This interview took place in December 2020 as Emelie Chhangur was beginning her tenure as the Director-Curator of Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario. Emelie’s work has been distinguished by her incorporation of feminist and decolonizing curatorial initiatives within the infrastructures of diverse exhibitions. After seventeen years at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) in Toronto—where she produced such large-scale projects such as The Awakening and RISE (discussed below)—she was appointed Director-Curator of Agnes Etherington Art Centre with the mandate to oversee a major renovation of this gallery, originally founded by the suffragette and art patron Agnes Etherington and donated to the City of Kingston in 1954.
In the current neoliberal climate of Canadian public galleries, Emelie is instituting a curatorial mode that she defines as “inreach,” a non-extractive model for decolonizing the museum and its curatorial practices. Emelie discusses her engagement of intersectional feminism in reimagining the new museum to align with Indigenous self-determination and reciprocal ethics that resist the relentless outcomes demanded by the neoliberal gallery. She acknowledges the intergenerational legacy of an institution founded by a woman, as well as the agency of strong women leaders throughout its historical continuum, by sustaining dynamic collaborations and supporting reflexive ways of working with the gallery and its collections. At the same time, Emelie will be putting institutional resources towards enlivening the gallery through residencies, sustained conversations, and collaborations. At its heart, Emelie’s practice generates new forms of curatorial knowledge by cultivating innovative contingencies for diversity in contemporary art. Her reimagining of this art institution provides a groundbreaking model for redefining colonial and hierarchical museum structures and roles, all of which have tangible ramifications for broader social and cultural change.
Jennifer Fisher: I wanted to start with your idea of “institutional inreach,” which I think is particularly relevant to instituting feminism. Can you describe this curatorial methodology in light of its impact on gallery operations?
Emelie Chhangur: Inreach developed while I was working at the Art Gallery of York University in response to cultural practices that I perceived as incommensurable to conventional art institution protocols of “outreach.” It became clear that it was not the communities that we were working with at the AGYU that had to change, but rather the gallery itself. There are relations-based aspects of inreach as well as practical aspects. Initially, inreach developed out of Indigenous consensus models, which involved thinking about care in terms of what it takes to reciprocally build trust. Working closely with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, I learned that the temporality of trust is incompatible with the timelines of institutional practices driven by outcomes at the expense of processes.
There was also a pragmatic side to inreach. The Indigenous cash economy challenged university protocols of reimbursement because either we couldn’t get a receipt, or payment involved invasive inquiries about citizenship and status. In the cultural protocol of the Pow Wow, one might give an envelope of cash to the lead performer who would determine how the money would be distributed amongst the drummers, singers, or dancers. Of course, as a cultural institution, we want to pay artists. The scenario of compensation presented the opportunity to rethink the gallery’s institutional practices in order to negotiate an appropriate way to contribute to the culture of the Mississaugas of the Credit. Instead of paying artists’ fees, we funded a language camp that summer, which followed the Indigenous model of contributing to the greater good of the nation. This system of remuneration served to both preserve an endangered Indigenous language and provided a way for individuals to give back to community through participation in the project. In this instance, inreach involved contributing to the collective rather than the individual. Through its role in respecting different cultural protocols, social economics and ways of working, the gallery was transformed from within.
JF: How do you perceive inreach as a feminist curatorial mode in relation to questions of decolonizing institutions currently underway in Canada in universities, museums, galleries, and public institutions?
EC: Inreach is a deep form of hospitality. When you invite the other into the home, you had better be prepared to change the home. Yet, the very structures of the museum are incompatible with the ceremonies of Indigenous people. In order to perform a smudge, —a purification ceremony involving the burning of sweetgrass, cedar, sage, and tobacco—at the Art Gallery of Ontario, sprinklers had to be turned off and the HVAC adjusted. The museum is a Western structure that doesn’t take into account, in its processes and protocols, anything other than a colonial system. And then there is the actual feeling involved with what it means to “care” as a curator. Rather than thinking about care in terms of how we work with artists, it becomes about caring about the futures of art institutions and how they participate actively in the civic and social milieu in which they operate.
JF: You curated a collaborative project with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This event took place in Walker Court, a rotunda space normally used for secular ceremonies and events. Can you describe this ceremony and its significance?
EC: As a curator, I’m interested in appropriating existing dramaturgical forms like civic ceremonies or street processions and recasting the characters of these social dramas with individuals and groups who are not necessarily at the civic heart of the city, or at the center of its institutions. The Awakening (2011) was framed as a civic ceremonial and staged at Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which for me was a locale of public address. Developed out of a three-year collaboration with Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and young parkour athletes from the metropolitan area, the ceremony was an action to “rally the spirits” in a ceremony dedicated to the future of art.
