Artists lead two lives. In public, they are creative and glamorous intellectuals. In private, however, they are slaves to the keyboatd. This is because writing query letters and grant applications is a fundamental component of Canadian art. So is rejection.
“I hope it makes people feel better about rejection,” says Heather Passmore, whose new exhibition, Gatekeepers, transforms bitter rejection into a meditation on the roadblocks to success. “It’s really a representation of the way our situation as an artist has to conflate the creative with the officious structure, being the text of the letter.”
Gatekeepers came about because Passmore hadn’t moved in eleven years; she still had a box overflowing with failed applications. Short of cash, she started drawing on them and selling them to friends and acquaintances.
“There are some misconceptions, I’m sure, floating around about what an artist does,” Passmore muses. “Grant writing and looking for exhibition space are not the first things that pop into a lot of people’s heads, I think.”
Passmore, whose practice is purposely open and accessible, says the show developed from a desire to see more interest in art and aesthetics. And while the works in Gatekeepers can be viewed through the lens of reclaimed failure — or just as an interesting idea brought to fruition — the exhibition raises serious questions about the way galleries and governments operate.
“A question I had in mind when I did the work was what it might mean to talk about how art is exhibited and how it is selected, and whether or not the public is interested, and if not why,” she explains.
Passmore is referring to the divorce between popular and academic conceptions of art. Staffed by experts with an eye for canonical work, some galleries have a reputation for basing their choices on the perception of importance rather than quality:
“The curators are trained to put work, whether it belongs there or not, into a neat trajectory. That can be a drawback if you’re searching for a show as an artist because you may or may not fir into the patterns they’re focusing on.”
This gap widens for artists who work in unconventional ways. Contemporary art is notoriously difficult to parse, and it’s hard to judge how important a show or artist is without years of popular opinion. Galleries sometimes guess.
“A lot of my interests have been in non-legitimate criticisms of the art world,” she says. “There are plenty of institutional critiques which are fully embraced by the system of power and funding, and they have been going on since the 70s. And they obviously haven’t changed the way everything works, so I became interested in critiques from the outside.
And while Passmore admits that she has been accepted by the art world, these questions are important. Art is one of the most important public goods, and her intent is not to tear down the existing framework but to involve popular opinion once again.
After all, Rembrandt and Van Gogh are popular today because they’re very good, not because they were important during their lifetimes.