Voices from the Bonavista Biennale: Catherine Beaudette
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“The Biennale features a large variety of artwork - from painting or photography to multi-media indoor and outdoor installations. Most of the local people didn't know what a biennale was and couldn’t even say the word, but now everybody, every fisherman with a Newfoundland accent can say Biennale. Because the artworks were so different, like a chair on an outcrop of rocks in the ocean, or red trees planted upside down on the beach, people began to think, oh, that's what a biennale is!”
- Catherine Beaudette
What was your initial intention when you started working on the Bonavista Biennale and what has changed since then?
The Bonavista Biennale originates with 2 Rooms Contemporary Art Projects in Duntara, a small fishing community like many such fishing communities around the world. In 1992 the Cod Moratorium put a stop to all cod fishing in Newfoundland; people moved away and houses were abandoned. I first came to Duntara in 2000 and every year since there was another empty house and fewer people. I bought one of the empty houses for really cheap and started a gallery and museum for all the artifacts I was collecting since everyone was throwing out their old fishing tools that their grandfathers used. It was also a way to bring artists to the area, and soon I expanded with 2 Rooms Artist Residency. Each summer 10 to 12 artists live in the residence house two at a time for three weeks. They make their work and get to know the people in the community.
I thought that, here in the village where houses were empty, if I could attract artists and they too might want to buy an old house. It was a way to balance the out-migration. This has slowly happened over time, artists come, they love it and they want to come back. Some have bought houses in this and other communities on the Bonavista Peninsula. Then one day I thought we could do this on a larger scale, and that is what became the Bonavista Biennale, not just in my community but in communities all around this Peninsula.
The Peninsula has many similar communities with under-used or empty buildings; old sheds, fish stores, fish plants and other historical structures. The Biennale activates these cultural spaces engaging the public in new conversations. Art as an economic stimulator or art for social change, that was my motto. I still run 2 Rooms Artist Residency which started small without any funding. Bonavista Biennale became a much larger project with support from local people and government agencies. It’s an attempt to turn things around, to bring hope and jobs to people on social assistance and to attract more visitors and new residents to the area. There are other new projects, businesses and cultural organizations that have opened up on the Peninsula and together we are creating a vibrant cultural destination in Newfoundland.
It was ambitious and tricky to start a biennale in this area with little art awareness and no art infrastructure. It was a good way to reuse, re-present and restore an industrial or historical space, an that was appealing to the cultural minister and tourism development people who saw the potential for increased tourism, offshoot businesses and commerce using culture as a platform. We are a nonprofit charitable organization and the Biennale is free to the public. Our goal is to put money in the pockets of people with hotels, restaurants. all the places visitors can spend money on the peninsula. This was very successful in 2017 especially for a first venture, and that's why we're going ahead with the second Biennale in 2019.
How did the local community respond to this initiative?
I'll talk about 2 Rooms since that was the beginning. The house/ gallery was painted in three vertical colors, it looked different. People weren't sure what to think but they knew I was an artist and collected artifacts. I have a collection of a thousand old things that belonged to people from here so that made it a little bit interesting to them. I hired a local student as attendant, I hired a housekeeper to clean the artist residency, and gradually their parents and friends dropped by. They were skeptical at first but they liked having artists visit their town, and some of the artists involved local residents in their projects. Over time they've accepted the concept. The Biennale has a bigger impact; we hire more local people, many who have no employment, no art knowledge, women in their fifties, some are students, some are fishermen. We offer them training and they meet people who visit from around the world. It’s a great experience for everyone. And they all helped to spread the word spread the word! You have one person working for the Biennale, their friends dropped by, and gradually people started to see that it was a lot of fun. Support from local organizations has increased for this Biennale; many are asking how they can be involved, offering exhibition space and billeting for artists. Over time we've built a lot of trust. We spend time and effort talking with locals and doing our own kind of public relations.
