Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rockin' the boat

The new guy in charge of contemporary art at the WAG wants to inject some life into downtown institution

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YOU had to be there to get the full flavour of it.
Cliff Eyland, the dashing Winnipeg artist and curator, was doing a performance art bit at an Exchange District gallery.

Onstage with him July 18 were two women artists, Dominique Rey and Tannis Van Horne. One was cutting Eyland's hair, the other was taping his eyes shut.

What it all meant may have been a mystery to the 50 or so artiste-types gathered at the Ace Art Performathon.

Suddenly a loud voice arose from the back of the room.

"You suck!"

All eyes turned to the source of the outburst. The guy with the big mouth looked like a refugee from a heavy metal band.

He was wearing a beat-up jean jacket and had straight brown hair past his shoulders. He kept up a stream of abuse.

Only a few in the crowd knew the identity of the interloper. He was Curtis Collins, of all people, the Winnipeg Art Gallery's newly appointed curator of contemporary art and photography.

"Some people couldn't believe what was happening," says Collins, recalling the incident from the safety of his office.

"Performance art events tend to be a little staid."

The confrontation, alas, turned out to be a performance itself. Prior to taking the stage, Eyland had asked Collins, whom he knew from the Maritime art community in both past lives, to heckle him from the crowd.

The idea was to give the performance an edge of danger. Collins readily complied. At 41, he does not appear to be a wallflower.

"He's a curatorial wild man," says Eyland, director of the University of Manitoba's art school gallery, One One One, and a board member of the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art.

"He will put the WAG in contention for contemporary art. He'll give Plug In a run for their money."

Time will tell if Collins has the required substance to complement his wild-man exterior. Can he become the WAG's answer to Wayne Baerwaldt, the curatorial whiz who put Plug In on the international map before moving to Toronto?

But a couple of things become evident within minutes of meeting him. Besides his easygoing charm, he is bursting with ideas and enthusiasm about how to liven up the old grey lady of Memorial Boulevard.

"I've got the sexiest job in the building," says Collins, who appears to be the most flamboyant curator the WAG has seen in a long time. "I want to make this gallery a site of art production. That's a real key to me."

His first project will be up and running sometime this fall. That's speedy delivery in the tortoise-like world of museums and galleries, where exhibitions are planned years in advance.

The modest show, Thin Edge of the Wedge, will feature the work of six emerging Winnipeg artists who've formed a collective called Two-Six.

Their pieces will be mounted in some of the gallery's triangular nooks and crannies, including the reading room, the video room and outdoors on the very tip of the rooftop patio.

"His eyes and ears are tuned to the street," says Two-Six member Cyrus Smith, 26.

"I think he'll take the WAG to some interesting places."

Collins' predecessor was the soft-spoken James Patten, whom gallery director Pat Bovey hired shortly after her arrival in 1999. He left last year for a similar position at the Windsor Art Gallery in his home town. For many years prior to Patten, the WAG's contemporary curator was the estimable Shirley Madill, now senior curator of the Hamilton Art Gallery.

A native of Cornwall, Ont., Collins comes here after a term position as an art professor and curator of the University of Lethbridge. In the last 15 years, he has also been head curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, director curator of the White Water Gallery in North Bay and president of Galerie Articule, an artist-run centre in Montreal.

He recently completed his PhD at Montreal's McGill University. His thesis subject was the development of installation-based practices among aboriginal artists in Canada.

"He comes across as a rocker, but there's much more to him that that," Eyland, 48, says.

"He likes to hide his intellectuality."

When he was at Beaverbrook, Collins rocked a few boats by mounting a giant mouth by Quebec artist Genevieve Cadieux on the gallery roof. Another exhibit by a Brazilian artist involved blood being spattered on the gallery walls and a fire burning outside outside.

"He'll ruffle a few feathers," says Ray Cronin, the Beaverbrook's current contemporary curator whom Bovey phoned before hiring Collins.

"I expect that's part of the reason why they've hired him."

Bovey expects Collins to bring fresh creative energy to the 64-employee institution, where she has been consumed by staff reorganization and upgrades to the physical plant.

"He's been getting out into the community a lot already," says Bovey, who has assigned him to work on forthcoming exhibitions by local artists Reva Stone and Ivan Eyre.

"He has a high regard for emerging artists and established artists, too."

Collins had been to Winnipeg only once before scoring the WAG gig. But he insists he has fallen in love with our town, supplying the reasons that open-minded newcomers often give.

He has found an apartment in Osborne Village. He has been making the rounds of galleries and clubs, eating at the Wagon Wheel on Hargrave, cycling around town and playing Ultimate Frisbee, his sport of choice. He has even "scooped up a girlfriend," to use his phrase. But his main focus will be art.

"My goal is the get the people from the Wagon Wheel down here," he says.

"Plug In and Ace will begin to feel some pressure."

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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