Artistic Director Spotlight: Shirley Madill, KWAG

The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery is one of the oldest and largest public galleries in the area, with its roots in the community and its eye on the world. We caught up with Executive Director Shirley Madill to see what makes this gallery a cultural hub.

Q: Tell me about your journey to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery.

A: I studied at University of Manitoba where I got my bachelor’s degree history and art history and my master’s degree in international history and cultural history. There’s this assumption that I’m also an artist, but I’m not – it’s about the history and writing about art. I was a curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery for twenty years before moving across Canada, where I’ve gone from teaching part-time and gone on to become the director of an art gallery. When the position opened up in the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, I was excited because KWAG has a great reputation for contemporary art and working with contemporary programming is my passion. I’ve now been here for a little over three and half years.

Q: What does KWAG have in store for this season?

A: The Fall exhibition time is the New Year for art galleries – this is where we showcase some of our best work. In our main gallery, we have Lynne Cohen’s exhibition called False Clues, from Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, that is a retrospective of her forty years of artwork. She’s a significant Canadian photographer who we lost to cancer this year. So this collection has a real poignancy to it, as this was her last tour.

In our Eastman gallery, we focus on upcoming contemporary artists like Jason de Haan’s Everywhere Ghostly Is Nowhere Bodily. You’ll see some interesting sculptures where old pieces are transformed through various materials like salt.

In our gallery corridor, we have The Letter, which looks at various forms of what you would think of a letter, whether it is an alphabet or a letter that is read.

Q: Tell me about the process behind curating art or choosing what to exhibit at KWAG.

A: This is a great question. We’re not always in the office – we’re at other art openings or exhibits that are not only in Southern Ontario, but across Canada. We stay up to date on new works and shows online, and we are in touch with artists who keep us informed on their work. We also work with and get proposals from other art galleries and combine our efforts to produce some great exhibitions and even a book.

We (the curators) plan three years in advance and know what we’re doing in the coming years because it takes no less than a year to organize an exhibition from scratch – and most of our shows are organized in-house. We also develop and strengthen our gallery’s identity by having thematic exhibitions, as well as choosing artists that are the artists of the future, and being there first to showcase them.

Q: What is KWAG’s identity?

A: It would be being on the foremost of contemporary culture and art and being issue-oriented. We are interested in artists that are exploring these issues, and grouping that together. We are also interested in good scholarly work and writing on these issues and on these artists.

Q: What would this year’s themes and issues be?

A: This year, we are looking at more of a photo-based element, but if you’re going to look at an overall theme, think about it as something of the everyday looking spectacular. Like Lynne Cohen – they appear staged, but they’re real and the everyday becomes fantastical. So there is this transformative element in all our fall shows.

Q: What is your vision of KWAG’s future?

A: I always say our vision – we’re the largest and leading art gallery in the region. The reason we’re leading is because of the expertise in our staff and the quality of our exhibitions. We see ourselves as this destination for art and would like to be identified as this signature, cultural art hub. We would like to continue showing work that would be leading and premiering new work.

One of the premises of our meeting with our Board and staff is getting higher visibility for KWAG and working with The Centre on this. I believe that this is an incredible direction to be going in, and I look forward to seeing what that can be.