The Art Of The Matter

Melanie O’Brian within the Samuel Roy-Bois installation Not a new world, just an old trick, SFU Gallery.

New director Melanie O’Brian pushes art  beyond the walls of SFU’s galleries.

By Anicka Quin
Portrait by Greg Ehlers / SFU CS

Every hour, on the hour, a bit of theatre happens in SFU’s Harbour Centre. It starts with something a little different about the main floor raised area: the walls are painted a not-so-subtle shade of fuchsia; heavy pink drapes line a picture window overlooking the North Shore mountains. Someone has drawn a pair of theatrical prosceniums on the walls. And then, as the hour nears, those drapes glide quietly closed, hiding the view. Just a few moments later, they’re open again, creating a wry “ta-da!” moment, again and again.

In fact, the pretty-in-pink space is actually SFU’s Teck Gallery, though a few years ago you’d be forgiven for not noticing it. Situated on an elevated platform at one end of the building, the space is often home to students napping or eating lunch, studying in groups, or listening to a lunchtime poetry reading. The transformation of the space into an interactive theatre is the work of the gallery’s new director, Melanie O’Brian.

“The shows there have been traditionally two-dimensional framed works on the wall,” explains O’Brian, who has a master’s degree in art history from the University of Chicago, and most recently acted as the curator at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Canada’s largest non-collecting contemporary art space. She brought in the artist collective Instant Coffee, a group known for designing spaces that encourage social engagement, to create a contemporary artwork in the public space. “They suggested treating it like a stage, which it is, for all these activities to happen on,” says O’Brian. “It makes you think, ‘Am I an audience member on this stage, or am I an actor on this stage?’ ”

O’Brian, who became the director of the Teck, Audain, and SFU Galleries in September 2012, is charged with creating more of those surprising and engaging moments with all three galleries. The galleries play an important role in student life on campus – the Audain, in particular, is closely connected to the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) and showcases four undergraduate and graduate shows a year – but O’Brian’s mission goes beyond that. The galleries are to be a reflection of SFU’s new tagline: Engaging the World.

Samuel Roy-Bois: Not a new world, just an old trick. Installation view, SFU Gallery, 2013.
The Biography of Images: Parallel Biographies. Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2013.

“I’m very interested in SFU as a context,” explains O’Brian, “but I think to be successful there has to be a dialogue not just with SFU, but with the contemporary art discourse locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Taking the galleries to an international forum is a firm directive for O’Brian’s new role. “I’ve really given her a lot of licence to be as innovative as she would like,” says Vice-President External Relations Philip Steenkamp. “To shake it up a bit, and to really cause people to sit up and say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, look what’s happening at Simon Fraser.’  To put us on the world map.”

A key part of that directive, says O’Brian, will come from looking at the gallery’s roots, particularly with SFU’s 50th anniversary approaching in 2015. “Any place I’ve worked, I’ve always been excited about the context; what the history is,” she says. “What you’re programming is only as interesting as what you’re building on.” And in researching the gallery’s history – some of it archived, much of it oral – it didn’t take long for O’Brian to unearth the world-renowned art stars who have passed through the Burnaby campus gallery since its opening in 1970.

“You’ve got this McLuhanesque soup in the late sixties of everything really happening, which I am keen on,” says O’Brian. “You had Iain Baxter of the N.E Thing Co. who was here from 1966 to 1971. Iain Baxter taught Ian Wallace, and Ian Wallace taught Jeff Wall, and Jeff Wall taught here. Ken Lum went here. You’ve got these nice layers that I think I can do something with.”

Each gallery will play a key role in SFU’s 50th anniversary celebrations, drawing on that rich past of influential exhibitions and artists. O’Brian plans to remount some important ephemeral works that took place on the Burnaby campus over the years as part of the programming, including the work of local artist Rodney Graham.

But she doesn’t feel restricted to the walls of the galleries she oversees. Though each space serves as a rotating canvas for multiple exhibitions a year, there’s still room for engaging students and visitors on campus – particularly in Burnaby, where legendary architect Arthur Erickson’s campus design offers the perfect backdrop to more large-scale works. “One of the things I’m interested in is adding to the permanent collection in a very public way,” says O’Brian, “putting permanent works in visible locations.”

