In the early 1980s, Glenn Alteen moved from Nova Scotia to Alberta, and then quickly on to Vancouver. He rented a loft, and an artist friend put up some paintings and held a show. Thirty-four years later, Alteen has won the Governor General’s Award for Outstanding Contribution in the Arts. In the meantime, that space became the artist-run grunt, a gallery renowned for expressing diverse Canadian cultural identity through works especially by Indigenous, ethnic, queer and outside artists. Alteen also cofounded the LIVE Performance Art Bienniale, has written extensively on art and performance, and has organized a number of significant community engaged projects. Artist and curator Lorna Brown, a GG Award nominator, notes Alteen's “commitment to the idea that artists do not create in a vacuum and need a community to flourish... Alteen established an artist-run centre that is more about artists than objects."
Here, Alteen shares his views on ending "art segregation," Vancouver's art scene, and what he's jazzed about these days.
How and when did you decide to become a curator? I’m not sure I ever did decide. I fell into it. I started out as a playwright and a theatre director. I always liked being around visual and media artists and their work, and felt more of an affinity there so curating and writing about work just seemed an extension of that.
What are the challenges of being a curator in Vancouver? The advantages? Vancouver is not an easy city to break into in any art form so it's not easy to be a curator starting out here. You often have to create your own opportunities. I learned by going to exhibitions and later making exhibitions.
Vancouver has a very advanced visual art scene, though it is more often recognized outside Vancouver then in it. That said, there is an international connection here that is an advantage in that people outside Vancouver see your work on a scale that is not the same in other cities of this size.
Three attributes that make a curator great? A good eye, curiosity and research.
What sparks your interest in an artist’s work? Because my career has been mostly in artist-run centres, often the work doesn’t yet exist when the process starts. It could be a proposal, seeing work in an exhibition or a studio visit, but usually, how the artist approaches the work determines how much I want to work with them.
What is it about performance art in particular that draws your attention? The spontaneity!
Is curating an art? Of course it's an art form, but one that is concentrated on the space between works of art rather than the individual works themselves. The American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell said, “You never know what one object will tell another.” Whereas an artist’s concern is what is inside the frame, a curator's work is really how one frame informs another. I feel it starts there.
Do you have a steadfast curatorial philosophy or does your role as a curator shift from project to project depending upon the artists? It's always different depending on the artist, the project or the artwork. Curating isn’t one role but often many. You are enabling an artist to produce a work so that often can take many forms and many roles. What I especially like about it is it often takes you out of your skill set and I really like the process of figuring it out.
You’ve said art is a process, not a thing—that by the time a painting has been made, the art is over. Do you collect art? Depends on what you mean by collecting. I have a lot of art but most of it is the result of being in dialogue with the artist in some way. Much of my “collection” was gifted to me by artists, though some was purchased. The collection, though, is as much about my process through the art world than about individual works or a coherent whole. I see them as remnants more then a collection. There’s no attempt at continuity.
You’ve curated a Queer Arts Festival exhibition and grunt consistently shows works by underrepresented people. And yet you say that’s not the point. The art is great. In a perfect world you wouldn’t be described as a champion of artists from diverse communities. How do we best attain this ideal? I don’t really think of myself as the champion of underrepresented people or artists. I’ve never chosen artists because of their ethnicity or equity and I would imagine they'd be pretty insulted if I did. My job is in art exhibitions, not social work. I attempt to show diversity in the exhibitions I curate but I think this is a very different thing.
Canada is not a mono-cultural society and we in the arts need to realize this first of all. Indigenous art is Canadian art, pure and simple. And it is the same with other communities. Too many people in the arts ignore half the population and then wonder why their audiences are dwindling. But it does mean moving outside your comfort zone and outside the parameters of the art history you studied in school. We all know that our art histories are colonial constructs but too often they hang on like comfort blankets from a time that’s long over.
Then is it important to continue to produce exhibitions that focus solely on art made by artists from underrepresented communities? No, I think what’s more important is to consider artists from other communities in the exhibitions we do now. These artists have been segregated for far too long! Our mandate at grunt has never been to champion underrepresented communities. It is not in our mission or vision. It is part of our values, though. Our effort has always been to integrate this work into the wider arts community. I feel it's time to end the segregation.
And that segregation happens everywhere. The Canada Council has whole separate departments to deal with Indigenous art and equity art. We don’t question that, but we should. I’m against this because it allows the larger art forms to continue as before and ignores indigenous art or equity artists because they're now being dealt with in another department. They say this is done to change the situation, but really the result is to allow things to remain the same.
