Skip to main content

Your Browser is out of date and is not supported by this website.
Please upgrade to Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer 11, or Microsoft Edge.

Looking back at history of OCAD U’s Onsite Gallery

Interview with Dr. Sara Diamond

Sara Diamond has overseen OCAD University’s amazing growth over the last 15 years, overseeing its transformation into a specialized Ontario university, the creation of Graduate Studies and the Digital Futures and Indigenous Visual Culture programs, plus the establishment of Onsite Gallery. As she looks forward to the end of her term as University President and Vice Chancellor on June 30, 2020, we sat down with her to look back at the Gallery’s history.

  1. When you first arrived at OCAD University in 2005 (then the Ontario College of Art and Design) what galleries existed for the display of art and design for students, faculty, or external artists?

There was a student gallery, Xpace Cultural Centre, which the OCAD Student Union supported and exists to this day and a student gallery which the university supported and has been in existence now for more than 40 years. There was no faculty gallery or gallery that could mount independent exhibitions of art and design. Almost all art and design schools have an independent gallery and most universities with Fine Arts or Design programs. Some of the best galleries in Canada are at post-secondary institutions. Examples include the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the Anna Leonowens Gallery at NSCAD. The Banff Centre, where I worked for close to fourteen years, has the Walter Phillips Gallery as well as an exemplary collection.

  1. What led to the establishment of Onsite Gallery, the first public “professional” gallery at OCAD?

As a major art and design institution of so many years of history it was unusual to not have a public gallery. University and art and design school galleries complement academic programs and research at their institutions by bringing local and international dialogues, practices, and practitioners into a public dialogue. We expressed the intention to create a public gallery very early on in Leading in the Age of Imagination, OCAD U’s first strategic plan under my leadership in 2006-7. What is unique about Onsite is its vision and mission which includes art, design, and new media. The latter has been expressed as research practices as well as specific digital practices. Dr. Charles Reeve was the first curator and director of the gallery and he provided really provocative, strong exhibitions, which underscored his view that university galleries can take on difficult issues and exhibition strategies. These galleries are part of larger institutions committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Lisa Deanne Smith has been with the gallery through its journey and has flourished as a curator with exhibitions like The Sunshine Eaters.  

Onsite Gallery began in 2007 at 100 McCaul St., in a small but well trafficked space off The Great Hall on the second floor, with a fantastic sculpture by Gord Peteran that welcomed visitors. It then moved to the ground floor of 230 Richmond Street West to a rougher but larger space capable of major media shows because of its height. The exciting next development was our partnership with Aspen Ridge Homes through Section 37 (a by-law in which developers create community benefits in exchange for density). Aspen Ridge provided not only raw space but also fit out. The dream from the beginning was to have a significant space (8000 square feet) that was a “Category A” space, which means that it is climate controlled and able to manage our own and others’ works and artifacts from collections. We commissioned Lord Cultural Resources to develop a plan for Onsite Gallery and the OCAD University gallery system. We have now built this. We have a strong strategic plan, great advisory board, a small, talented staff (Francisco Alvarez as Executive Director, Lisa Deanne Smith as Curator and Linda Columbus as Programs and Community Coordinator), and a history of award-winning exhibitions.

  1. How did your vision for a unified Galleries System develop?

Early in our strategic planning we developed the concept of “art and design everywhere”, which inspired not only the creation of Onsite but also a gallery system. Buildings felt sterile without art and design on the walls. There were opportunities to show student work, but we acknowledged that we needed to strengthen that capacity throughout the buildings, including The Great Hall. OCAD had a unique undergraduate curatorial program and then a graduate curatorial program, and this motivated a desire for even more space for students to curate other students. We created a Graduate Gallery that could also be a site to exhibit the work of the Interdisciplinary Art, Media, and Design graduate program. I came to OCAD U from a collecting institution and I wanted us to revitalize our collection and make it available to the public. Another very important initiative has been the development of a space to store, exhibit and allow the study of OCAD U’s collection, which Onsite now provides. As these individual initiatives developed, we needed to weave them together into a coherent whole that was well managed, had dedicated staff and could also provide a larger public face. We have pulled the galleries into a system managed by Onsite. We have an annual Gallery Crawl!  

  1. Why is it important for Canada’s oldest and largest university of art, design, and new media to have a professional gallery?

Universities have a responsibility to create “social infrastructure” which strengthens the community in which they are located. Galleries operate as a public face for their institutions and position them as part of a cultural context that extends outside of the institution. Galleries offer public programming as well as shows and are sites where people can gather. They can be a site for discourse on the future of cities, climate change, Indigenous arts and culture, the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. They can be sites for celebration and sociality for institutions. University galleries are fantastic resources for faculty and students who can use the content of exhibitions as frameworks for teaching and learning. The work in the professional/public gallery stands in dialogue with student exhibition and practice. University galleries are able to create residency programs in which major artists or curators spend time with faculty and students as well as creating new work. Residencies allow new works to be commissioned and produced, another opportunity for students to work side-by-side with established professionals. As a public gallery Onsite has included alumni and faculty in its exhibitions, placing them in relationship with artists and designers from around the world. All of these reasons underscore the value of Onsite Gallery.