This occurred May 14, 2011, right after the Mississaugas of the Credit settled the largest land claim in Canadian history. Referred to as the 1805 “Toronto Purchase,” it took until 2010 to settle, a process the Mississaugas of the Credit began in 1998.
To prepare for the ceremony, we had gone together to the AGO where we were inspired by a quote attributed to visionary Métis politician Louis Riel (1844-1885): “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Riel’s prophecy became a through-line to the choreography, which combined Indigenous powwow dancing and gravity-defying parkour athletics. Spirits of Indigenous ancestors, conjured as the parkours descended in space, participated in a ceremony dedicated to the future of art. This event coincided with a massive shift: a moment that land acknowledgements honouring Indigenous predecessors began to enter public discourse in Toronto.
JF: You are the new Director-Curator of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queens University about to begin a major renovation of the gallery. It is very exciting that you have this opportunity to transform an art institution. Of course, the gallery will continue to program solo and group exhibitions, acquisitions, publications, and so forth. I wanted to ask you: where do you see the new Agnes putting its resources? How is feminism guiding your plans for the gallery?
EC: Much of my own practice has been about setting people into relation and working across cultural difference. I think of the Directorship in terms of a curatorial project that puts elements side by side in relation in order to bring new forms into the world. That’s what the curatorial does. It does not necessarily need to be tied to art objects. At Agnes, curating can occur in relation to donors, in relation to acquisitions, in relation to projects, in relation to Queen’s University, or in relation to a public. All these entities can be thought about curatorially. I believe that how something is made will determine what gets made. How might we reimagine Agnes with our practices of care?
Agnes Etherington (1880-1954), a longstanding patron of the arts in Kingston and member of the suffragette movement, planted the seeds for “Agnes” as early as the 1930s and ‘40s when she created a summer school for artists at Queens. But it was with her invitation to Quebec painter André Bieler to become artist-in-residence that her plans grew. Upon her death in 1954, she bequeathed her house to Queen’s University on the condition that an art centre be established to “further the cause of art and community.” Officially, Agnes, the art centre, opened to the public in 1957. I’m interested in this origin of the art centre, and I’m beginning with a simple gesture of returning the house to a home. Turning the house back into a home puts hospitality at the center of the museum’s ethos, and everything gets built around this notion. Upstairs will now be a four-bedroom apartment for residencies. This affords the opportunity for artists to work in the larger context of Kingston, which is Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory with a large Métis population. Kingston was the original capital of Canada, the colonial heart of darkness in the nation’s history. It is the place where the first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, grew up and took office. He was the architect of the Indian Act, which institutionalized the genocidal Residential School System. With four prisons, Kingston is also a town of incarceration, which doesn’t surprise me looking at its past. So, to engage these histories, we will work with artists during residencies. Having artists live inside the museum changes both the feeling and idea of the art institution. The downstairs of the house will be a community-facing hub for the university and community events. To have people coming and going from a museum at all hours is already a proposition that dismantles the institution because museums are all about security. Notions of care as embedded in museological approaches to collections can look more like protection. This means that the house will have to be on an external security perimeter to allow for the movement of people and energies, coming and going, that happen outside the hours of 9-5. This is one aspect of the necessary dismantling of bureaucracies that determine behavior inside a museum in order to inscribe conditions with hospitality as a driving force.
JF: How are feminist and decolonizing practices informing your rethinking of the curatorial practices involving the collection?
EC: The Agnes’s collection is vast—17,000 objects—and contains artifacts that include what is known in an Indigenous world view as “historicized ancestors,” customarily used in ceremony and kept by their communities. Historicized ancestors are living entities: they breathe, they are in relation, they are activated, they are a part of culture. As living entities, their location in the Western museum has taken that life away. Taking them outside their communities is in fact a practice of incarceration. At Agnes, we are going through what might be called an emancipation of living ancestors. The collection also includes human remains, which are deeply inappropriate for a museum to hold. These sorts of considerations will determine the practices and spaces of the new Agnes. The space for the historicized ancestors must allow the elements of feeding, visitation, and ceremony that can happen for many hours. The feeling of coming into the museum cannot be one of incarceration and trauma. So, the entrance needs to be carefully considered. When elements around ceremony involving food or tobacco need to happen in relation to the objects, practices of conservation and museum standards can be challenged. Likewise, museum dictates of “no touching” are contrary to an Indigenous world view where a way of preserving the entities involves touching them.
