting, indigenous peoples were not part of those paintings. There would be vast landscapes that were romanticized, with no indigenous presence in them. There would be moments of history with no indigenous people in them. So, a really interesting conversation began, where Kent spoke to the European curators, the modern curators, and was given an invitation and opportunity to both learn about works in the Metropolitan Museum collection and then reinterpret those works with a viewpoint to including indigenous peoples in the history of art, in the history of great history paintings, which is one of the most important tropes of art making. And then, most interestingly, to revisit the narrative with a more hopeful, inclusive, and an opportunity to see the world in a fresh and new light.
And so, that was something that I saw, where there really was a very considerate, very insightful, very intelligent conversation that took place between a Canadian artist, a Canadian Cree artist, a major art institution, and then really has had an impact globally.
Your talk about the landscapes empty of First Nations people. It’s making me think that the jurists – the lawyers and judges are grappling with the longstanding doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that Western settlers came and found an empty land. And it's reminding me that if we're going to grapple with that and change it as a matter of law, we have to be thinking of the images we're seeing too, and that the narratives that they tell us explicitly or implicitly.
Now I'm going to turn to a crazy hard question, I suspect, for you, given how you spend 90% of your time. If you had to recommend one book or article, or exhibition, or podcast, or other kind of artifact that all the listeners today should read or see, or listen to, and that's had an impact on you. What would you recommend to us, Sarah?
Well, you know, Robert, I'm going to make a recommendation based on two things that I have spoken about, because they're the two that really have impacted me, and most impressed me recently. And so, one is that I would recommend to everybody that they order the catalog or the book that accompanies the show Uninvited and as well go and see the exhibition when they're in Vancouver or at the National Gallery of Canada. There's going to be lots of opportunity to see that show.
But I would say that the scholarship in that book… There were over 30 art historians who were invited to write about those who were uninvited. And I guarantee you, for anybody who looks at that book, it's full of extraordinary art, and it's art that really changes the narrative and our understanding of this country's art history. And then the other thing that I would recommend is, and this is a little bit self-serving, because the Art Canada Institute did publish Kent Monkman's book on his Metropolitan commission. The book is called Revision and Resistance, and it looks at those two paintings, and it really unpacks their importance. There are four fantastic essays that go along with the book. And again, my belief is that Kent Monkman is the most important artist working in Canada today, for the reasons that I've told you about already. So, I think it really bears scrutiny to look at those two paintings and to understand them in more depth, because it is not just understanding two of the most important works of art that have been created in recent times, it really, those two works indicate a way that we have to change our thinking about how we create art, how we talk about art, how we collect art in the future, who is a part of the art world. And so, there… so, much is encapsulated in those two works. And the other thing I should mention is that I am told that those two works that are now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection are going to be traveling to Canada in the not-too-distant future. And so, when they're here, of course, everybody should go and see them.
Sarah Angel, it's been such a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much!
Thank you, Robert. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.