Of course, there is a need for segregated organizations such as SAVAC in Toronto, or Urban Shaman in Winnipeg, or the Queer Film Festival in Vancouver. They do a lot to even the playing field and mitigate historical inequities, but there is also a need for a more integrated approach that recognizes these artists are all part of our art histories and are not separate. My fear is that this approach encourages the creation of ghettos and this work has been ghettoized for too long in Canada.
What do you find most compelling about grunt's current exhibition Requiem for Mirrors and Tigers, by Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa? Naufus! I’ve known him for many years. He grew up in Vancouver as a child refugee fleeing from the political situation in Guatemala and his work has always been about trying to deal with that history of trauma. He started his work at Gallery Gachet and last year his work was featured in the Venice Biennale! It’s a crazy trajectory. This particular project, commissioned by If I Can’t Dance, in Amsterdam, is six performances taking place in different cities. London at the Tate Modern, the São Paulo Biennial, Guatemala City, Bordeaux, etc. We have installed them at grunt on six flat screens and I love the way the works talk to each other.
Tell us briefly about the next show you are curating at grunt: Jeremy Borsos – The Blue Cabin That’s not a brief story. The Blue Cabin is, so far, a four-year project to create a floating artists residency and preserve a squatters cabin. Jeremy and his partner Sus remediated the cabin but also documented the process. Through it the history of the structure slowly revealed itself. This is what the exhibition is about.
Your GG Award is for outstanding contribution. Describe your most important contribution to the arts in Canada. It's hard to say. One never knows their lasting impact. Hopefully, it is around a redefinition of what an artist-run centre can be.
I asked Lorna Brown, who nominated you for the GG Award, to submit a question and here it is: Has being ‘from away’ had an impact on how your Vancouver career has developed? Hardest question of all. Thanks, Lorna! I’m sure it has had an impact on how I developed. I think it gave me some perspective on the scene here. A different perspective. Vancouver back then struck me for its small and intense communities that existed for the most part outside the public eye, in [that] there wasn’t much attention from the media. The art scene, especially, but poetry and improvisational music scenes and many others. They were never in the Sun and only sporadically in the Straight. It was all word of mouth. It's like they never came above ground or got much focus but often were very well known nationally and even internationally. I remember in the 90s, I was in flying home from Montreal when Paul Wong won the Bell Canada Award for Media Art. They gave me a Montreal Gazette on the plane and when I got to the art section the whole front page was on Paul and his award. It covered his whole career, it was really wonderful. When I got back to Vancouver, I bought the Sun (yeah, back then you would read two newspapers in a day) and Paul’s award was literally two column inches. It was so typical of Vancouver.
Coming from away I think gave me a perspective and a deep appreciation of the various scenes that had developed here over time. That history continues to inspire me and motivate me.
What was your first reaction upon winning the GG Award? Gobsmacked. I really wasn’t expecting it at all. I was totally incoherent and the woman on the phone was laughing.
How has Vancouver’s art scene changed during the time you’ve been at grunt? Expansion! In the ’80s, the art scene seemed like a couple of hundred people. Since then, it has proliferated immensely. Back then it was very closed off. Artists partnered with other artists so it was a bit of a feedback loop. Today the scene has many more types of people involved, it's not just artists and curators. Also ,there was no market back then. Nobody took the commercial galleries that seriously. The growth of that market is a big change. As well, the art world is much more global now then it was back then. The market and globalism are much more a focus now and have dominated the last 30 years profoundly.
What is the biggest issue facing Vancouver art world today? Housing. It is the most important issue facing Vancouver today but it has special impacts for the arts community.
Which local artists or organizations are you particularly excited about? Organizations: 221A, Gallery Gachet, Other Sights, Whistler's Audain Art Museum. Artists: too many to name!
My teacher told me art is choice. What is art to you? To me its watching the process of an artist producing their work. I feel privileged to be able to be so close to that process.
Favourite place in Vancouver? Tough one. Probably the seawall because it connects so many of the places in Vancouver I love.
What does a perfect day look like? Having coffee with my friends. Shopping and making a good meal. And maybe getting a nap in there. Outside of work I’m not very ambitious I’m afraid.
What is your greatest extravagance? Having the time to read a book that’s not part of my work.
What is the quality you most like in a person? Candor.
Last thing you geeked out about? Nordic Noir on Netflix.
What do you most enjoy doing for others? Cooking.
What are you most proud of? Today it's getting through this interview.
Watch an edifying and beautiful short video of Glenn Alteen, created for the Canada Council for the Arts after his GG Award announcement, by Josephine Anderson, here.