Art to Art
Cliff Eyland speaks with James Baird
St. John’s, Newfoundland has a thriving local art scene, but there are only three commercial galleries of note, each of which takes the name of its owner. The Emma Butler Gallery carries work by Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Helen Parsons Shepherd and Reginald Shepherd. The Christina Parker Gallery represents among others, Pam Hall, Helen Gregory and Grant Boland. The James Baird Gallery represents Newfoundlanders such as Bill Rose, mainlanders such as John Hartman and an occasional rock resident like Harold Klunder.
Baird also has established an artists’ residency program, without public funding, in the coastal village of Pouch Cove, a beautiful spot not twenty minutes from town. I visited Pouch Cove in the summer of 1996 and spoke with James Baird about his interest and involvement with art.
Cliff Eyland: How did the Pouch Cove residency start ?
James Baird: Pouch Cove started simply with an old building at the end of the earth. I was responsible for the mortgage and it was cheaper for me to continue paying then give it away and have to come up with what would have been a considerable shortfall. Having the property was less than half of the equation. The key to the project was seeing a work of art, falling in love with it, and then having the artist who made it agree to visit the place. The first Pouch Cove artist, Nancy Kembry, has as much to do with the program’s initial success as I do.
CE:Why is that ? Do you mean that if you had chosen the wrong artist, Pouch Cove would never have flown ?
JB:Nancy was friendly and supportive from the start. She was tolerant of the sub-standard conditions, promoted the place to her friends, wrote about us in a NYC artists’ newsletter, and was generous in her time, energy and work. If the first artist had been anything other that enthusiastic, it’s extremely unlikely that it would have continued.
CE:There are artist residency programs around the world. Do you correspond with people who run these places ?
JB:We are members of Res Artis, the International Association of Residential Arts Centres and Programs. It currently has 120 plus members worldwide, including well known names like Bemis, MacDowell and Yaddo in the U.S and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. Our future plans include developing annual exchange programs with other centres.
CE:What is the deal that you make with artists at Pouch Cove ? I understand that it doesn’t receive government funding. I’ve heard that you trade a work for use of the building.
JB:The program started as a very casual arrangement, with artists asking to come and stay for a month. Most of the residents were kind enough to give us a piece of work in thanks.
CE:You’ve organized an exhibition involving some Pouch Cove artists. Could you speak about the show ?
JB:We’ve not had an exhibition of the work produced at Pouch Cove, as such; that will come in time. A number of the residents have had exhibitions at the James Baird Gallery coincidental with their residency.
CE:How have local people in Pouch Cove responded to the artists ?
JB:Other than the one well know instance where, as the judge subsequently said, a bunch of “arseholes” threw stones at the building, the residents have warmed to the growing number of visitors in their midst. Through I’m sure they are sometimes mystified by the goings-on.
CE:Do you get artists at Pouch Cove who are surprised by Newfoundland ? What do artists who have never been here expect of the place ?
JB:The first-time residents are surprised at our ability to arrange icebergs or whales outside the studio windows. Their ignorance of the province is being tempered by their visits to our extensive Website.
CE:What about future plans ?
JB:Aside from exchanges with other centres, it’s our plan to use the building as a base for exhibitions. This year we invited twenty-two painters from across Canada to participate in a large landscape project. American curator,Todd Gilens, is discussing a site specific project for the year 2000. We’ve had five New England artists participating in a project entitled Border Crossing…
CE:Who do you think are the significant artists in St. John’s?
JB:I love paintings, and the most exciting artist for my money is Bill Rose. Bill’s continued growth in style and technique, his combination of art history, intellectualism and humor will gain him national recognition in the years ahead.
CE:Do you think of Newfoundland as a region, a country, or do you think of St. John’s as a microcosm ?
JB:My family was against Confederation and thinking of Newfoundland as a country is in my genes. That aside, Newfoundland is probably more a state of mind that anything else.
CE:Memorial University of Newfoundland Art Gallery has been renamed the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, a step that will take the institution to a new level. Like all Newfoundland cultural institutions, it has its troubles. Any thoughts about the institution, which I assume is the most important gallery here ?
JB:There is no question that the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador’s physical plant is in dire need of replacement. There is little doubt, given the level of interest and funding from Memorial, that the AGNL should not be a part of the university. The AGNL needs a board of directors that will either create enthusiasm for the visual arts in the general community or generate the funds required so that someone else can. To date I’ve seen neither the enthusiasm nor the money.
CE:What about events such as this year’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the John Cabot landing? Any thoughts?
JB:There has been virtually no public debate of tourism vs. culture in our province. Just as Water Street was destroyed by Atlantic Place and the Scotia Tower, so will many of the positive features of our life slip away without discussion. We cannot afford to put on Disney-like, big money staged events, when unique long-term festivals like the Sound Symposium are not only more appropriate, but affordable.
Cliff Eyland is an artist, curator and writer working our of Winnipeg.