She’s been experimenting with new ways to draw the community up the mountain to engage with exhibits in the SFU Gallery in the AQ : a recent lunchtime talk was delivered in Mandarin, and as of this fall she’ll be launching breakfast openings for the new exhibit. She’s also begun working with Vancouver artist Damian Moppett, who recently worked with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite program to create a large-scale outdoor exhibition outside the Shangri-la Hotel. Under O’Brian’s direction, that 35-by-20-foot work has been acquired by SFU and will be installed on the side of Maggie Benston Centre. “It’s exciting,” says O’Brian. “We’re really trying to reinvigorate contemporary art.”

Instant Coffee, The hero, the villain, the salesman, the parent, a sidekick and a servant. Installation view, Teck Gallery, 2013.

That synergy with the public has an impact on more than just the gallery level. “It’s a way for people from the community to find a more open way into the university,” says Kazymerchyk.

The Audain is SFU’s newest art gallery, positioned in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood – the building that’s also home to theatre, dance, film, and visual arts programs. It’s an unusually designed space for an art gallery: it’s truly transparent in design, with windows that face Hastings Street and allow passersby to view the works inside. “The window doesn’t make sense in terms of hanging art,” says Amy Kazymerchyk, curator for the Audain Gallery. “We have UV protectors on it, but it’s really rare that anyone will let you hang their work in a window. But when the building was designed, the university put the gallery as its face to most of the public. It also really opens up a lot of possibilities for what that means for representation of visual art culture within the university, but also the way that people feel like they can come in.”

The former Woodward’s site has been contested in the community by local activists, who wanted to see the building dedicated to social housing (it’s home to 200 social housing units in the adjoining residential tower). That sensitive social climate is one that both Kazymerchyk and O’Brian take seriously, incorporating local residents and culture into both the operations of the gallery itself – Downtown Eastside residents act as gallery minders through a local employment program – and in the programming on site.

Kazymerchyk herself has long been involved in community projects, including one with the Portland Hotel Society that trained street-involved youth in film and video, and the former gallery curator, Sabine Bitter, also worked hard to ensure that people who were part of the local community were engaged in cultural production in the gallery. “We had a project with a Viennese artist who did a collaboration with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, working with their historical archives,” explains Kazymerchyk, “and a lot of those women were in the building doing workshops and talks, and making work with the artists. Those are very long-term relationships that you have to build.”  Those partnerships continue under O’Brian’s direction – including one with a neighbourhood women’s organization, Enterprising Women Making Art, that develops women’s economic skills and also encourages their own art production.

But those partnerships aren’t as straightforward as you might think, and many require constant negotiation. “A lot of community production looks very different than in a contemporary art gallery,” says Kazymerchyk. “It’s all about negotiating the academic institution language with the community language. It’s slow, but I think there are a lot of opportunities here.”

That synergy with the public has an impact on more than just the gallery level. “It’s a way for people from the community to find a more open way into the university,” says Kazymerchyk. “You can’t just walk into a classroom and take a class. But through doing public programs – we do artist talks or lectures, or we do gallery tours or reading groups, most of which are free – you can.” 

An endowment has funded an international artist-in-residence program with the SCA at the Audain, in which O’Brian and the SCA bring in artists from around the world to engage with the students and the community. The fall sees Berlin artist Hito Steyerl mount an exhibition in the gallery that includes both a video installation filmed in a classroom in Germany and a series of lectures and programs that extends the work into the students’ class experience. The complete project becomes part of the students’ learning. In addition, grad students will be leading tours, making the gallery both public and pedagogical in nature. “I love thinking of this classroom within the gallery within the university,” says Kazymerchyk.

All three galleries have the potential to create a ripple effect much greater than their modest respective sizes (together they total a mere 4,000 square feet). But it’s their potential that excites both O’Brian and Kazymerchyk. “If you’ve ever walked into a gallery when there’s nothing in there and it’s just a white box, there’s something about it, both literally and figuratively, like a blank chalkboard or a blank canvas,” says Kazymerchyk.

Gallery photography: Courtesy Blaine Campbell