We have another asset that many university galleries do not have. We have tremendous curatorial capacity among of our faculty and these individuals teach in our curatorial programs but well beyond. These include Ryan Rice, Dr. Andrea Fatona, Dr. Gerald McMaster, Dr. Caroline Langill, Dr. Dot Tuer, and others. Onsite has showcased our in-house curatorial talents in public facing exhibitions. Our curatorial talent has advised on exhibition planning. We also have faculty who have strong curatorial concepts like Dr. Patricio Davila who we supported to create Diagrams of Power, which featured artists’ and designers’ practice of critical mapping and visualization. Faculty have been speakers in our outreach programs. We are also able to provide internships for students to act as researchers and curatorial assistants. As a university we need to be innovators in curatorial practice. This is why I am so excited about our first International Curatorial Residency featuring Berlin-based curator and biotechnologist Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, and supported by Partners in Art. Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, he is the founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary Berlin. He was curator-at-large for Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, and guest curator of the 2018 Dak'Art Biennale in Senegal and curator of the Finland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. He will curate a show for Onsite Gallery and then travel it to Berlin, featuring Toronto based artists.

  1. What are your favourite moments in the thirteen-year history of Onsite Gallery?

So hard to answer that question because there are so many! I truly enjoy the Advisory Committee whose wisdom and support has helped Onsite arrive where it is.

Onsite has a history of really strong exhibitions. The inaugural show in 2007 was a residency by internationally acclaimed artist and alumni Rirkrit Tiravanija as part of the Nomadic Residents program in April 2007, funded by Partners in Art and curated by Dr. Charles Reeve. This was Rikrit’s first major solo show in Canada. Rikrit was known for the creation of highly collaborative platforms where he opened galleries to communities, cooked communally and invited others to perform. He bricked up the gallery and painted the words “ne travaillez jamais” on the wall, participated in workshops with students and presented a public lecture “in conversation” with Charles Reeve. Two conflicting audience responses were curiosity about what was within the walls, and anger at the new gallery, with all of the fanfare of its arrival, being closed by a gesture. Some even wrote letters of protest to the Board chair and to me. This piece spoke to Rikrit’s growing disinterest in the art world and his decision to return to his communal projects in Thailand. It also raised important questions about contemporary practice and audience expectations of galleries.

Onsite hosted the acclaimed Design for the Other 90%, curated by Cynthia E. Smith for the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a collection of design solutions addressing the basic needs of poor and marginalized populations not traditionally serviced by professional designers. Helena Rickett’s 2014 show Getting Rid of Ourselves was a very clever exhibition that subverted ideas of authority and artistic authorship. The exhibition Biological Urbanism: An Opera of Disciplines from Architecture, Landscape, Urban Design, Biology, Engineering and Art was created by Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology) a New York-based design group that promotes environmentally conscious urban planning and was curated Lisa Deanne Smith. They took the Bio City Map, a forecast of the world population distribution in the next 100 years combining all the world cities together as one continuous growth system, and cast it with DNA that encodes fluorescent proteins found in sea anemones and jellyfish.

One of the most exciting moments was when Peter Milligan, a long-term supporter of OCAD U and a major collector, stepped forward to name the Executive Director role of the newly built gallery to honour his wife Dorene, an alumna of OCAD U, and his own engagement with the gallery. The Dorene and Peter Milligan Executive Director of OCAD U Galleries donation supported Francisco Alvarez’s position for three years. Tragically, Peter died about a year ago, and we miss his energy and brilliance. We now are seeking a new naming opportunity for the Executive Director role. 

Of course, opening the 199 Richmond Street West space ten years after Onsite began in 2017 was a pinnacle moment, made much more so by Ryan Rice’s brilliant raise a flag: works from the Indigenous Art Collection (2000 - 2015) exhibition (which went on to win awards). Other recent highlights include Sarah, Duchess of York appearing at the T.M. Glass opening – both the exhibition and the presence of the Duchess were extraordinary. Douglas Cardinal coming to Toronto for the opening of Imago Mundi – Great and North -- and receiving much deserved elegies from the audience was touching. Lisa Deanne Smith has curated magnificent exhibitions that are beautiful and articulate, such as The Sunshine Eaters, which included an amazing intergenerational dialogue between Nick Cave and Ebony Patterson. Lisa’s show How to Breathe Forever was very powerful, and highlighted works of Indigenous artists. It underlined, “the importance and interconnectedness of air, animals, land, plants and water”.

We are in a strange and challenging time, where we must respond to COVID-19 now and build the world that must follow. We must stand up against racism and violence. Onsite’s successful history of taking risks, of providing a platform for Indigenous and diverse artists, designers and curators, and of creating powerful, engaging exhibitions that help us imagine possible futures is a reminder that art and culture are transformative agents.