The Biennale features a large variety of artwork- from painting or photography to multi-media indoor and outdoor installations. Most of the local people didn't know what a biennale was and couldn’t even say the word, but now everybody, every fisherman with a Newfoundland accent can say Biennale. Because the artworks were so different, like a chair on an outcrop of rocks in the ocean, or red trees planted upside down on the beach, people began to think, oh, that's what a biennale is! Once they realized it was fun and art didn't have to be paintings in a white cube, they used social media and spread the word. Now they’re looking forward to the next Biennale and the excitement and people it brings. Newfoundlanders love visitors because they like to show off their beautiful landscape and share their culture. The Biennale has become a well-received event that is worth waiting two years for.
How many artists and how many people are you expecting this year?
We have 21 artists, most from Newfoundland and other parts of Canada, some are indigenous, and four are from the United States. They will spend a week on the Peninsula. In terms of visitors we had well over 1500 unique visitors, which may not seem like a lot to you, but for us in a remote area, it is. Visitors fly to an island that is often fogged in, or take a ferry and drive long distances careful to avoid any moose on the road. It takes an effort to get here, and we expect more people this time due to increased publicity and the word has gotten out in the art community. We anticipate well over 3000 unique visitors, and thousands more who happen to be passing through.
I wanted to comment on the artists’ accommodation because that's an important part of how we network within the community. All the artists are billeted in people's houses in different communities where they get to know each other and experience Newfoundland food and culture first hand. We mostly billeted the artists for budgetary reasons, and to save the hotel beds for the tourists. We hadn’t anticipated the bond they would form between them, so it’s been a nice sort of byproduct. Another way we've engaged local residents is by having clusters of Biennale Sites in different communities, encouraging Biennale visitors to visit all the towns along the route.
What is the focus of the 2019 edition?
We start with a theme and then select artists whose work could fit. We try to embed the theme within an aspect of the history and culture of Newfoundland. That doesn't mean artists have to make work about Newfoundland, rather the work resonates with the theme. Some of the artwork is newly commissioned for the Biennale; other work is pre-existing. To engage with the history of Newfoundland and its location on the Atlantic Coast, we came up with the theme of ‘flow’ spelled FLOE to suggest the migratory and trade routes of nature, people and goods on the North Atlantic Ocean.
Many settlers who arrived in Newfoundland from Ireland and Scotland then moved to the United States in the 1800’s because they couldn’t make a living on the island. Since Newfoundland didn’t join Canada until 1949, they had no allegiance to that country and went south instead of west, crossing the border into the States of Maine and Massachusetts U.S.. Today many Newfoundlanders still have family and relatives living across the border. Our theme includes the floe of traffic and trade between Newfoundland, Europe and the Caribbean; cod, slaves, rhum... Although Newfoundland is an isolated island, it's also on the major trading routes between Europe and North America, so we have focused on this idea of the North Atlantic Ocean as the highway. I travelled to Maine and Massachusetts for studio visits with artists we wanted to include. Our goal is not just to show Newfoundland artists, but to position them within an international context. I could see that in the future, we might consider the broader Atlantic basin. We have also given important consideration to Inuit and Mi’kmaq artists whose indigenous ancestors were here long before any settlers arrived, or borders were drawn.
The theme is what holds the work together; it is the conceptual framework behind the exhibition. When you visit the different venues, you will see continuity between the ideas behind the work and the site in which it is exhibited. We don't just plunk the art down in any space available; we seek a dialogue between the history of the site and/or its present use and the artwork, matching art to site. This can be tricky but it's also part of the draw, the part I love. In my own art practice (I am more artist than curator) I think a lot about composition in my paintings and installations of objects, I like to move things around looking for the relationships between the parts. This is what I do at 2 Rooms Gallery. It's what I've done as a professor, working with different artists and artworks searching for dialogue between them.
What are the main differences in the approach to curatorship when you are an artist curator and when you are just a curator?
I should start by saying I've always been interested in DIY (Do It Yourself movement), and motivating students and artists to step outside their studio and think about the dissemination of their work, rather than only relying on the commercial market. Artists have a lot of skills as makers, producers, communicators, writers and self-employed business owners. Artists are multi skilled. I consider myself a problem solver, whether it's within a painting or how I’m going to install the objects I collect, it's always about solving the problem at hand. In fact the beginning of this project that is 2 Rooms and Bonavista Biennale, was about problem solving. There was a big problem, my town was dying.
