The Canadian Art Database


The Winnipeg Effect: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Winnipeg Art Gallery, November 3-5, 2016


The Winnipeg Effect (those from here, who left or stayed)


Suzanne Gillies

I left Winnipeg in 1980 and lived elsewhere for the next decade. And I've been asked to talk about what would have propelled that move.

Here is the context:

With one co–director or another — mostly with Douglas Sigurdson — I worked on the development of Winnipeg's first artist–run centre from 1972 to 1980, at which point Douglas and I left Plug In, and left Winnipeg.

We left at a time when Plug In was truly coming into its own:
  • It was housed in a magnificent street–level space on Arthur Street in the exchange district. It was described by the folks in Ottawa as Canada's most beautiful artist–run centre.
  • Its programme of solo exhibitions and events had achieved a high quality. Openings were packed, and the press coverage was excellent.
  • Our relations with the board of directors were solid.
I've been trying to remember exactly why we made the decision to leave. I've talked about it with Douglas — and it turns out he's a little hazy about it too.

But we did come up with five points of consideration, which I would summarize as:
  • Peer persuasion
  • Alienation
  • Hostility
  • Curiousity
  • The zeitgeist
(Embarrassingly enough, these things sound like a list of reasons why teenagers run away from home, but there you have it.)

I'll briefly discuss each of these factors.

1. The peer situation The late 70s and 80s marked a small wave of departures from the Winnipeg art community. The art writers Kenneth Coutts–Smith and Tim Guest had both relocated in Toronto. Other local heavyweights — with whom we were also very close — were about to move as well. Suzanne Funnell would be leaving for Halifax. Will Gorlitz and Gordon Lebredt would soon be leaving for Toronto.

2. A Sense of professional isolation We had begun to feel an odd sense of loneliness in the work we were doing. We often wished that there were other organizations in town doing similar work — work that we could somehow dialogue with.

3. The struggle with local authorities It's worth remembering that the Manitoba Arts Council was itself a young organization at the time. It had no policy on artist-run centres. As a result, our relations with that body were sometimes strained. Annual battles were required for Plug In's grant renewals. And we began to wonder — for the first time — if we weren't getting tired of that sort of thing.

4. Curiosity and adventure We loved the work that we were doing and at the same time we wondered about other things we might want to do — other kinds of involvement, and perhaps even other places. Very simply, we had become restless.

We moved to Toronto without any job prospects — and without any plan. In fact, we knew very little about that city. We knew a few Winnipeg expatriates in Toronto, but that was all.

Relocated there, this meant having to work both inside and outside the art community to survive. I eventually worked as a studio assistant to General Idea — but I also commuted to Mississauga to work as a display assistant at Bally Shoes or to Montreal to do similar work at Holt Renfrew. Doug worked at Toronto's Mercer Union Gallery — and he also worked as a towel boy at the Racquet Club.

But our enthusiasms didn't really change at all. We loved hanging out with art and artists in Winnipeg, and we loved hanging out with art and artists in Toronto. In a very elemental way, it was that simple.

5. The spirit of the times So, what I'm talking about is not any strong motivation or career propulsion. Rather, I'm emphasising what I might call "buoyancy". It's a condition of mobility that stems from the times themselves. In the end, I'm referring not so much to an action as to the context that permits it.

Looking back, it's clear to me that the 70s was the last hurrah of the post–war affluence that was experienced across North America. Under–capitalized kids could attend university, aspire to be artists, and enjoy the mobility that may be required to pursue these interests.

We may have been poor, but we were poor in a prevailing climate of progress — of optimism. This encouraged a relatively unfettered vision of the world and of one's possible place within it — both geographically and otherwise.

Of course, we now know that while we were floating on this blithe set of assumptions, the larger world was working busily on a strategy that would soon put a damper on it.

My career, however modest, would not have been so much fun, or interesting, without the artists.

There's a famous line from a Cocteau novel that seems worth quoting in this context. He says:

""They had no inkling, this orphaned, penniless pair, that they were outlaws, living on borrowed time, beyond the battle, on fate's capricious bounty."