Blog-post response: Art and Accessibility

In her piece on the Audain Art Museum, Casey wrote of the privilege she experienced in seeing the art there with a private tour by their chief curator, and the comment gave me pause because I’ve felt this twinge of privilege closely as well, both then and in my personal life: I’m currently writing this sitting in a little garret in Paris, having seen both Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre in recent days.  Last summer I used all my family’s travel money to fly to Madrid on a whim with my sister to see a temporary art exhibit there, and I’ve even flown to Los Angeles and Boston for weekends just to see art. What an absurdly advantageous position I’m in that I’ve had the budget, the supportive family, and the time to do those things! I wish everyone could experience this same accessibility to art. When Casey asked “why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity, and exotic nature?”, I thought of museums I’ve seen in recent years and how readily many museums offer discounted or free days for those of less means to make art more accessible, not less.

The Prada museum in Madrid, considered one of the top ten museums in the world, is open to visitors for free four hours each day.   The Reina Sofia and Thyssen museums, also in Madrid, give free access to kids under eighteen years old, students, teachers, and people who are out of work– and have evenings or certain days of the week free.  The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay here in Paris are not as deeply discounted but still offer free access to kids under eighteen and one free day a week or month.  London’s big museums are almost all free, all the time, so anyone can walk in during their lunch break and see a favourite painting for ten minutes a day if they live or work nearby. Lest you think only European cities care about public space and culture, the Met in New York City also offers many opportunities to take advantage of price reductions for special circumstances too. Perhaps the Audain Art Museum, at eighteen dollars per entry (on par with or more expensive than many of the museums mentioned here) would garner some gratitude if they offered parts of each day free or at a reduced cost? Or allow First Nations student visitors free access?  Even the Audain changing their age limit on free access for kids to eighteen from sixteen (it’s current policy) would seem appropriate if it wants to be grouped with the world class museums I’ve mentioned here (despite its smaller size).

Museums always point out the need to maintain their beautiful buildings and that restoration and security cost money, which is why there is a cost. Like the Audain collection, many art museums around the world began as collections within one wealthy family (the Borghese and Pamphili galleries in Rome are examples that come to mind). In my experience these kinds of smaller family collections are often the kind that do not offer discounted rates or times, and although I may sometimes struggle with the reasoning behind those choices I’m still glad to have the option to pay a fee to see their art rather than have it locked away and completely inaccessible to the public.

It would seem many large museums are trying to keep art valuable and exotic– they host large scale exhibitions with paintings from around the world and bring in experts for special lectures, while maintaining social media accounts in an effort to reach out to the public to remain relevant. Their reduced entry fees appear to be part of that same effort. After all, if enjoying art is to be so expensive that it ceases to be an enjoyable experience for many, surely the value of it will diminish?

– Cathy Collis (typed with one finger on my tiny iPhone in Paris)



Final Project Statement of Intent: My Dinner with Sontag

My Dinner with Sontag, my final assignment for our Shadbolt Seminar, is a short play mimicking the style and form of the 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre.  In the film, Wallace ‘Wally’ Shawn (a playwright and actor), and Andre Gregory (a theatrical director) play themselves in conversation at a Manhattan restaurant where they discuss their opinions and their wide ranging experiences with theatre and life.  Andre has much more dialogue than Wally, and as the film progresses, Wally notices their philosophical differences—that Andre is very experimental whereas he is more drawn to comfort and ease. Very little action takes place; a server visits periodically to take orders and bring food, but otherwise the two simply remain seated and talking—and yet the film is very engrossing to watch.  In 1999, film critic Roger Ebert wrote after seeing it a second time, that he was “impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.”

As taken as one may be with the film and its surprising success despite its unusual style, the format does suffer somewhat from weaknesses; Andre talks too often and for too long without any conversational banter interjected by Wally.  It could benefit from giving more equal weight to each character’s dialogue, the inclusion of women, or to have a third character moderate the discussion somewhat instead of having Wally’s character talk internally to himself in a voiceover. I have attempted to amend these imperfections in my play by having the conversation take place between two female GLS graduate students who are dining in a restaurant discussing art and theatre who are periodically interrupted by their server, who, unbeknownst to them at first, is Susan Sontag.

