Fifty years after the Confederation Centre opened its doors, Cathy Busby’s Acquired in 1964 displayed the artworks that Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s first director, Moncrieff Williamson, acquired on a shoestring budget ahead of a royal visit from the Queen. Or at least, what was left of them: seven of the original 33 pieces were no longer in the collection, seven others were in other exhibitions and three were in conservation. Busby noted the unavailable pieces’ absence through silhouettes on the gallery walls, painted in white against the muted green colour of the painting backings during the era. The exhibit was accompanied by an artist’s publication that brought together interviews, correspondence between the director and artists, Charlottetowners’ memories of the 1964 opening and a catalogue of the original 33 pieces.
The acquisitions that remain in the collection are a mix of figurative and abstract pieces. There were a variety of influences on Williamson’s choice of acquisitions, which were strongly determined by those he knew personally. And being 1964, there was a notable lack of female artists and no artworks by Aboriginal artists, let alone other cultures or perspectives. Busby spoke to me about Acquired in 1964 and related works via phone from B.C., where she is currently a teaching at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory.
CHRISTIAN LEDWELL: What did the Confederation Centre’s 1964 acquisitions tell you about what the institution valued when it opened?
CATHY BUSBY: At the time, across the country, there was a kind of tension between modern, international-thinking artists and a more traditional pull—historical, like that of George Thresher and contemporary representational like Chris Pratt or Tom Forrestall, versus the abstraction of George Angliss or Suzanne Bergeron. So, in a sense, the collection is snapshot of that time and of those tendencies.
CL: What reactions did you hope to draw from viewers by representing the missing items as silhouettes?
CB: I think there’s something interesting about using the silhouette as a form for representing absence. With Acquired in 1964, the silhouettes created a kind of space. I liked that it piqued curiosity for the viewer to fill in. In the publication I record two stories from long-time Gallery supporters. When Catherine Hennessey saw the silhouette of the Dancer [by Thomas T. Bowie], she recalled its presence in its particular style and lightness.
An earlier installation, Atrium [at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2010] used silhouettes to group together works from various parts of the Gallery that had an Indigenous cultural presence through name or image, such as a ship painting called The Mi’kmaq. I was bringing forward the view that the influence of First Nations cultural presence permeates a lot of the collection — not just the gallery dedicated to Indigenous art — through the silhouettes.
For another installation, About Face [At the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 2012], I removed all the portraits that were up high circling the Refectory and replaced them with silhouettes. They were all formal portraits of former leaders of the Seminary and had an overbearing presence. Their absence had community members making new sense of the space and even suggesting other art installations.
CL: In what way did ethical or political concerns influence Acquired in 1964?
CB: I think Acquired makes apparent that public art institutions are more fluid than they seem. The values of an art institution change over time depending on what’s going on in the world, and in the art world in particular. In the publication I included letters between the director and the artists and these reveal how the acquisition process took place and how decisions were made. I think of our public institutions as malleable, as fluid in their potential to change over time. For instance, now the Confederation Art Gallery includes a much broader range of art practices than it did in 1964.
CL: Your other work with an ethical and political emphasis includes your installation WE ARE SORRY, representing apologies made to Aboriginal peoples by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia for the countries’ long-standing abuses. How does your new project Response build on that work?
CB: About a year ago, Beau Dick — a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from Alert Bay, an honorary chief and visiting artist at UBC — asked if I would give a large section of my work printed on sign vinyl, WE ARE SORRY, to be part of AWALASKENIS II: Journey of Truth and Unity. WE ARE SORRY was a text-based work that used my edited version of the statement of apology by the federal government to First Nations people for the Indian Residential School system in 2008. The caravan went across the country from Bella Bella to Ottawa [in July 2014], ending with a copper shaming ceremony to shame the government for its treatment of First Nations people. Both the ceremony and WE ARE SORRY were drawing attention to how so little has changed since the apology in 2008. The vinyl work gave the space a presence by providing a surface and boundary for the ceremony to take place on.
Now I’ve made this page work to contribute to extending the reach of the journey. It seemed like a good fit with Response, an artist publication out of Presentation House Gallery related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Entitled Journeys, it’s a series of photos that documents the story of the work’s presence in the copper shaming ceremony on Parliament Hill.
CL: And hopefully institutions, both art and government, are changing and keeping up?
CB: I stay open to possibilities I feel like as artists and critics and cultural thinkers, [we] aim to keep our public institutions on the mark, to keep our eyes open to the possibilities, not falling into the routines—that can prevent that.