Carl Beam: No place near home
My colleague Peter Goddard writes today that Ojibway artist Carl Beam "deserves a wider spotlight," lamenting the fact, I suppose, that the current National Gallery retrospective isn't touring to the major centres in central Canada, ours among them (the Beam show will travel widely, though, to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology and, impressively, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York).
I agree that it's somewhat confounding that Beam, from Manitoulin Island and always with a presence in the Toronto art scene, won't be seen here in what might be the most comprehensive institutional survey of his work ever mounted. However, I don't think its myopia on the part of the major centres so much as institutional pride getting in the way.
The Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery seem to rarely share exhibitions (the last one, I think, was Ed Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes, way back in 2004). I don't know for certain, but I assume the museums in Montreal behave in much the same way.
However unfortunate this may be for viewers -- and it absolutely is -- you can see their point, to some degree: For any of these institutions, simply receiving a National Gallery show becomes a tacit admission they aren't on the same playing field. For the WAG, the Glenbow in Calgary, or even the fancy new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, this is perfectly acceptable: In terms of collecting and scholarship, they aren't.
But for the AGO in particular, this is not the image they want to project. Ideally, their in-house productions would match anything the NGC does. It seems they're not content to be a receptor for a federal power, which is in some ways admirable; but it does occasionally deny this audience access to relevant programming -- not to mention the deepest collections in the country, bar none -- which is a shame.
Meanwhile, Beam: I first saw his work when he was still alive -- he died in 2005 at 62 -- at the defunct DeLeon-White Gallery on West Queen West; it's hard to believe he had been at it for more than 20 years by then already. Whatever you might think of his collagist, multi-media work -- my sense was a mixed bag of gutsy viscerality and pedantic hokeyness; when it worked, though, did it ever -- it's beyond reproach to call him a pioneer in establishign First Nations art in a critical, contemporary context. You should see it. And you should be able to right here.