It's rare to see the visual arts community rally around a single idea for any amount of time, let alone for months on end. In 2012, though, there was an unmistakable theme connecting the programming at many of Winnipeg's most influential arts venues, and that theme was, for better or worse, Winnipeg itself.
Plug In ICA ignited an explosion of civic self-reflection and self-congratulation in September with the first instalment of its epic My Winnipeg Project, which debuted in France last year (the series is still in full swing: the third chapter opened just recently, and there's a fourth still to come), and the WAG followed suit some weeks later with the opening of Winnipeg Now.
Where Plug In adopted a near-encyclopedic approach (My Winnipeg features nearly 100 contributors with regional ties; the catalogue is a mock travel guide), its sprawling format allowing for a certain flexibility and responsiveness, the show at the WAG highlighted ambitious new works from a select few artists.
One the one hand, there's never been a better opportunity to quickly immerse oneself in our city's artistic "scene." On the other, the two projects raised (and continue to raise) a number of important questions, including what, if any one thing, typifies "Winnipeg art," who is entitled to make those judgments, how a particular image of the city is fashioned and how that image is promoted elsewhere. They've initiated a flurry of discussion, dissent, and artistic responses (we have the brattily titled Not My Winnipeg, a co-presentation of alternative spaces Zsa Zsa West, Atomic Centre and The Edge, to look forward to in January), which can only be a positive development.
Like the WAG, the University of Manitoba School of Art has been celebrating its 100th year with exhibitions spotlighting regional artistic accomplishment. Mary Reid, the director and curator of the school's magnificent new gallery, which opened in February, deserves to be especially commended for her role in bringing outstanding and challenging exhibitions to the Fort Garry area -- Robert Houle's enuhmo andúhyaun, in which the artist explored and expelled memories of his time spent in a Manitoba residential school, was a highlight of the year overall.
Many of the smaller artist-run centres delivered consistently excellent performances throughout the year (many of them mercifully free of Winnipeg content). Standout exhibitions include a brilliant survey of "lost" video art pioneer Susan Britton's work from the '70s and '80s at Platform Centre, Charlene Vickers' haunting reflections on memory, identity, and resistance at Urban Shaman, and Montreal duo Séripop's installation of deconstructed gig posters at the Maison des Artistes.
Alternative venues were sites for a number of noteworthy shows, like Robert Taite's eminently gratifying recent exhibition Negative Space. Frame Arts Warehouse, primarily a rental facility, hosted compelling showcases of emerging sculptors including Teresa Braun, Josh Roach and Tamara Weller (the latter two were also included in The Undesirables at Graffiti Gallery, which warrants mention for the sheer ambitiousness of the large-scale works commissioned for the show).
So while 2012 wasn't exactly "all Winnipeg all the time," it sometimes felt that way, making for a year in the visual arts that could be both enriching and (after a certain point), frankly, kind of taxing.
When we've finally finished this good, long look at our city's artistic achievements, I think the Winnipeg arts community could stand a good, long vacation. My Winnipeg wraps up in March: I hear Barbados is lovely that time of year.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.