By Henry Adam Svec
Also an artist and a writer, Mary MacDonald was a curator who pushed back against the standard definition of the word (according to the OED, “guardian”) in favor of a more open and auditory orientation towards creative work. Rather than viewing the white walls of the gallery as a privileged place from which a surrounding community might receive art or culture, she figured herself as a mobile medium through which ways of working, ways of knowing, ways of storytelling, and ways of being could be gathered and exchanged.
Mary Florence MacDonald was born in 1984, and grew up in Pictou. She attended Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, graduating with a BFA in 2006; and after two years of working at art galleries in the Maritimes, she moved to Newfoundland and became quickly immersed in the arts communities there. She completed an MFA in Criticism & Curatorial Practice in 2012 at OCAD University, where she focused on rural and community-engaged art. But Mary soon moved, again, to Newfoundland. She assumed the role of Executive Director at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s, where she worked on dozens of exhibitions and events and projects, and where she continued to write. According to her friend, fellow artist Melanie Colosimo, “[Mary] was motivated by her connection to the Atlantic and her tireless dedication to supporting and promoting artists from here” (Colosimo 2019). Mary passed away in the summer of 2017, at the age of 32, after a battle with cancer.1 She is mourned and she will be remembered by so many across the diverse art, music, and activist networks she fostered and sustained, from Dawson City to Toronto to St. John’s.
In this memorial I want to honor my late friend, who I first met when we were both undergraduate students at Mount Allison, and whose career I followed with great interest as she built her bright life’s work. My goal is not just to tell you why she was important to me, but what she was trying to do and why it remains important. Mary was vitally interested in Atlantic Canadian culture, its history, traditions, values and aspirations. She was inspired by its sense of community and how that sense could be conveyed in a way that different, vibrant, and dynamic. Inspired by “relational aesthetics” and community-engaged art, but also by the musical and literary traditions of Atlantic Canada, Mary’s working theory of curatorial practice strove to embrace both critical perspectives and romantic ones, both broader global trends and local cultural work, the political inherent in culture and its aesthetic that could, in some ways, be set apart from or even outside of culture.2
One of Mary’s most important works was the W(here) Festival which she produced and organized in Pictou Country – her home – in late June 2012. This was part of her OCAD MFA thesis project. It began with a simple question: “Where is here exactly?”3 What made this question odd was that Mary seems to have had little interest in offering definitive answers. Instead, she asked the question to invite responses from local and national artists, residents and passers-by. The event was a collaborative, intentional scene in which knowledge and art is constructed as a polyphonic and negotiated. As Mary said: “contemporary art is not just the cultural product of today, but the relationships we build, the conversations we have and the experiences we choose to create that reflect the place we live and who we are” (MacDonald 2012: 1). Mary thought of herself less a guardian than a connector, less a gatekeeper than a caretaker. She looked to assemble aesthetic energy that would continue to gestate long after she herself headed on to other scenes and projects.
Mary was careful about her own subject position vis-à-vis Pictou County. Although it was her home she was sensitive to the fact that she has accumulated different sets of perspectives through her education and a life she developed in Toronto (MacDonald 2012: 13). She did not want to play the role of the educator who dropped in to teach the locals about contemporary art, nor did she want to exploit local artists for a national contemporary art audience: “As curator of W(here), it is my hope to animate possibilities for connections …, however I am also a traveler, a listener, a partner and a moderator amongst many individuals whose perspectives about this place overlap and undertow” (MacDonald 2012: 10). She refused to give any one narrative or framework priority.
Her beginning point for W(here) was to reintroduce herself to the local community through the local paper. This articulated the festival’s objectives and invited readers to collaborate on the event’s final form and purpose. The short introductory essay she wrote for the paper is overflowing with different strands and voices, from novelists to critical theorists to amateur local historians; already we have a gathering, a party: “[T]o speak about the local perspective, … one must operate in tandem with local knowledges and vernaculars” (MacDonald 2012: 5). Her own goals were simple: to do justice to the complexities of the material and the critical capacities of the audience.
The festival began with a vernacular format: the kitchen party. “This was a choice of respecting local knowledges rather than co-opting them, defining a vocabulary that the project could work within,” she writes (MacDonald 2012: 5). Local artists were invited to present their work and share their approaches in an informal atmosphere. This welcoming disposition carried through into the formal programming, which consisted of a series of site-specific and participatory performances and installations, including works and performances by Marlene Creates, Sheilah Wilson, Site Media Inc, Susan Sellers, Raina McDonald, Sharon Nowlan, and Al Tuck. These artists contributed to an ongoing discussion that built over the course of the festival, each unpacking a different layer pertaining to Pictou County as a cultural and artistic place.
Mary was well aware of the dangers that can come with the mythologization and romanticization of rural places. She made use of Ian McKay’s Quest of the Folk, to point to the ways in which folklorists and craft workers constructed a mythology of Nova Scotia as a primordial, placid folk community wherein Scottish heritage has been perfectly preserved (McKay 1994). Like McKay, Mary is critical of this construction. But, her methodology was more sympathetic and generous. She pointed to ways in which the line between “rural” and “urban” were blurred: at the video store, at the Tim Horton’s, at the local pizza parlor, or in the Smarties that she brought as a child on long trips across the shoreline (MacDonald 2012: 8, 13). “Like urban places,” she writes, “rural ones also struggle to re-define themselves in a new global context, combining established narratives and new ideas” (2012: 7). This is not a critique designed to reveal the “truth” but an aspiration to bring people together in a fashion that allows critical dialogues to emerge and intersect.
