(Illustration: Gregory Scott Denton)
At the beginning of March, 2005, we packed a ten year old minivan with 1500 booklets, almost 200 t-shirts, and our backpacks full of clothes, and embarked on the somewhat obtusely named McCleave Gallery of Fine Art Cross-Canada Suitcase Gallery Tour. Over the next four months, we spent a week in fourteen different cities accross the country, gave curators' talks in a handful more, and passed through countless rural and urban spaces. In every city where we stopped for a week, a local artist had created an installation in a suitcase, which we carried with us during business hours, displaying it to the public on a 'by chance or appointment basis'. The suitcases that we accumulated accross the country were displayed in a huge variety of settings, some of which were previously art-oriented, like artist-run centres and children's art programs, and some of which were not, like a Vancouver law-firm, a bar in Lethbridge, or a Laundromat in Halifax. We now find ourselves in Dawson City, YT, with radically altered perceptions about contemporary Canadian art, and sixteen suitcases full of art which we have the challenge of presenting in a gallery setting in a way that respects the desire for the innovative and anti-authoritarian curatorial practices that motivated the project.
The McCleave Gallery of Fine Art was first started in the sumer of 2002 in Halifax, NS shortly after the collapse of the Nova Scotia Arts Council, ironically leaving the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture to be the only provincial funding source for a place that is becoming increasingly dependant on the tourism industry. Much like the preceeding mobile galleries that had been frequently erupting out of Halifax since the early 1990s, it seemed appropriately resourceful and practical to use a 1960's suitcasethat was found on the side of the road to house a new exhibition space for emerging artists at a time where the support for emerging Haligonian artists was fragile and scarce. The suitcase, which we have since discovered is of an incredibly generic mass-produced variety, was labeled 'McCleave' in red dymo-tape near the handle of the suitcase. Rendering this name as the previous owner of the suitcase, it was decided that it would be appropriate to name the newly-created gallery after its accidental donor.
Though the gallery has operated for two years as a temporary, regional service in Halifax and in Guelph previous to the beginning of the tour, this year's exhibition season took the form of a more nomadic exhibition space, being both the gallery's most ambitious project as well as our first personal journey across Canada. Being literally immersed in this project on a very personal level with first-hand experience gave us the opportunity to connect with both exhibiting and viewing Canadian artwork while giving the inperial seeming theme of 'trade and exchange' a new omni-directional perspective on current issues such as colonialism, immigration, nomadic living, and tourism to name only a few.
Despite what many people who we've met have thought, suitcase art is not a new deal. From Dada to Fluxis to Germaine koh, the suitcase has served artists as a perfect vehicle for extra-institutional art interventions, by combining practical, portable and rich symbolic value. Portable exhibition spaces are also incredibly widely used, as documented by Hannah Jickling in her online archive 'There's a New Beard in Town', springing up as a logical solution to the lack of alternative exhibition spaces experienced by artists accross the country. However, one way in which we do believe that Cross-Canada tour was different from most curatorial projects, portable or otherwise, is in the intense involvement that it demanded from us on a personal level.
Being able to personally connect with almost every individual viewer and each participating artist is something that can be difficult ot do for most stationary museums and galleries. The McCleave suitcase is a workplace that is intensely personal, and the tour has been an incredible emotional and intellectual experience that has become inescapably woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Just following graduation seems lioke the perfect time to have done this project, because despite an almost complete lack of external funding, it has made us less disillusioned about art production in Canada. After spending experiencing art mostly in a university setting, where an obsession with rarefication can stunt creativity and limit possibilities, it was totally inspiring to come in contact with so many communities and individuals whose approaches towards artistic practices were both widely varied and incredibly similar. On the whole, these experiences have helped us shift to a more diffuse, collective-based mindset that is both refreshing and relaxing.
Adair Rounthwaite and Michael McCormack
The McCleave Gallery of Fine Art
(for the ODD gallery exhibition booklet, September 2005)