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AGO has made art world more inclusive, but work still to be done: director

Stephan Jost is photographed at the AGO on April 12 2016.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The head of the Art Gallery of Ontario says while the museum has made progress in creating an art world that is more inclusive, there is still room for improvement.

AGO director Stephan Jost was responding Wednesday to criticism from one of the museum's former curators, who said he recently left his job because he was worried "about an institution wavering in its commitment to make space for new voices."

Andrew Hunter, who had served as the AGO's Canadian art curator since May 2013, left the gallery in September. In a Toronto Star column this week, Hunter expressed disappointment that art institutions aren't progressing quickly enough in their attempts to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to Canada's Indigenous community.

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In the piece, he said the AGO is "an institution that remains (like so many others in this country) burdened by, and seemingly committed to, a deeply problematic and divisive history defined by exclusion and erasure."

In a phone interview Wednesday, Hunter explained that his goal in writing the essay was to provide constructive criticism to the museum, and to clearly express his aims to the public.

"I think often people leave institutions (feeling) like there's some critical things that need to be said, but it's hard to say them," he said.

Jost said he agrees with Hunter that the art world needs to try harder to be accessible to people of colour, who have historically been left out of many of these kinds of institutions.

"I think that's something that we've made huge progress on, but I also think we have a lot of work to do," Jost said.

Hunter said that while inclusivity was a frequent topic of conversation with his colleagues, those discussions didn't always make it to the decision-makers. And even when change was implemented, he said he was often frustrated by how hard it was to sustain.

Hunter said the museum did a good job of attracting audience members outside of their subscription base during a 2015 exhibit of black American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's work, for example. An advisory board was set up to forge connections with emerging visual artists in Toronto's black communities, and the museum was glad to see the exhibit reach new audiences.

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But he said no such effort was made last year, when Chicago artist Theaster Gates exhibited at the museum.

"There was a real opportunity for the AGO," he said. But instead "it presented Theaster as an artist, but the deeper part of what his work is about didn't really get embraced through the institution."

Jost said he remains optimistic that art institutions can open their doors to a wider audience.

"I believe that museums have an incredibly important cultural role to help make us more inclusive, and help us gain greater cultural understanding, both of ourselves and other communities," he said

He pointed to a current AGO exhibit devoted to filmmaker Guillermo del Toro as an example.

"He's Mexican-born, yet his kids go to school here in Toronto," Jost said. "He's created a really magical exhibition, but it also is challenging to our audience, because it's not comfortably in the high-art conversation."

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Meantime, the AGO announced this week that their Canadian art department will become the department of Canadian and Indigenous Art, and named Wanda Nanibush to the new position of curator of Indigenous art.

Georgiana Uhlyarik has been named the curator of the new Canadian and Indigenous Art department.

Jost said the choice to include Indigenous artwork within the umbrella of Canadian work, rather than classifying it in a separate category, is a model he learned about in conversation with friends in New Zealand. The Te Papa museum in Wellington is built around parallel curatorial structures, he said: "one Maori, one settler communities."

"Wanda and Georgiana's proposal to me was to have two parallel narratives, which makes a lot of sense in terms of how to talk about Canadian and Indigenous cultures, parallel and always interacting with each other," he said.

Hunter expressed skepticism about the announcement coming on the same day as his public comments, but an AGO spokesperson said discussions had been under way for a while.

"This moment of change provided the right time to put those discussions into action, including the renaming of the Canadian art department," she said.

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