This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Kyle Simons
I push open a set of heavy wooden doors and enter a barren room. The walls are white and the small space is dark with the exception of an illuminated rectangle in the centre of the floor. I take a large step into the lit area and am startled by the rattle of chains that begins to echo through the space. I turn to face the doors and am greeted by the shriek of a rusted hinge. As I slowly lift my arm, a stream of water hits a shallow pool of water but it quickly stops when I halt the movement. I begin wiggling my fingers and the sound returns, only this time it is gentler. When I try to make my way to the exit the sounds intensify. Chains rattle, water pours, and steel screams until I make it out into the quiet hallway. I walk down a set of steps and the bright red doors of the McIntosh Gallery close behind me.
Despite the McIntosh Gallery’s prominence in London’s contemporary art community, most Western students don’t know about it. This lack of awareness is hard to believe, especially given that it has been in a central campus location since its opening in 1942; it is also the oldest university art gallery in Ontario.
“It’s a real challenge to make people aware that we’re here,” James Patten tells me. Five years ago he returned to London to become the Director and Chief Curator of the gallery and since then he has been in charge of overseeing its operations. One of his dominant responsibilities is selecting which artists to feature in the gallery’s two exhibition spaces.
One of Patten’s favourite exhibitions of the year was “Three Questions” by Ron Benner, which focused on the spread of Ontario’s indigenous crops. In the same way that Ontario’s produce has scattered across the globe because of colonization, the gallery has amassed an audience that stems well beyond Western’s campus; the gallery communicates to people across the country and the world through collaborations on art projects and over social media. With such a broad reach it seems counter-intuitive that one of the groups hardest to actively engage is Western’s own student body.
In an empty room in Western’s Visual Arts Centre I meet with Lucas Cabral, the McIntosh Gallery’s Communications and Outreach Coordinator, who tells me about the difficulties he has had trying to reach students. “Art and visual culture is something that not a lot of people engage with,” he explains. He has been managing the McIntosh’s social media accounts and there has been a noticeable increase in foot traffic since he began implementing his digital strategy, clearly illustrating that the only thing keeping students from visiting the exhibitions is that they don’t know about them. Cabral has watched students experience David Rokeby’s “Very Nervous System” exhibit and observed how he thinks it might benefit students. He says that the piece is a new way to think about the way people move their bodies, and he enjoys witnessing the sense of achievement people get from understanding the sound-based piece through their own active participation, the same way that I did.
Similarly, the gallery provides a number of different hands-on learning opportunities. Every year it opens its doors to student interns who get to learn about the behind-the-scenes work firsthand and are equipped with new skills that will serve them later on in their careers. Thus, the gallery doubles as an educational institution. It furthers this role by publishing a number of art books outlining ground-breaking and interesting art projects which are disseminated to galleries and education centres across the country.
With so many engaging pieces of art and learning opportunities, Western Students are privileged to have access to this quaint but influential artistic establishment. With Cabral’s marketing efforts and Patten’s selection of engaging shows, there is no doubt that student awareness has been growing, but perhaps students are too nervous to take their first steps through those bright red doors. But don’t be!