Curator Michelle Jacques and Her Vision for Remai Modern

Published on June 22, 2021

this black woman is curator of remai modern saskatoon

Renowned Canadian curator Michelle Jacques started a new role in February 2021, joining Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as Head of Exhibitions and Collections/Chief Curator.

“It has been busy since the moment I stepped in the front door,” Jacques says. “I think that’s just a testament to how ambitious this institution is. It’s been a really good way to feel like I’ve been here forever, really quickly.”

This role is the next chapter in Jacques’ decades-long career in Canadian art, following roles at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax, and Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Jacques was attracted to the role, in part, because of Remai Modern’s commitment to diversity on staff and on the board.

“Across all levels of this institution, they managed to respond to the current movement to be more diverse in hiring practices in museums,” Jacques says. “I would say that the moment that we’re in right now is the next big moment of the art gallery/museum arc that I see in Canada. I think it’s a really important step towards being able to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve better.”

Including and Centring Diverse Voices in Arts Organizations

This “moment” of including and centring diverse voices in arts organizations is distinctly different from the one Jacques started her curatorial career in in the mid-1990s.

“I entered [the AGO] as a young Black person working as a curatorial assistant, trying to navigate a very complicated and immovable institution,” Jacques recalls. “As much as we tried to be an organization for the community, when you’re operating at that kind of scale you get so wrapped up in bringing in projects that will attract audiences and will get the numbers and money that you need to keep the institution going. When you’re operating in a big centre at a large scale, you can never can quite settle into that role as an organization that is really for the community.”

Working for a Community-Focused Institution

Jacques’ desire to work for a community-focused institution brought her to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 2012. Despite going from an organization she estimates had a $44 million budget to a $2.5 million budget, Jacques considers the move the first big highlight of her career.

“It was just so wonderful to be at an organization that was so pliable, and where it was easy to be spontaneous,” Jacques says. “We budgeted in a way that exhibitions didn’t have to make money, so you could do things that the community needed. That was a really important experience for me — to be at a place where basically all efforts were being put into being relevant to the various communities we served. Even though Victoria is, in some ways, a tourist town, we thought about the people visiting Victoria as part of the community.”

Curating Art for a Local Community Drew Her to Remai Modern

The opportunity to curate art for another local community with its own distinct narrative attracted Jacques to Remai Modern. She knows how much a museum can mean to locals, and how satisfying it can be to create programming and exhibitions that really speak to the communities she’s working for, and with.

“In a place like Saskatoon, as in a place like Victoria, you get a sense of a strong art historical story,” Jacques says, citing the legacy of Emma Lake and Kenderdine art programs as the defining historical moment that still resonate with residents. She wants to translate that legacy into a philosophy and practice that can be redefined for the contemporary landscape.

“People [in Saskatoon] really want to see things that are relevant to their lives here,” Jacques says. “Whether we’re working with local, Canadian, or international artists, we’re always going to try to look at them through a local lens. I think that will only grow the interest and relevance of Remai Modern for local communities.”

Her Vision for the Next Era of Remai Modern 

In addition to curatorial and exhibition work, Jacques is keen to get involved with learning and engagement programming, led by Kelly Van Damme, that offers community members opportunities to learn about and create their own art. “I think the learning and engagement department is the hidden gem of this organization,” Jacques says. “I’m really excited about opportunities to see those two arms of the institution become a little bit more intertwined.”

Jacques’ vision and goals for this next era of Remai Modern align with the strategic plan she developed alongside Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh, co-directors and co-CEOS of the organization. Referring to Remai Modern as a “rooted in place” institution, the trio are thinking about how to better balance their local and international audiences.

“We’re really thinking through how to express a commitment to this place, including Indigenous artists, while at the same time recognizing that this is an incredible venue and an opportunity to bring art from elsewhere.”

New Picasso Exhibition Running Until September 2021

Though most of Remai Modern’s 2021 exhibition lineup was planned in advance of her arrival, Jacques has quickly found herself on the project and exhibition schedule. Jacques’ first exhibition for Remai Modern — A Formative Encounter: African and Oceanic Artists and Picasso — opened June 19th and runs through September 12, 2021. The exhibit looks at Picasso in the context of works from Africa and Papua New Guinea.

“The traditional work of those two places was very influential on Picasso,” Jacques says. “It’s an interesting opportunity to dig into something that is of interest to me, and that might bring a slightly different perspective to Picasso.”

If you’re looking for more fun things to do in Saskatoon, Remai Modern also has a new free outdoor exhibit. Va-et-Vient (Coming and Going) is their first commissioned outdoor installation. The multi-coloured platforms invite the viewer to slow down and experience the outdoors like never before.

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The Author
Breanna is a Canadian writer and editor profiling people and covering tech, travel, lifestyle and culture.