The Godfrey Dean Art Gallery has hired a new director. Saskatchewan artist and composer Jeff Morton will take the position of director at the gallery starting Oct. 1.
Morton has a long history of working in the arts, and has worked with organizations and galleries across Canada, including the Canada Council for the Arts, Saskatchewan Arts Board, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Dunlop Art Gallery, Neutral Ground Artist Run Centre, New Dance Horizons, Curtain Razors, the Art Gallery of Regina, Holophon Audio Arts, Open Space, CARFAC SASK, and the University of Victoria, among others.
“I’m coming to this job as an arts professional working in music, experimental sound, sound art and media art… Self-employed for the last three years, working for a consultant and project manager for various organizations and individuals… Before that I lived in Ottawa for six years, and I worked for the Canada Council for the Arts, which gave me quite an education into how different organizations, groups and collectives find a way through in the context of an arts ecology that isn’t particularly funded.”
Morton believes that history is what the gallery responded to, because it gave him a background in grant writing, planning and organizing.
He views his own work as part of what he wants to do with the gallery, trying to reach out and get the community on board
“My artistic practice is largely about community engagement, getting people to make music together, making sound art, I do a lot of workshops, field recordings and before COVID hit I had a few gigs across Canada and in Reading in the UK, getting people to make music in creative ways with improvisation and composition techniques… I’ll be able to translate that to some new creative ways of engaging youth and adults as well in outreach and workshops, I’ve got a few ideas for that.”
Morton is new to Yorkton, though he has been in the city before, and he said that his first step as Director is going to be to start talking to people, including to everyone on the local Arts Board, to see what they want to see, what they believe the art gallery should emphasize, and what is working already.
“I don’t want to parachute into the city and presume I know where to steer this thing. It’s about finding the people who are already doing the work, are already cultural leaders, who are already champions of the arts in the local area, and how to bring them together how to learn from them, and how to find connections in the community that I can emphasize through the space that the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery has.
One of the things that he said that the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery has an extensive track record with is outreach, and he wants to continue to put an emphasis on outreach, workshops and classes as he steps into the role of Director. However, a lot of the work they had been doing is not possible with COVID-19, so he’s looking at how they can adapt that outreach to online. Morton has experience in that field, and has produced online projects with Victoria-based collective of-the-now, including Decolonial Imaginings (https://www.of-the-now.ca/decolonialimaginings/).
The gallery is in the first year of a pilot project in the smaller of the two galleries, using it as a commercial space to promote local artists and sell their work. Morton said that he intends to really push that forward for the remainder of the pilot, and continue to push that forward. He said that they want to emphasize the commercial gallery space especially in the Christmas season.
“Myself, growing up as the son of two potters, I really did live the life of seeing how the arts become something that is for sale.”
Morton has a history in music and sound, and when asked he sees potential for the Gallery to be a host of a variety of performances, especially given the Land Titles Building and its unique sonic properties.
“It is a way to get large groups of people out. The way that galleries are, more than ever, emphasizing community engagement, and our role in the community, having events that bring people out at the same time is important. A gallery exhibition is not less important, but they bring out people more disparately… I think the capacity for poetry readings, theatrical works, artists talks as well as music and sound, I think there’s lots of potential there.”
But he emphasizes that any performance plans will wait until he’s got a better idea of the community, which reaches back to his first duty, which will be talking to the community as a whole, and finding ways to get local musicians and artists involved.
“I feel a bit of a hesitation to program things simply because I think they’re cool or meaningful without knowing what the connection is with the community.”
He also believes that an art gallery is a great place for a local musician to perform, as it’s a different context from something like a bar or a larger show.
The focus on responding to the community comes from a philosophy that Morton adopted at the Canada Council for the Arts. He said that when he started, he was asked why grants were important, and he said it was to help artists pay rent, and make a living. He soon realized that while it helped the artists, it was really about how the art itself benefits people.
“The reason that we as a society decide to support the arts is because it benefits everybody. You can’t really have an art gallery that is niche, that is its own little clique, that just serves itself… A gallery like the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery serves the entire community, and without that holistic and inclusive approach it just doesn’t function the way it is intended to.”
By pure coincidence, Morton will introduce himself to Yorkton with a show of his own work next month at the gallery. He said that he had been in talks with the former director, Don Stein who has since retired, about doing the show for a couple years, and it was originally scheduled for earlier this year before COVID-19.
“The timing is a bit funny in a sense, but the exhibition has nothing to do with me as director of the gallery… But it will be a fun way to introduce myself.”
The work comes from a residency Morton had with the Conseil culturel fransaskois, Saskatchewan’s French-language arts council. Through the residency, he developed work that is sound and image based, which he describes as a bit abstract. They are treatments of vintage stereoscopic view master slides.
“It’s very much an improvisatory kind of artistic practice, where abstract images are coming together in a playful way. There is a cliche or nostalgic element because of the way those view masters look… It’s basically 2020, I’ve been fortunate to have a home and studio, but I’m basically stuck there. These art pieces are predominantly wooden boxes that you look inside of and you see these images. You look around inside there, it’s not possible to see the entire image all at once, and for me this became a reflective process. It reminded me of being a kid and exploring view masters and stereoscopic things with wonder. And it also really brought home for me my experience of living in a box myself, and not really able to go out and about and see people in the same way. Having to go inside my imagination and find an inner world that would be, not a replacement for, but a functional assistance for dealing with the isolation that came with COVID.
He said that it will be healing for people to be able to go to the art gallery again, and that the Godfrey Dean has a good plan for keeping people safe, but he admits that he’s a little bit nervous about having an exhibition coming out of COVID.
“We’re still, as a province, a little on-edge, and art galleries are not the front line of this fight against COVID. We could talk to our teachers who would have a few more things to say about that.”
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