Denise Markonish says she's "not quite ready for the show to come down," but come down it will Monday night – the "show," in this instance, being the biggest, sprawlingest survey of contemporary Canadian art ever held in the United States.
Oh, Canada, subtitled Contemporary Art from North North America, has been running since late last May at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass. MASS MoCA bills itself as "the largest not-for-profit contemporary-art and performing-arts venue in the U.S." – a big deal, in other words. And by the time Oh, Canada concludes its 10-month run this week, museum officials expect it will have drawn more than 130,000 visitors, including about 13,000 Canadians.
That's not actually the end of it, however. Turns out Oh, Canada – conceived almost six years ago by Markonish, one of MASS MoCA's two full-time curators, who made some 400 studio visits in this country – is heading north. Details are expected to be announced in May, but in a recent interview, Markonish confirmed almost all the 120-plus works by the 62 artists in the North Adams showcase likely will begin touring Canadian centres – Toronto, Calgary and Charlottetown are among the locales under consideration – starting in 2014.
"At first when I was pitching the [Canadian] tour, I was pitching an abbreviated version," Markonish said. "Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought I didn't want to do that. I think the mass of the show is really important, so what I started to do was to pitch it to multiple venues in one city to form partnerships and split the show amongst them at the same time."
The Canadian leg won't lack for promotional oomph. MASS MoCA's mixed-media presentation of works by the likes of Shary Boyle, Annie Pootoogook, Michel de Broin, Rebecca Belmore and Micah Lexier earned the attention of numerous Canadian publications, and garnered largely positive coverage in U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and nearby Albany's Times Union, as well as magazines such as Art New England, Artes and artforum international.
The result? An estimated 10- to 15-per-cent bigger attendance at MASS MoCA last summer than in summer 2011. And it has been "[one of ] our most popular shows" since the museum's opening in 1999, according to Jodi Joseph, the museum's interim director of marketing. "[Its] density and colourful detail and wit and sheer variety of form and content encouraged unusually high repeat visitation. Among group shows, I would rank it neck-and-neck with Unnatural Science [a 2000-2001 exhibition of 14 monumental works exploring the relationship between art and science] for popularity and attendance pull."
Some Oh, Canada artists proved more popular than others, or, as Markonish put it, "were singled out by different audiences … For instance, I think a lot of Canadian audiences were surprised by people like Joseph Tisiga [a mixed-media artist from Whitehorse] and Hans Wendt [a PEI watercolourist] whose art they really didn't know" while the new media crowd "now is obsessed with [Alberta's] David Hoffos" and his spooky videos of miniature dioramas. One "big crowd-pleaser" – in fact, The Boston Globe calls it "a flat-out masterpiece" – has been The Mountain, a large, complex, mixed-media installation commissioned by Markonish from New Brunswick- based Graeme Patterson.
Oh, Canada hasn't, so far at least, resulted in a raft of its artists being signed to New York dealers or curators clamouring to include them in group shows at the Whitney and MOCAChicago. But those outcomes weren't crucial to Markonish's conception, nor were they entertained by the artists themselves. "Actually, I don't even have a Canadian dealer!" said Fredericton-based Janice Wright Cheney, whose Widow, a striking sculpture of a life-size grizzly bear covered with felted roses, greeted visitors at the entrance to Oh, Canada.
"I feel, overall, very lucky to have been part of the Oh, Canada experience," said Cheney, noting that, at 52, "probably more people saw my work at MASS MoCA than in all my exhibition history combined. It was great exposure [and being included] has definitely drawn some new attention to my practice at local, provincial and national levels."
Toronto's Kent Monkman, whose saucy tableau-installation Two Kindred Spirits sparked much conversation in North Adams, said he wasn't sure "how much Oh, Canada registered in the American art world." However, he predicted the handsome, 400-page, full-colour catalogue Markonish edited "will function well as a survey of what is current in Canadian art, and will be a good resource for curators in Canada and beyond."
Markonish doesn't think she'll curate another all-Canadian show, but "it's not like, come Monday, I sever ties with Canada." Going forward, she intends to talk up the virtues of the Canadians she knows to American gallerists and institutions and, where feasible, include work by individual Canadians in upcoming MASS MoCA shows. One is Calgary installation artist Jason de Haan, whom Markonish first visited at his studio in 2010, then reconnected with last fall during a lecture tour of Western Canada. Although de Haan, short-listed for the 2012 Sobey Art Award, didn't get a berth in Oh, Canada, he is going to be included in a 2015 group show Markonish is curating "on the notion of wonder."
"When you spend that long a time with a place as I have, it's about lasting connections," Markonish said. "I now have this wealth of research and information and great artists, so I intend to work with that."