In My Dinner with Sontag, the amount of dialogue is more evenly weighted between the two student characters Andrea (named after Andre) and Wallace (Wally). There are less long monologues and more banter between the two characters to help the audience maintain interest. As they dine, the students debate criticism and interpretation in art and theatre, considering a Jeff Wall light box we saw at the Audain Art Museum, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, and a work by 17th century painter Caravaggio. They refer to comments that have been made in our Shadbolt Seminar by Uno Langmann and Max Wyman and also quote Walter Pater in the process. When Sontag comes by to take orders or deliver food (or eventually when she just brazenly sits and eats with the students), she quotes from her essay “Against Interpretation” and attempts to guide Andrea and Wallace into a different kind of dialogue that seeks luminousness and celebrates form rather than symbolic interpretation. At this urging from her, the students’ conversation branches out to refer to work by artists playing with form: Broadway theatre director Sam Gold and New York Magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz, while the stage directions begin to simultaneously mirror the experimental form being discussed (although like in the film, the character of Wallace in the play ultimately does tend towards preferring comfort instead of artistic risk- taking). Sontag’s insertion in the play as a third character and a guiding voice is an attempt to shape it into an artistic Socratic dialogue as well as an act of interpretation and creative critique in itself as a play.

-Cathy Collis

6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum

  1. The pile of drums in one corner of the Audain Art Museum is a piece by Indigenous artist Sonny Assu. Curator Darrin Martens explained on his tour that this piece was called ‘57 things’, and that there were 57 drums, one for each year the potlatch was forbidden, and I thought, ooh, that’s good.  I wrote it down.  Later, however, I learned that the piece is not called ‘57 things’ after all– it’s called Silenced: The Hidden.

the hidden

2. I decided to use that information to write a piece for our class blog called 57 things      about our field trip to Whistler. But then I googled artist Sonny Assu and realized there is no basis to the ‘57 things’ idea.  The piece is indeed representing the years the potlatch ban existed, but that was 1886-1951—67 years.  I counted the drums in my photo and that seems to be the number.  (67 is way too many things for a blog though.  Hence my title of 6 – 7).

  1. There was another Sonny Assu piece in the gallery, same theme, and this one is in fact called 1886-1951:


I remembered seeing it at Audain and looking around for the title and artist name and not finding it. It’s only now that I’ve googled Assu that I know it’s his.  Again, the 67 years of the potlatch ban are represented, this time by coffee cups (the status symbols of modern Vancouverites); they’re made of copper because that was a valuable material the Kwakwaka’wakw people used to share.  The cups have been abandoned on a Hudson’s Bay blanket that depicts the colonialism the Kwakwaka’wakw people were forced to endure.

4. When the curator was asked if the First Nations whose masks were displayed here had been consulted on how to display them, he said “I had no time to do that.” I could feel our entire class collectively wince at this answer.  The curator did, however, tell us that the museum makes time and space available for First Nations who want to borrow or use the masks that tell the story of their heritage.  Magnificent!   I want to assume the nations have been told that they can do that, and hope they borrow these pieces and share them if they find them meaningful.

5. The new First Nations masks by a variety of artists and the pieces made by Brian Jungen out of Nike Air Jordans and golf bags are a hopeful wonder. I saw there some of the same cheekiness we read about in Michael Yahgulanaas’s work and I want to see more.

6. Stephen Waddell’s large photograph Termini, stopped me dead in my tracks.


 It’s not First Nations art but it’s also not out of place here; old women wearing plaid blankets and plastic bags on their feet overload their wheelchair cart, and arguments could be made for themes of excess, and shame, and ignorance and relentless progress in this picture.  But the truth is I’m drawn in because I know Waddell.  We went to high school together and he was funny and smart.  Thirty years ago we went on a day long date to the PNE and then shared a kiss the night before I moved away to university and I never saw him again….

 7…. and I think I was supposed to contact him when I came back to visit and I never did. I didn’t make time because I was a dumb teenager. So, while I apologize for this overly personal reflection and weighty metaphor, I will say this: as the Audain Art Museum curator stated, the role of art is to create a dialogue and to communicate.   It’s easy to fail and to let things slide since we’re all busy.  But learn the names of the pieces in your gallery and the pertinent information about them.  Make names of artists and art easy to find.  Open that dialogue with the nations whose masks are displayed at Audain.  Maybe you were too busy before. Start now.

