As part of its 50th anniversary, the Canada Council’s Art Bank prioritized purchasing work by diverse and previously under-represented artists…
By Paul Gallant
Queer visual artist Melissa Doherty has been hoping to have her work purchased by the Art Bank since she began her full-time career in 2000. In December 2022, Doherty received notice that the Art Bank’s peer assessment committee had selected her 2019 work: “The Green and the Grey,” which is a photographically real painting of what seems to be a hedge, the almost-plastic artificiality of it, so tightly cropped that it creates a sense of mystery and tension.
“It’s exciting for a mid-career artist,” says Doherty, who is based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. “It’s a real boost for my artistic development that will help me continue what I’m doing.” Since she started pursuing art as her full-time career in 2000, Doherty’s paintings have been included in exhibitions internationally and in Canada, and one of her works is in the collection of none other than Sir Elton John and David Furnish (although she can’t say much about that for privacy reasons, the painting could be on display in one of the couple’s California homes). Even so, the Art Bank acquisition has special resonance.
Over its 50-year history, the Art Bank has purchased the work of many significant contemporary Canadian artists, including paintings, drawings, prints, mixed-media, photography, fibre, and indoor and outdoor sculpture. It rents works from its collection of more than 17,000 pieces that together are worth almost $73 million – through a rental program that enables the works to be displayed in, say, the lobby of a government building, a corporate boardroom or other public space.
Renters benefit by being able to display work that has been endorsed by the Art Bank for its cultural significance without having to buy it outright – savvy renters might be tempted to swap out their art every couple of years, allowing a piece to make an appearance in another space, perhaps on the other side of the country. Artists benefit not just from the purchase, but from the pleasure of having their art displayed in spaces that are often busy, where workers and visitors see the work over and over again in different contexts. It’s different than being in a gallery, where you’re just one snack in a buffet.
“Lots of people see it; maybe they’re even seeing it every day for a while,” says Doherty. “They can get to know it and live with it.”
As part of its 50th anniversary, the Art Bank has prioritized purchasing the work of artists who self-identify as Indigenous, Black, racialized, Deaf or having a disability, from official language minority communities, youth, 2SLGBTQ+, gender-diverse and women, including artists at the intersections of these identities. “The Art Bank is extending its ongoing dialogue on inclusivity by celebrating the vibrancy of creators who give us such incredible depth and perspective on the arts landscape in Canada,” says Amy Jenkins, Head of the Art Bank. This year they bought 72 works. “A purchase of this scale means a greater number of artists are given a unique opportunity to build connections and spark meaningful conversations in new settings. This is what the Art Bank loan and rental programs are all about.”
Getting more 2SLGBTQ+ art out, perhaps in unexpected locations where it can be seen by the public, helps reframe the larger cultural conversation about queer and trans culture that was once hidden away from those who claim to be bothered by it.
Doherty identifies as a queer woman, but her human-less landscapes initially made me wonder how “queer” her paintings themselves could be, taken on their own. Talking to her, I was completely sold. Doherty spoke about coming out and how her paintings are a negotiation between “what I can show the world and what I can’t show the world.” In her artist statement, she writes: “The compulsion to paint gave me an outlet when I had no other form for expressing my real identity. I could hide behind the painting, while using a heightened realism to fabricate the realness/truth I sought. I could use a painting, which is a replication, a simulation, a virtual space…to make-believe my reality.”
Thinking of how stereotypes about gender cause us to think of a male god in the sky, with the Earth as female – man as light, woman as darkness – she painted “Cloud Witness,” an aerial view of clouds reflected in lakes. It’s a beautiful reproduction of nature, but it also turns gender on its head, merging sky with Earth. “Putting those clouds in the lake was a way of collapsing those binaries,” she says.
In this 50th anniversary round of acquisitions, a project by Brandon Hoax also made the cut. A Haudenosaunee, Onyota’a:ka (Oneida), two-spirit artist originally from London, Ont. who now lives in Nova Scotia, Hoax’s work balances “hard and soft, sensuality and clinical, the body and incorporeal to explore brown queer Indigenous yearning.” The Canada Council’s Art Bank purchase “Movemarrow Full Suite,” from 2020, is a series of nine photos of colourful harnesses Hoax created using Indigenous ribbon-regalia sewing techniques. The harnesses, which reference both the fetishwear of gay culture and pow-wow regalia, were given to other urban Indigenous artists as an invitation to create an artistic response. You could imagine someone waiting for a decision on, say, a mortgage looking at the photos and wondering if the harnesses were worn to a Pride party or a pow wow, and what kind of art might have been created to reciprocate Hoax’s gift.
“The Art Bank has, in a way, funded the continuation of the project because I want to continue it,” Hoax tells me. “It’s fun for me to be able to make something, but the stuff that comes after is the exciting part for me, the reaction to it, the dissemination further out into the world. It helps me get the work out to a wider audience.”
Because government agencies have a reputation for red tape and being slow to change, Hoax says the fact that the Canada Council Art Bank is giving priority to under-represented artists has special significance. “The way they have joined the conversation around decolonization and equity is meaningful.”
I ask Hoax if he feels he is specially situated for the current moment, at the intersection of 2SLGBTQ+ and Indigenous culture. They’re too modest, perhaps, to answer my question directly, but say that their successes may, in effect, be passed on, just like a harness project can trigger the creation of more work. “I can understand the role I play with other two-spirit Indigenous artists, as someone who’s making it in their art career. It can be done,” they say.
The randomness of where specific Canada Council Art Bank acquired works may appear can be thrilling for artists, especially those who crave starting a conversation out there in the real world, not just in the refined world of galleries and museums. It certainly fits with Hoax’s current state of mind – finding joy where they can. “I’m trying to find joy in many things, joy as an Indigenous person, as a queer person, as someone who has survived many of the crises that I’ve been through…and of course in my art.”
The Art Bank offers unique public access to contemporary visual art from Canada through its programs – art rental, loans to museums, exhibitions, and outreach. To learn more or connect with an Art Bank consultant about the corporate art rental program visit, artbank.ca.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.