Critical thinking on the future of museums

A visit by York Professor Joyce Zemans to the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in the early 1990s set in motion a chain of events that has culminated in the recent publication of Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement.

This new collection of essays, co-edited by Zemans, the director of the MBA Program in Arts & Media Administration at the Schulich School of Business (and former dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts), and Griselda Pollock, professor of social and critical histories of art at the University of Leeds, UK, addresses issues relating to the future of museums and art galleries. Published by Blackwell Publishing, the book will be launched in Toronto on May 23 at the Gladstone Hotel from 7 to 9pm.

Enquiring about the exhibition in Dublin, Zemans learned that it was modelled on the ideas of a Canadian curator and educator, Judith Mastai, then the head of public programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Right: Joyce Zemans

Unfamiliar at that time with Mastai’s work, Zemans made it a point to meet her and was enormously impressed by her work in public institutions. “Judith came out of a theatre background,” says Zemans. “She was always concerned about engaging audiences – whether in the theatre or an art gallery.” In the last decade of her life, in Vancouver and Toronto, Mastai created innovative programs designed to engage new audiences and new communities with art and with public institutions. For example, as head of education at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Mastai initiated Teens Behind the Scenes, a program that invited young people to get involved in programming exhibitions. She commissioned writers in exile living in Canada to create works in response to the AGO’s collections.

Mastai died suddenly in 2001. Saddened by her untimely passing, Zemans, with an committee composed of Vera Frenkel, Johanne Lamoureux, John O’Brian and Griselda Pollock, organized a conference, titled "Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement", to address the issues that Mastai was exploring prior to her death and to take the discussion to the next step. The book that is being launched this month developed from that conference and includes two of Mastai’s essays. The essay “There is No Such Thing as a Visitor” outlines her concern that engaging in visitor studies leads museum administrators to view visitors as customers, as the environment of the public institution becomes increasingly privatized.

 Museums After Modernism, which includes essays by leading Canadian and international artists, curators and art historians, opens with a preface written by Zemans and Pollock. Pollock’s essay, “Un-Framing the Modern,” serves as a thematic introduction to the book.

Canadian contributors include Governor General’s Award-winning artist and York Professor Emerita Vera Frenkel; York art history Professor Reesa Greenberg; Gerald McMaster, curator of Canadian art at the AGO; Ruth Phillips, Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture and professor of art history at Carleton University; educator Janna Graham, who worked with Judith Mastai at the AGO, and Shadya Yasin, who is studying African studies, international development and community arts at York University.

“This book reflects the ideas of critical thinkers in the cultural landscape today,” says Zemans. “Its publication continues the dialogue begun in 2002 at the Toronto conference.”

The dialogue will undoubtedly be ongoing: Zemans says that colleagues have already told her that they are looking forward to using the collection in their teaching.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.