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Although somewhat unrelated to the general purpose of this website, I feel compelled to express my gratitude to my country for awarding Dr. Henry Morgentaler the Order of Canada.

In 2003, Heather Mallick of the Globe and Mail asked, “Why doesn’t this man have the Order of Canada?”* and now, five years later, Dr. Morgentaler is being recognized for his lifetime dedication to the establishment and preservation of women’s rights in Canada.

Mallick’s article is a good overview of his life’s work that continues to this day. Canadian abortion-rights history would be virtually non-existant without the risk, courage and determination of Dr. Morgentaler. In fact, I think the global history of abortion could have potentially ended at abortion-as-crime were it not for Dr. Morgentaler’s tenacious fight. A brief timeline of Canada’s history is here.

Humanity owes a great deal more to this man than a national medal could ever convey. Congratulations, Dr. Morgentaler. And thank you, Canada.

*The original version of this article included a link to the story in the Globe and Mail. This link, no longer active, has been removed. Mallick’s story sparked a great deal of controversy when it was written. Some of her story, and the subsequent outcry against her praise of Morgentaler, can be found on this page.

So in the last couple of days, kottke.org has unearthed two lists that have been a lot of fun to go through: 1001 Books and 1001 Movies that presumably you must read or see before you die. Of course lists such as these are always bittersweet. I’ve read 45 books on the list but have also read hundreds more that didn’t make the list. In recognizing my frustration, I began to realize that these lists are a great exercise in understanding museum practices.

It might sound far off, but hear me out.

A thousand and one might seem like a large sum, but relative to all of the published books and produced movies around the world, it’s a tiny number. Who decided which books and movies made the list? Why were seemingly-important titles excluded? Do we allow this list to carry any sort of authority to dictate which books and movies must be read and seen? Museums need to be addressed in the same way. Out of a huge collection of objects and artifacts, only a selection are being put on display. This process of reduction inevitably tells a much different story than if all of the objects were on display.

Lists are fun, I get that. So are museums. So why don’t we visit museums with the same grain of salt we use when approaching these lists? Why don’t we acknowledge the value of their exhibitions while also understanding that they simply cannot communicate a total and accurate history? When we visit an anthropological exhibition, just because we have no personal experience to corroborate the museum’s telling of a history, we don’t doubt the authenticity or historical accuracy of the exhibition. In fact, the further away we are from being able to relate to the anthropological categories on display, the less likely we are to question its accuracy.

For example, I am half-Ukrainian. Having some knowledge of my background enables me recognize what is being omitted at an exhibition of Ukrainian history. People with no knowledge of Ukrainian history cannot do the same thing.

And so, as with books and movies, it’s critical to understand that the subjectivity of selection not only exists, but indeed dictates the function of a museum space.

Cultural privilege and bias are also important factors to keep in mind. When you look at these two lists, you’ll notice three things:

1. All of the titles have been published/distributed in the West.

2. All of the titles are available in English, whether it was the original language or available with translations/subtitles.

3. In most cases, particularly the movie list, foreign-language titles have been translated to English (to name a few: And Your Mother Too, Talk To Her, An Andalusian Dog. But it’s inconsistent: Amores Perros is listed in its original Spanish title, La Jetée in its original French).

From these common factors, what can we deduce? In deciding on the best of books and art, we disregard the literature and film that is not made available to us. Of course it’s impossible to make a “Best Of” list of things we haven’t seen, but the titles of the lists are what are then misleading. The lists should be qualified by indicating their Western bias.

Museums (which, by the way, are really large-scale “Best Of” lists anyway,) have the same problem. How do you accurately tell the story of something that happened 2,000 years ago when you obviously weren’t there to witness it firsthand? And how has the history of that story changed over time? What political, social and environmental nuances were present that are impossible to convey in a contemporary framework?

I’d like to start by posting an article I wrote for Inside Mississauga, the magazine I used to co-publish between 2003 and 2005. It’s a couple of years old, but it’s a good summation of my interest in improving awareness of and access to art in Mississauga. In working with art in the suburbs, I became extremely turned off by elitist/privileged institutions and organizations (particularly those in Toronto) who were more interested in keeping the “wrong” people out than letting their offerings impact as many people as possible. In this piece I tried to address the three primary apprehensions that Mississauga residents had when their fear of art overpowered their curiosity to explore it: education, money and “worthiness.”

These concerns raise a whole slew of other concerns, like what is “cool,” anyway? What constitutes an individual as appropriate for belonging in/to a particular place or subculture? What is the nature of self-segregation? How do these issues differ in metropolitan and suburban environments?

I have much more to say on the subject but I’ll save it for later. Without further ado, here it is.

How To Visit An Art Gallery

Visiting an art gallery sure seems easy enough, but you may or may not be surprised by the way in which people become messes of insecurity and uncertainty at the mere thought of visiting an art gallery. Especially an art gallery in Mississauga.

While art in general has always reeked of pretension and elitism, it is my experience that this kind of stigma usually rings true only in big-city art scenes. While Mississauga is certainly a growing city and many may in fact deem it “big,” this city here has an advantage over our neighbouring metropolis: The art scene here is entirely friendly. And welcoming. And the only thing Mississauga galleries want, essentially, is for you, Mississauga’s pleasant and average citizen, to step inside and simply enjoy what is there.

So let’s dispel the myth of art-snobbery, at least within the bounds of Mississauga.

 

YOU DON’T NEED TO BE A SCHOLAR

It’s true! You don’t need to be equipped with eight years of art history experience! Nor are you required to recite an abbreviated biography of the exhibiting artist(s) in order to gain admission! All you need to step foot into a Mississauga gallery is, at least, some level of curiosity and sometimes, an open mind. And if you don’t understand any of it, don’t worry! You aren’t the only one. If it kills you not to know, you can ask gallery staff who will be happy to offer their insights regarding the exhibited work, and if it doesn’t make a difference to you whether you get it or not, keeping to yourself and admiring the aesthetic quality of the work on the wall is a perfectly acceptable practice.

 

YOU DON’T NEED TO BE RICH

There isn’t a single gallery in Mississauga that expects everyone who walks in to walk out after signing a check for a $50,000 oil painting. Atiya Ahsan, owner of The Learning Club and Fine Art Gallery in Streetsville, says that “less than 3 per cent” of visitors purchase original pieces, though these numbers do vary from gallery to gallery. She also notes that the work displayed in her gallery is usually priced between $150 and $2000, which is nowhere even close to $50,000! Even though collectively, Mississauga galleries show millions of dollars worth of paintings, photographs and a broad range of prints by both emerging and established artists, they won’t even charge you a penny to come in and look at it. That’s right! At most Mississauga galleries, admission is absolutely free. That means you can walk in, take in what you will of the experience of viewing art, and leave along with your $50,000.

 

YOU DON’T NEED A COOL HAIRCUT

In fact, you can go into any Mississauga gallery wearing stirrup pants and a Terrier t-shirt and no one will even blink an eye. No one here cares if you’re cool, or if you look like you might “know something” about art. Quit making a fuss over yourself and get thee to a gallery.

The fact about most Mississauga galleries is that their staff is truly community-minded and their biggest goal is to make art accessible enough for you to enjoy without hassle or discomfort and, best of all, for free. If it sounds like a great deal, it’s because it is one. Mississauga boasts an extremely diverse arts community, rich with technique and talent, and it’s available right before your eyes for nothing – you won’t even get a look-at-her-Terrier-shirt snicker. All you have to do is go out and find it – and with the growing number of arts resources in Mississauga, that shouldn’t be too difficult either.

Originally published in Inside Mississauga, Volume 2, Issue 7, April/May 2005.