They actually still relocate villages in Newfoundland, it's called ‘resettlement’. The government steps in and says ‘ok everybody, you're all going to move, and there will be no more services here such as electricity, water or snow removal. This happened mostly in the 1950’s but the practice continues to this day. I was actually worried about my town and thought how can I use art to problem solve here? That's how I started this project, it was to solve a problem. As an artist curator I may respond to the process more intuitively than intellectually. As a starting point I might think more about how an artist’s work functions in a space. The relationships aren't always cerebral, they might be more visual and lead me towards the intellectual.
Because the process is different for an artist curator than for a more academic curator, you can think far outside the box, there are no limits. You can bring that boundlessness to curating and anything is possible. This is the reason we have done some pretty crazy projects and we have some crazy projects about to happen this year. I see my job as facilitating the artists’ ideas and imagination. To do that, you don't go to the limitations first, you do the opposite and try to make it happen, then you might see what your limitations are. It creates a very open way of selecting artwork, artists and even sites.
Initially I drove around looking at empty buildings like the old fish plant that had been empty for 15 or 20 years, and thought we should use them, work with what’s there. I think there is a certain amount of artist's initiative that I bring to this project. The idea of re-using these obsolete buildings, not everyone thinks in those terms but as artists we do because we're always interested in spaces. It’s really just a vision that comes out of one’s experience as an artist. I do see this project as an extension of my art practice, and I bring the same kind thinking to it; process oriented, problem solving, intuitive, imaginative and visionary.
What parameters do you consider for evaluating the impact of the Biennale?
We're a very small group and have worked together since the first edition of Bonavista Biennale. Our project managers have measured the impact by gathering statistics and tracking the number of visitors. We do follow-up interviews with each employee, with the participating artists, and with the site owners. The artists are always happy to come here and that's one story. But the success of the event is measurable on the peninsula. Also, this isn't that big an area you can feel the energy and the presence of people in a shared experience. It’s palpable.
Many of the artists have never been to Newfoundland before. They work through the many challenges and details of creating their work in their studios, working from a distance. When they finally arrive in Newfoundland, they fall in love with this beautiful place and its friendly people. Part of the success comes from bringing in artists from away. Those artists then go back to their world talking about the experience and spreading the word. Artist are communicators and they can be great spokespeople. One of the artists in the 2017 who normally charges a fee much higher than we could afford, said ok I'll do it for your regular (lower) artist fee because I think this is such an interesting project I want to be a part of it.
What is most important for you when working in team?
I think communication is key. We communicate daily and have regular phone meetings and conference calls. Most of the year we are all in different locations- Newfoundland, Toronto, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. With such a small team, each has specialized areas of responsibility. As artistic director my job is to oversee the project as a whole without micromanaging the parts. There is no need since everyone is doing what they do best, and they are very good at what they do. Together we ensure that our communication is open, our facts are correct and the details are taken care of.
Another important aspect is the varying nature of what we do and trying to maintain an air of enthusiasm and innovation in the process. Things change every day and we are making it up as we go. That can be exciting or scary depending on your perspective. Nothing is ever the same- each artist is different, each site is different, the artwork is always new and everything changes all the time. There's a lot of thinking on your feet as I call it, and that’s part of the fun.
Where do you see current shifts in the evolution of the role of curators, art managers, cultural institutions, cultural producers, artists, and big events like art biennials? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
There are a few things to consider here. One is the idea of art for social change. Art is about ideas, it's about problems and issues in the world such as climate change. Here in Canada there's a lot of discussion about indigenous communities and decolonization. Art is really about the world, so how can we let the artworks speak to broader audiences and perhaps speak a little louder? What's changed a lot in my time as an artist is the advent of art fairs and the increased commercialization within the art world. Although I enjoy going to art fairs, they can over emphasize the commodification of art. I see events like the Biennale as parallel opportunities for new conversations and new audiences.
