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Suzanne Carte is changing the Art Gallery of Burlington one inclusive show at a time

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When Suzanne Carte joined the Art Gallery of Burlington (AGB) as senior curator in November 2018, it was clear she was passionate about inclusion and embracing as many voices and artistic experiences as possible.

Originally from the West Mountain in Hamilton, Ontario and having worked at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the late 1990s, Carte spent over 20 years in Toronto including the past decade at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU).

Carte, an award-winning curator and cultural producer, was the former assistant curator at AGYU. She had a bevy of accomplishments under her belt, but was looking for new challenges outside of academic institutions. During her time at York University, she was an integral part of students' experiences and worked directly with of student leaders and organizations focusing on artistic expression and social justice advocacy.

While Carte found room for movement and growth at the AGB, she soon realized the position involved merging the old with the new: "I was naive in the beginning, but had to become sensitive and respectful to the AGB's history and relationships between the gallery and the guilds." Carte is encouraging a younger generation of artists to showcase their talents while paying homage to the seven art and fine craft guilds.

Carte inherited a wealth of artistic material that had been acquired over the AGB's 41 years. By freeing up storage space, Carte was able to expand existing galleries. In the process, Carte established the Artist Material Fund (AMF), a grassroots recycling endeavour that benefits artists in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area. The project offers a variety of previously stored materials to artist studios, libraries, and youth-driven galleries.

The Workers Arts and Heritage Centre (WAHC) in Hamilton, Ontario is one of Carte's favourite galleries because, "The staff are smart, motivated, and practice what they preach. I have immense respect for them." WAHC stored material for the AMF on their third floor and offered it to artists at no cost during the closing of her exhibition, Division of Labour.

Carte is caring for a collection as well as a community that is shifting its focus. She wants to be "in a listening campaign. Listening to see where people are at, what they want, and who Burlington is. Listening to the edge of change."

Carte says, "Burlington looks like how I want my programming to look. Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, immigrant, and intersectional." She hopes more young families and people see themselves reflected in the AGB's exhibitions. And she is accomplishing that one show at a time.

Carte jumped in with both feet when she launched this summer's exhibitions. The evening of May 24, Burlington saw crowds like the gallery had never seen before. Jeremy Dutcher, member of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, was on hand to sing selections from his Polaris and Juno award-winning album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa.

He was also there in support of Vuntut Gwich'in artist Jeneen Frei Njootli's solo show, my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money. Frei Njootli created living art on four huge sheets of steel that morph over time. Shadowy impressions of the hand-sewn beadwork made by the women in her family are transferred to the sheets using grease. These images alter with changes in humidity and temperature.

Frei Njootli performed I am she at the opening while creating another layer of images on the steel plate. The sound of her voice united with the rattling of the metal was captured on a playback loop, creating a soundtrack that could be felt through the body.

The exhibition 150 Acts: Art, Activism, Impact also launched that night. Inspired by Canada's sesquicentennial, this exhibit offers an essential moment of national reflection and an opportunity to question the relationship of nationhood to Canada's Indigeneity. The art practices are personal, conceptual, cultural, political, and social acts as well as meaningful responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.

Using essential pieces from the Art Gallery of Guelph's Indigenous collections in concert with contemporary art practices that showcase evolving Indigenous art forms, settlers are encouraged to actively engage in discussions around the collective histories and possible futures for this land we share. 

Carte is following her debut with no less than four groundbreaking shows.

Opening Friday, September 6, The Gender Conspiracy will be an extravaganza including a children's drag queen performance. Billed as an "Open Letter to the Trans and Gender Diverse communities in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area" to express allyship in furthering the discourse on gender fluidity and identity, sexual orientation, same-sex relationships, and consent to promote the mental health and safety of all LGBTQ communities. The AGB is determined to be vigilant and visible in their support of LGBTQ communities by placing critical conversations on gender diversity back into the public education sphere.

Carte believes in collaboration with community partners. Gender Conspiracy partners include The Positive Space Network, EGALE Canada Huan Rights Trust, JAYU Human Rights Film Festival, Burlington Public Library, McMaster University Department to Gender Studies and Feminist Research, Dr. Frank J. Hayden Secondary School Position Space (GSA), and Oakville Galleries.

From January to March 2020, Division of Labour: Second Edition invites artists to become part of the dialogue about race, class, and labour as they relate to cultural waste. Barter economy systems, community action around consumption, and circuits of solidarity exchange are more present than ever in the daily working lives of artists and cultural producers. Visitors will learn about the scarcity of resources, labour rights, and the lack of living wages in the arts. The exhibition illustrates the power and potential of reused material for artistic production.

Visitors to the art gallery will have the chance to engage with the multimedia collage work of Burlington's senior media artist P. Mansaram when his self-styled Mansamedia is showcased from May to August 2020. Co-presented with South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC), The Medium is the Medium is the Medium explores the artist's decades-long practice of repetition as art, meditation, spirituality, falling in love, and as a way to finding god. The exhibit includes works from Mansaram's five-decade career and will invoke everlasting feelings of travel through time, dimension, and territory.

Then, from September to December 2020, Vessel: A Collective Feminist Collection Project will rewrite the matriarchal history of the AGB through the permanent collection with co-curators and collaborators Ness Lee, Su-Ying Lee, Suzanne Carte, Ivy Knight, and Myung-Sun Kim.

The AGB's permanent collection of contemporary Canadian ceramics is the largest collection in the nation, and will be used to unpack the feminist history of the AGB with local changemakers and leaders, by bringing the gallery's vessels and containers out of the vaults and into the public space. This collection considers the implications of feminist knowledge, labour, production, support, and ingenuity while opening a space for cross-disciplinary, intergenerational conversations and critical dialogue.

Carte is successfully crafting an art gallery that is, "A space for intergenerational dialogue, intelligence fed by exhibitions, and a place to socialize, learn and have fun and the same time."

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Art Gallery of Burlington/Facebook

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