JF: At one point, we had a conversation where you talked about the legacy of strong women at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Can you speak a bit more about your perception of women predecessors as part of a feminist curatorial practice?
EC: I’m proud to work in an institution named after a woman. I dropped the “the” in front of Agnes when I arrived. When I’m producing a support letter, for instance most recently for our Isabel Bader Fellowship in Textile Conservation and Research, I write “Agnes will contribute $28,000 to this fellow….” To think of “Agnes” as the doer is to think of the institution as this woman. The gestures of the institution are based upon the notion of the woman running her home. I’ve been considering these implications regarding government arts funding. When the home incorporates feminist practices, it means that we might spend that money in a different way determined by how we are contributing to the greater good of society as a whole. How might institutional agency become a gesture of artmaking and healing?
I think of myself on a continuum of a long history of strong women leaders at Agnes who have moved the institution forward. It’s about building on our work as women rather than tearing it down. As I deal with building a new facility, I’ve been reflecting on the action of “tearing down,” which actually is quite aggressive. Instead, I’m interested in how we might build upon the sedimentary layers of women and their influence over this institution. Often, directors come in and erase and dismantle. Sometimes it’s change-for-change’s sake in order to leave a mark. Beyond what an individual does inside a museum, I’m interested in challenging the curatorial to encompass a practice of relationality that is building otherwise.
JF: During one visit to the Art Gallery of York University when you were still Curator there, I remember you speaking about the program that provided a safe space to nurture the talents of youth from the Jane and Finch neighborhood, a community marked by gangs and gun violence. The participating teenagers became so comfortable in the space with staff that they would come to the gallery to hang out and be creative. They were at home there. Subsequently, you produced RISE, a project with artists Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca that, once again, brought members of this community into relationship with the gallery over a long period of time. It is beautiful that some of these kids appear as the protagonists in Bárbara and Benjamin’s extraordinary film. RISE is the outcome of a sustained, intersectional curatorial practice. Can you speak a bit more about the complex relations activated through the project?
EC: It is important to work with artists from elsewhere to mobilize something new in your local. RISE was filmed on the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC’s) new suburban Line 1 subway extension, which to me represented a geographical realignment of the city. Bárbara and Benjamin worked in a concentrated way on RISE. During their three-month residency, they stayed in the Jane-Finch community and lived at York in order to be neighbors to the protagonists of the film. They also travelled frequently to Scarborough to attend an open mike event called “R.I.S.E.” which stands for “Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere,” founded by spoken-word artist Randell Adjei. By engaging the two communities, the project initiated a change of Gestalt where Scarborough, a peripheral, long-degraded suburb, arose as a heart of culture. The artists’ oscillation between Jane-Finch and Scarborough created a collaboration between the east and west end communities, which have been largely separated by gang violence, by geography, by the inability to travel across the city because of lack of transit. In creating the film, the movement of the artists themselves created a much-needed suburb-to-suburb solidarity between the Jane-Finch and Scarborough spoken word, rap, dance, and music communities. We also involved film students from York on the crew and research teams.
Collaborating with poets and rappers comes from a decade-long engagement with the Jane-Finch community that started out as workshops and slowly became a massive program over twelve years. I worked in partnership with my AGYU colleague Allyson Adley, who would be conventionally known as the Collections and Education Assistant. Education falls under her purview. While for some institutions public programming is one area and exhibitions another, as a feminist curator, I resist the hierarchical siloing of roles and am more interested in how a project like RISE can act to change the activities of the institution. While Allyson’s concerns were the ethics around community engagement, as the curator of the project I brought the artists to the residency and supported the integrity of the artists’ vision. Collaborating with Allyson meant that both community engagement and artistic vision were embedded in the project. We were always each other’s check and balance. One role was not valued over the other. Likewise, the poets and rappers from Jane-Finch were considered as equal collaborators, alongside Bárbara and Benjamin. We were always incorporating and questioning the ethics around collaboration, community engagement and who becomes a subject or object of artmaking practices. At every turn, the project created relations: between the Jane-Finch and Scarborough communities, the York University campus, and the transit properties of the City of Toronto. Questions concerning the participation of the artists, the historical relations of Black bodies within the public sphere, and creating more equitable spaces in society are at the heart of these projects and inform the curatorial work.
JF: Agnes is going to be shut down during construction. What is the schedule for Agnes’s closing and reopening?
