Barbara Fischer is the executive director/chief curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House and interim director of the University of Toronto Art Centre. She is also senior lecturer of Curatorial Studies in the Department of Art at the University of Toronto. She has curated numerous major exhibitions of contemporary art and its histories in galleries and museums across Canada and internationally. She was awarded the 2008 Hnatyshyn Award for Curatorial Excellence and was the commissioner of the Canadian Pavilion for the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.
Hart House 2005–Present
- Executive Director/Chief Curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
“What the first women achieved in terms of getting their feet in the door at Hart House was really critical. I really don’t feel like I should be highlighted in that general context. But, having someone who works at Hart House also directly involved with the academics is another sort of precedent. The University appointed me as a senior lecturer for the Art Department, and I have been, as a result, 51% academic appointment and 49% at Hart House. The mix is what is so exciting. I teach curatorial studies and I teach younger people about how curating works, and the history of curating and what curators do. We produce exhibitions as the final graduating project. We do that here, through Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, but also with the other university galleries. Because I have a leg in both places, I think it’s one of those amazing situations where academic learning can have a place in the world and the world can have a place in academic learning. I really love what I do, spanning those two worlds.
“Hart House is going through really interesting developments in terms of how the academic life of a student relates to what the house is doing, and how the house can maintain the ability to be really open to things that are not academic. But still further, what makes a great university? It’s learning, exposure to new experiences, and work experience, and I think that’s the really big thing that Hart House is striving to make possible. As well we ask, ‘What are the different ways of doing this?’ That’s a constant question, always. It’s one we’re all passionate about. Where we want to go.”
“The amazing thing about Hart House is that it can be a place where students encounter community, not just with other students and the University, but also with Toronto and the world at large—all the international visitors who come in. It’s a really exciting place to be. I felt that we’d figured out a way to do something to full potential—in terms of students being involved with the larger world and with the gallery as an instigator—with a recent exhibition that is also currently touring internationally.
“A Ph.D. student was able to work with a team of work-study students to do research for this exhibition and also be directly involved in the call for speakers, academics and intellectuals such as writers, curators and art historians. The exhibition involved many interns, work-study and students over a period of some five years. The exhibition was located and staged in all of the University of Toronto galleries. It got really great press. It travelled across the country. There was a catalogue and a book published about it. Now it’s going to Paris. It was all part of this integral place with an intense working period involving students at all levels: undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. It was an example of “wow, we can do this!” It got an award for exceptional exhibition in 2013 and a national award. These are the kinds of things that are possible to do within a university gallery.”
On the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
“The Justina M. Barnicke Gallery is dedicated to contemporary art through the artists who are working now and whose perspectives and perception is part of a changing culture. Artists, writers and composers, these are the people who pay particular attention to what it is like to be living in the world now, what it means and where change lies. I think that the gallery is really dedicated to that, and we’re charged with that, historically, with the Hart House Collection. The mandate was always to collect the art of its time.
“From the beginning, Hart House has been on the cutting edge of what artists were doing. As a result, it has built this incredible collection that you could not assemble anymore today because it’s just too valuable. We want to continue to collect, bring together, support and put forward artists whose voices, ideas and works show us the world in which we live—and it might be a world that we do not wish to see. Or maybe they open our eyes to what needs to be seen, where things might go, how the world might change and so on. As a curator, there’s experimentation involved because sometimes artists are doing brand new things, and one never knows exactly if they’ll work or not, but that kind of experiment is really important. As I say to my students all the time, ‘if it weren’t for the possibility of something new emerging, there would be no point in looking at art or making art.’”