The keen, critical optimism that still glows from the pages of Mary’s MFA thesis was extended with grace and energy to a prodigious number of projects and texts. This included artist-run centres as grassroots and flexible assemblages. As she explained, “I like to think about these spaces as open-source galleries where anyone can participate, inherit the code, and make changes” (MacDonald 2014: 18).
One of the changes she sought to make was to the conception of the possibilities of a “local” group show. She co-created Wade In, “an international artist-share series of screenings and workshops,” which not only brought video and new media art to Newfoundland but placed the work of video and new media artists of Newfoundland in conversation with artists from around the world. Here again, she was less a guardian than a connector. The festival combined the efforts of Mary and Jason Penny (St. John’s), Eva Isleifsdottir (Reykjavik), Chris Clarke (Cork), Michelle Jacques (Victoria), and Zach Pearl (Toronto), into a network of collaboration and cross-cultural exchange. There is no mystification, only dialogue and transformation. Her curatorial projects Nature Present (2015) and Land of Mirrors: Ongoing Experiments in Newfoundland (2016) riffed on these themes as well by bringing together a range of disciplines and approaches in explorations of land, borders, politics, and the imaginary.
Although she was never patronizing, Mary could be protective. In the online journal Latitude in the fall of 2016, she responded to an interview between Amy Zion and Cora Fisher in which Zion had discussed her decision not to publish a negative review of an art exhibition because she thought it would have a “destructive impact, locally” in Edmonton (Zion and Fisher 2016). Mary began by challenging the distinction between regionalized localities and metropolitan centers, taking her adoptive home Newfoundland as a case in point and referencing the long, complex history of the place and its irreducible specificity: “[t]he longer you stay, the less romantic and more real you feel” (MacDonald 2016: n.p.). Mary recognized the speed and complexity and power of metropolitan centres, but she is also keen to acknowledge the varied consistencies of speed, complexity, and power in smaller places like Pictou County or Sackville or St. John’s. No one kind of place should be privileged in any serious evaluation of art discourse:
I agree with the authors as they call for more productive ‘critical regionalism’, a call to collaboration and partnership between accomplished international artists and communities. However, I would go one step further and suggest that perhaps these artists could also benefit and learn from more rooted experiences be they local artists or others. There’s nothing worse than assuming that a community is lacking in value and flying in an art star. (MacDonald 2016: n.p.)
Said differently: there is no tool (or narrative) that does not have its potencies and functionalities, and so it is best not to confine oneself to preconceived notions of hierarchies or senses of place. Indeed, Mary’s numerous reviews and writings demonstrated a constant willingness to see things anew.
In her MFA thesis, Mary sketched over the legacies of folklore in the region. Where song collectors like Helen Creighton had presupposed a passive, stable object, “Today…rural residents and artists are active story-tellers themselves. They too are migratory, moving between urban and rural geographies and social structures. In many ways we are of multiple places and are constantly moving between them” (MacDonald 2012: 17-18). In this way she took on the role of the self-referential, perhaps even postmodern folklorist. Her approach problematized the high/low artistic/popular distinctions maintained by the art market. What she saw in value was the very multiplicity of place and its ability to become a reservoir of cultural diversity. Her role was to facilitate and enhance this reservoir. Mary’s contributions were not stacks of field recordings or printed books of songs. What she leaves us are pathways and trails, institutions and approaches, combinations and articulations that are still resonating—that will resonate yet. The curator as kitchen party. I find consolation in the fact that she stretched her life so wide and far. According to Mary, a place is a myriad of perspectives and stories. And there are a good many places richer now, stronger, and ringing with voices. I miss her, but I will still hear her voice and sense her thinking when I listen to the music of place in all its multiplicity.
To donate to the Mary MacDonald Foundation, visit https://easternedge.ca/support/the-mary-macdonald-foundation/.”
Henry Adam Svec is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo.
- For a moving overview of her life and work that was published by the CBC upon her passing, see Smellie 2017. To view Mary’s obituary, visit: https://www.carnells.com/?obituaries=mary-florence-macdonald.
- She engages in particular, in her MFA thesis, with Nicholas Bourriaud, Grant Kester, and Miwon Kwon (Bourriaud 2002; Kester 2004; Kwon 2004). But she also cites local songwriter Dave Gunning and novelist Alistair MacLeod.
- As MacDonald makes clear in the “Curatorial Essay” (MacDonald 2012: 7), this question had also influentially been asked by Northrop Frye in his book The Bush Garden (Frye 1971).
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. New York: Verso.
Bourriaud, Nicholas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dion-Quetigny: Les Presses du reel.
Colosimo, Melanie. 2019. Personal interview.
Frye, Northrop. 1971. The Bush Garden. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Kester, Grant H. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kwon, Miwon. 2004. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
MacDonald, Mary Florence. 2012. “W(here) Festival, Pictou County, Nova Scotia: Curating within Rural Communities.” Master’s thesis, OCAD University.
—. 2014. “Artist-Run Life.” The Overcast 1 (February 2014): 18.
—. 2016. “Islands of the Future.” Latitude53 20 September
McKay, Ian. 1994. The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Smellie, Sarah. 2017. “‘She Was a Difference-Maker:’ Mary MacDonald, Celebrated Artist,
Writer, and Organizer Dies at 32.” CBC News July 19 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/mary-macdonald-celebrated-curator-arts-administrator-dies-1.4212254.
Zion, Amy and Cora Fisher. 2016. “Regionalism Vs. Provincialism: Agitating Against Critical
Neglect in Artworld Peripheries.” Momus April 18 http://momus.ca/regionalism-vs-provincialism-agitating-against-critical-neglect-in-artworld-peripheries/.