EC: As we prepare for closure, we are lending resources to activities that are already happening in Kingston. One of our last gestures will be to bring the streets into the gallery. I am working on an exhibition with local graffiti artists who will make work directly on the walls of the Etherington House. Bringing different initiatives into the institution sustains Agnes’s visionary patronage. Given the town-and-gown divide permeating the dual mandate of a gallery serving both the university and the public, my concern has become increasingly oriented more to how Agnes attends to the community. Closing Agnes also allows us to curate outside of the space. I’ve been working with Radio EE, nomadic radio practitioners who are interested in moving across the land, who talk about movement, diaspora, and migration by patching into nodes of transmission and revealing places of absence. Residencies will start to establish long-term relationships with communities that haven’t felt that they belong to the gallery or campus. I’m instituting inreach through the ways we’re working through closure at Agnes, so that when it reopens the real work will begin. All of this is the set-up for the practices and people to come.
How we close down Agnes will ultimately comprise a significant part of the institution’s history relating to notions of care and what it means to support Indigenous self-determination in the museum. There was a push to break ground in 2022. However, working with Indigenous communities takes time. Fast-tracking a building is incommensurable with the kind of heart I want Agnes to have as an institution, so I’ve slowed things down. We’re looking at a closure in 2023 for a few years. Closure will involve packing up 17,000 objects, procedures that not only involve care in the handling of art, but also regarding the emotional sensibilities involving the storage of history. We’re developing a program of packing up the collection in real time in the galleries as a setting of ritual and renewal with the aim of responding appropriately to cultural sensitivities concerning the historicized ancestors. They cannot go into the PacArt storage facility in Toronto in a climate-controlled, sealed space, for example. What does it mean to find temporary homes for them at other cultural institutions? In Indigenous communities? And what does it mean if they don’t return to the gallery? This will take time, and I don't want to treat the transformation of Agnes as a checklist. It needs to have the proper processes in place in order to enact what we want to manifest as our institutional practice.
JF: Architecturally speaking, is there going to be an expansion of square footage? What role might feminism play in the mandate for reconstruction?
EC: The new building will involve an international architectural call with a significant budget and re-build to create what will emerge as the largest university museum in Canada. In practical terms, both the exhibition space and programming space will be doubled. However, it is not the size that matters to me, but rather the intimacy and sharing that will drive Agnes’s feminist ethos. On the one hand, we will generate spaces for Indigenous-led self-determination and community-facing creation within the museum. On the other hand, opportunities exist for reimagining innovations at other points of intersection. For example, co-locating with Queen’s Department of Art Conservation and Art History might produce a whole generation of conservators who are well versed in the sensitivities of Indigenous self-determination and how it pertains to material culture. Examining artifacts through microscopes in labs can perpetuate the visualist separation of Western colonialism. What might it mean to conserve objects within processes of being in-relation to them?
Rather than the architecture being driven by space allocation, which sets hierarchies, I have proposed a vision ecosystem to guide our facility’s re-conceptualization. As an ecosystem, the elements comprising the facility interrelate dynamically and flow multi-directionally: event spaces become exhibition spaces become academic spaces. Art production and research move seamlessly throughout the gallery spaces, the Queen’s community, the publics of Kingston and beyond. Just as activities inside are integrated into the wider milieu in which we are operating, so, too, activities outside the facility have a bearing on our operations inside. This ecosystem supports the social and civic role of Agnes across multiple temporalities and diverse world views, with reciprocity as a core ethico-aesthetic function.
JF: Do you see a continuity between feminism and decolonization in terms of curating?
EC: Inreach can be considered in terms of both intersectional feminism and decolonization practice: to decolonize is to insist that there are a multiplicity of practices that sit side by side as equals, which connects to feminist practices of relationality. With both, the move is about dismantling singularities and opening up the possibility for complexity. Decolonial practice must involve an entanglement of practices and value systems. It’s a way of thinking about how to hold space for multiple subject positions to remain in relation and not be in conflict. Rather than thinking in monolithic or binary distinctions, its sensibility of inclusion holds together difference, allowing it to manifest and shape the practices we enact as curators and as institutions.
The concept of the gallery as a “home,” and what it means to reside there, is a driving force that is already transforming the program. On the one hand, we are starting to shift where exhibitions take place. For example, we’re working towards an African exhibition for the large Contemporary Feature gallery space. Previously, these artworks occupied a tiny gallery, the Grey Gallery, quite literally painted grey. Spaces that lock time down are being liberated, which is a long-term, practice-based project in and of itself.