  • Cathy Collis


This Week in GLS: A Poem

This past week I must confess
the art we saw in GLS
was tough for me to analyze
(of graphic novels I’m not wise,
And piano from the ‘Peanuts’ show
is more the kind and style I know.)
But I lent a sympathetic ear;
I tried to swallow my own fear
and pretend I wasn’t feeling meek
at the notion of critique.
I’m glad I did! From MNY
I learned a lot of Haida Gwaii,
and how a painting can be turned
for new perspective to be earned;
that playfulness is above all
in works he makes, both large and small.
And then we heard from Andrew Czink
whose piano concert made me think
that maybe piano is percussion?
(I guess that warrants more discussion.)
That playing’s a demanding task
(and physically a lot to ask).
His tests with form are like Monet’s
When painting on a cloudy day.
(At first the critics loathed his views
Cause he was trying something new.)
Andrew experiments with song
and different’s not the same as wrong.
Then Wednesday brought our talk on art;
where it belongs when things fall apart.
And Susan, Max, and Larry said
Rejoice! The world of art’s not dead.
That art is what our culture needs
if society is to succeed
and answers aren’t what art provides
but questions that can be our guide.
Art’s ‘lightning flash’ illuminates
but does not fix, does not dictate.
So let’s jump in! Our role is clear;
as critics we should have no fear.
Let’s be open, let’s be brave
Like the artists, we want to save
the plays, the music, paintings, dance,
they’re much too great to leave to chance.
Let’s make the role of critic heeded
and show the world that art’s still needed.

Math and Music: Connections between Long Division and the Piano Teacher

Peter Dickinson’s recent Vancouver play Long Division uses mathematics as a framework to tell the story of how seven characters are intimately intertwined in their grief over the death of a child.  Famous historical mathematicians have their images projected on the set throughout, and mathematical equations and a Venn diagram are used as a metaphor for the human interaction that takes place in the story, while the script cheekily weaves phrases like ‘in addition’ throughout the dialogue to ‘add’ another layer.

Dorothy Dittrich’s new play at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, The Piano Teacher, does all of this too—but replace the math with music. There are no projections, but many famous historical musicians are mentioned and some of their compositions are played.  Here we have only three characters, but as above, the reason for their connection with each other is because a child has died (and in this case, a husband also).  In her playwright’s note, Dittrich describes the story as being “about one of life’s most difficult passages,” – a play on words that means her character Erin needs to conquer her grief the same way a musician conquers a difficult musical passage.

Other connections between the two plays abound.  In each play, much of the story is told through monologue.  Long Division’s characters rarely interact with each other at all, but deliver almost all their lines directly to the audience in a lecture format, even looking up at the screen behind them to acknowledge images or photographs there the way a teacher would during a class.  The Piano Teacher’s characters interact with each other more often than this, but both the piano teacher Elaine and to a lesser extent, her grieving student, Erin, do directly address the audience at various points.  Despite this unusual choice in plays that are essentially about how much people interact with and need each other, in each play, the monologue technique works.  The audience is invited in as a character in the role of sympathetic therapist.  We listen patiently in our seats so the grieving can share their stories with us.

Each play’s production took stylistic risks.  Long Division used choreography in which characters would line up and silently perform ritualized hand motions or walk briskly between each other like cogs in a clock as another actor delivered their monologue to the audience. I’ll admit that at times I found their movements robotic and distracting, but at other times the action succeeded in underscoring the arc of the story, as when all the actors found themselves gradually intertwined in a tableau.  Where The Piano Teacher took its risk was in set design; at one end of the corridor stage, a series of wires or strings were strung between the ceiling and the floor.  They were clearly meant to invoke the wires in a piano and it was therefore unsurprising when during the course of the play, Elaine, the piano teacher, plucked them—however this action left me ultimately confused.  Although it was a striking theatrical set piece, I found it didn’t contribute to the story in any meaningful way.  Perhaps the intention of the chorography in the first play and the strings in the second was to take us out of a traditional stage set and create a kind of dissonance or tension to underscore the fractured feelings of the characters in their grief.

Both Long Division and The Piano Teacher were impeccably acted and directed, and the stage management in both productions in terms of props, lighting, projections and sound cues were flawless. Both enjoyable experiences at the theatre.

— Cathy Collis

long divisionpiano teacher