There's no commercial aspect to the Biennale whatsoever, nothing is for sale and art is somewhat restored to its earlier purpose: visual communication for the people. Many of the residents in this area have had little exposure to art. They may be familiar with a landscape painting or crafts such as a model boat or knitting. The Biennale has broadened their outlook about what art is and what art can be, encouraging them to look at and think about the world in new ways. There is a boundlessness to art, limitlessness possibilities of perception that I believe can open people's minds to new thinking. The students working for us who are mostly from small fishing communities gain exposure to people and ideas from around the globe. Suddenly the world is bigger than they thought, and their dreams expand. ‘Imagination driven opportunities’ or magical thinking is something I'm interested in nurturing, particularly in young people.
I am interested in the concept of artist driven initiatives. Speaking personally I prefer to focus less on marketing and more on content, using artist driven and content driven marketing. This is something I am conscious of in how we represent ourselves, I try to tone down the hype and go deeper into content and context. I see the opportunity for artists and the content of their work to drive the promotion behind the show. Social media may be a sufficient form of marketing- it’s free, it has a life of its own and it's democratic. I’m open to the idea of spending less money on very expensive advertising and let the people speak through these platforms instead. It might be one way to reduce costs in a challenging funding environment! Everything doesn't require a huge price tag, there are new systems and technologies that can facilitate artist driven initiatives. I may be overly optimistic, but then who would have thought we could create and an international caliber art biennale on the edge of the continent…
DIY can extend to how you exhibit the work, the type of venues you access, the kind of projects you are able to create, it’s generally thinking outside the institution. Institutions are important and we all dream of having solo shows in large galleries and museums. That will always be a vital part of how we experience art, and there’s still room for alternative experiences. Art has a valuable function in society and some of these ideas are attempts to restore its reputation.
Artists are generally self-directed in their studio work. We come up with ideas for artwork, we spend a lot of time working independently and sometimes with collaborators or a production team. How then, can we apply this independently driven studio process to the dissemination of art? How do we extend our studio practice to operate as a platform in the larger world? I see that as a chance opportunity.
Perhaps to conclude this question I will go back to my own art practice. Working in this way as curator and arts organizer reflects the changing nature of my art practice, which is more interdisciplinary. Curating is an extension of my practice; the research I do for it and for the Biennale are deeply connected with many overlapping concerns. How I present and contextualize contemporary art is a parallel activity for me.
If you were able to change two things in the area of responsibility of arts curators, cultural producers, cultural institutions, what two things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
That’s a good question, perhaps with more collective and community based ways of working. If I go back to the commercial art world for a moment; it's a fantastic reward for any artist to receive a big solo show. It’s also a competitive process. Whether for an exhibition, a grant, a professorship or an award, competition is built into what artists do. How can we, as an art community, support and honour all these rewards with an understanding that what's good for our friends and colleagues is good for us. Advancement for one artist is advancement for all artists. More is more!
Communication and respect between different statures of artists is an equally important aspect for me as a curator and artist. Learning to think more as a community and less as individually ambitious artists might be a good place to start. When artists lead on collective projects, take responsibilities for all that needs to be done, they gain an objective perspective that comes from stepping outside the studio and giving back.
What are three or five keywords that you feel represent the essence of this conversation and what emerged for you in this interview?
Boundless, creative, stimulating.
Catherine Beaudette is a Canadian artist, curator and professor at OCAD University. She is the founder of Loop Gallery in Toronto, 2 Rooms Contemporary Art Projects and Bonavista Biennale in Newfoundland. Born in Montréal, she currently divides her time between Toronto and Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. Her practice stems from both places where she collects objects, artifacts and specimens to form the basis of her drawings, paintings and installations.Combining elements from the natural world with evidence of human activity Beaudette’s collections offer alternate taxonomies through which to consider the world around us. Beaudette has attended artist residencies in Spain, Serbia/Montenegro, Havana, Dawson City, Banff, and Fogo Island. She received her MFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in 1998. Beaudette won the RBC Canadian Painting Prize in 2000. She has exhibited nationally and internationally since the 1980’s.