JF: You recognize that some aspects of Indigenous spirituality, for example, honoring the sanctity of the historical ancestors as living presences, require secrecy. Will bringing Indigenous practices into the museum risk revealing knowledge that should remain concealed?
EC: The reason it’s difficult for colonial cultures is that settlers like transparency. I believe, as Édouard Glissant speaks about it, in one’s right to opacity. If the impulse to consume and to know everything comes from a place of deep insecurity, then the museum itself must be very secure in its identity—that it doesn’t need to know everything. If Indigenous communities are to conduct ceremony within Agnes, it does not necessarily mean that the ceremony becomes public. Respecting Indigenous aesthetics and ethics are part of the work museums need to do as civic entities, which may not result in a didactic, interpretative, or public-facing outcome. Negotiating the cultural practices that are not a part of the museum as a colonial structure is work that involves complexity. It may not yet be time for a public to be engaging with Indigenous sacred culture. Maybe it shouldn’t happen. We have to get away from supporting the desires of the museum over the practices of the people. Dismantling the colonial habits of museums involves deep questions of ethics. There are assumptions governing notions of transparency and models of knowing that come from a Western colonial world view that sees the appropriation of other cultures as necessary to comprehending them. Perhaps if we saw it from a different perspective, we could appreciate more opacity and the appropriateness of “not knowing” something. This habit that we have to be a part of everything is a colonial impulse of conquest. This presents something of a quagmire for the art institution’s mandate as a “knowledge production machine” because some things cannot be known, studied, and consumed.
Emelie Chhangur is the Director-Curator of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston. This appointment follows a significant, seventeen-year curatorial career at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) in Toronto, where she led the reorientation of the gallery to become a civic, community-facing, ethical space driven by social process and intersectional collaboration, founded the gallery’s residency program, curated over 100 exhibitions and special projects, and published twenty books. Chhangur regularly presents her research internationally: Theorectical Forum, 11th Havana Biennial (2012); Envisioning a Practice: International Symposium on Performing Arts Curation and Encuentro hosted by the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas (Montreal, 2014); Visiting Minds (Panama, 2013); Common Ground Convening (Philadelphia, 2019), the 2020 College Art Association Conference (Chicago), Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) Conference (Seattle), and Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) Conference (Kansas). Chhangur has participated in a number of artist and curatorial residencies including Onagawa AIR and Kamiyama AIR (Japan) Fundación Gilberto Alzate Avendaño (Colombia), and FOCUS: Institut Français (France). In 2019, she won the Ontario Association of Art Galleries’ inaugural BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) Changemaker Award, and in 2020 the prestigious Hnatyshyn Foundation Award for Curatorial Excellence.
Jennifer Fisher is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on curatorial studies, contemporary art, performance, feminist epistemology, affect theory, and the aesthetics of the non-visual senses. She is co-founder and joint editor of the Journal of Curatorial Studies and has guest edited special issues of: PUBLIC: “Art and Civic Spectacle” as well as Senses and Society: “Sensory Aesthetics.” Her writings have been featured in journals such as Capacious: Journal of Emerging Affective Inquiry, Performance Research, n.paradoxa, Tessera, Art Journal, and Canadian Women’s Studies, and in books including The Ashgate Companion to Paranormal Culture, The Senses in Performance, Caught in the Act, and Foodculture. Her anthology Technologies of Intuition was published by YYZBOOKS (2006). She is a founding member of DisplayCult, a collaborative curatorial framework whose exhibitions include underpressure (2015), NIGHTSENSE (2009), Odor Limits (2008), Do Me! (2006), Linda M. Montano: 14 Years of Living Art (2003), Museopathy (2001), Vital Signs (2000), and CounterPoses (1998). With Helena Reckitt, Jennifer co-edited two special issues of the Journal of Curatorial Studies: “Museums and Affect” (2015) and “Affect and Relationality” (2016). She is professor of contemporary art and curatorial studies at York University.
 Ceremonial smudging is practiced by diverse Indigenous peoples in Canada (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/smudging).
 The Toronto Purchase, otherwise known as Treaty Number 13, was an agreement originally negotiated in 1787 (see http://mncfn.ca/torontopurchase/).
 Quote attributed to Louis Riel, July 4, 1885, Manitoba Métis Federation, http://www.mmf.mb.ca/louis_riel_quotes.php; see also Chantal Fiola, Rekindling the Sacred Fire: Métis Ancestry and Anishinaabe Spirituality (Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2015).
 For more on Indigenous powwow dance, please see: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/powwow-dances.