Emily Carr University’s new gallery curator Vanessa Kwan embraces role

Q&A: ‘I’m really invested in education as an expanded proposition and I’m curious about the gallery as a research space for artists’

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Emily Carr University of Art + Design has appointed Vanessa Kwan as director and curator of gallery and exhibitions at the university. The position is responsible for gallery exhibitions and programming at the Libby Leshgold Gallery and other university exhibition spaces and venues, as well as READ Books, ECU Press, the ECU Art Collection and the university’s outdoor screen. We talked to Kwan about the new gig.

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Q: What was the process like?

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A: I saw the posting go out. I mean, I’m coming from a gallery called grunt. I’m the director. I was there, all in all, for about eight years. It’s a big change in culture for me. When I saw the posting I thought about what kind of work I could do in the environment. That was in the spring. They started doing interviews in the summer time. There was an initial interview and then a presentation to the committee and a few follow-up questions.

Q: How will it be a change in culture?

A: Grunt is an artist-run centre. It’s a much smaller institution. It’s a different community of folks that I work with. Universities are unique ecologies. Each one is different. They’re massive entities in the cultural landscape.

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Q: Is grunt going to fall apart without you there?

A: No, it’s in a very good position. I feel a lot of love for grunt. I feel torn, actually. I’ve talked with the folks at Emily Carr about it. I have a lot of mixed feelings. I don’t have any worries about the gallery, but I am sad to leave.

Q: What’s a project at grunt you probably wouldn’t be able to do at Emily Carr?

A: At grunt we’re very community-engaged. We’re able to be out in public space in different ways and to work with different communities and partner with other organizations. We can be quite nimble. Because we’re a smaller scale and have closer ties within communities we’re able to do certain type of projects more quickly. I think that will be more challenging at a place with a lot more reach and that has a bigger platform.

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Q: You’ve said that one of your passions “is designing opportunities for artists to just work and to learn.” How will you do that?

A: I’m really invested in education as an expanded proposition and I’m curious about the gallery as a research space for artists. I like putting up exhibitions and presentations, but I also spend a lot of time thinking through what other support artists might need to do their work. What does education look like for artists as a lifelong pursuit?

Q: Will your own art practice suffer under the responsibilities of the new role?

A: My art practice and director/curator practice are semi-intertwined. The creative energy I bring to my art practice is very active when I work with other artists as well and when I work with institutions. I have a few projects coming up. I’ll be rigorous about making that time for them.

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Q: How would you describe your own work?

A: It’s process-oriented, collaborative. It’s interdisciplinary, it doesn’t really stick to one particular thing. It’s similar in some ways to how I curate.

Q: How do you recall your days attending Emily Carr, nearly 20 years ago?

A: They were formative. It’s where I was introduced to working with artists collaboratively, it’s where I started dabbling in performance art and interdisciplinary installations. It’s where I learned to be curious and invested in the art community. I really am invested in the community as an evolving thing. Emily Carr was the first time I was introduced to the idea that art is much more than an object or kind of presentation. It’s really a living ecology.

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