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Curator Xiaoyu Weng will take up the modern and contemporary art portfolio at the Art Gallery of Ontario this summer.

Alexei Ponomarchuk/Handout

The Art Gallery of Ontario continued its internationalist push Thursday as it appointed a Chinese curator with American experience to the key portfolio of modern and contemporary art. Born and raised in Shanghai, Xiaoyu Weng currently works as an associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This summer, she will take up the role of modern and contemporary curator at the AGO in Toronto, a city she has never visited.

Her appointment is sure to raise questions for the local and national visual-art community, where the AGO’s contemporary curator wields considerable power as the person who decides which living Canadian artists might be added to one of the leading public collections in the country. Weng, who has specialized in expanding the contemporary canon to all corners of the globe, has only followed Canadian art from a distance. She’s an admirer of Janet Cardiff, whose work she has seen internationally, and such prominent Vancouver artists as Ken Lum, Ron Terada and Stan Douglas, first encountered in a grad school project she did about North American artists on the West Coast. She was also impressed by the achievements of the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art in 2019, having herself curated the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in Yekaterinburg, Russia that year.

“I’m not an expert in Canadian art, but there are artists I am following closely … I’m more interested in focusing on individual practices and the perspectives these artists are bringing than in trying to label them or put them in a box, calling them Canadian art or Canadian artists,” she said in an interview. She added that she doesn’t think nationality is the first characteristic with which artists define their identity. “I’d take the same position on artists from China or anywhere else.”

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Her international outlook may serve the AGO well. In announcing the appointment, chief curator Julian Cox said Weng would “help us further our goals of leading global conversations from Toronto. She will also help us put Canadian artists on the global stage and shape the presentation of our collection in dynamic new ways.” Her expansionary approaches fit with the AGO’s attempts to redefine its narrow focus on the Western canon; last November, the gallery promoted Julie Crooks into a new role curating the art of global Africa and the African diaspora.

“How do we look at issues with a perspective that isn’t limited to a Eurocentric view?” Weng asked.

Apparently not by filling the AGO’s galleries with the work of China’s global art stars – even though her Guggenheim gig involved a Chinese art initiative that brought new artists into the gallery to question audience assumptions about the region.

“I am very critical of the so-called rise of contemporary Chinese art. It’s very much compelled by the market … capital pouring in,” she said. She added it’s important to view Chinese art in its social and political setting and to consider the art of China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia.

Despite her postcolonial outlook, her appointment confirms suspicions that any ambitious Canadian art curator better get some international experience, preferably American, if they want to rise in the ranks at a big Canadian museum. The two most recent art museum directorships to come open here both went to Canadian art historians with significant American credentials. Last fall, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts repatriated Stéphane Aquin from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, while Sasha Suda, director at the National Gallery of Canada since 2019, worked at New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum before she was appointed curator of European art at the AGO.

It was because Suda lured her AGO colleague Kitty Scott to Ottawa as chief curator that the contemporary curator job in Toronto became vacant. Weng considers Scott a close colleague, but Canadian artists may be looking for more proof of such a connection with the national scene. Scott is known as a strong advocate of Canadian artists – witness her blockbuster 2019 exhibition devoted to the work of B.C. Indigenous artist Brian Jungen.

Weng’s appointment means that three top jobs at the AGO are held by professionals who came to Canada from the U.S. AGO director Stephan Jost is an American who previously worked as director at the Honolulu Museum of Art and several smaller U.S. institutions, while Cox is a Briton who worked at museums in San Francisco, Atlanta and Los Angeles before arriving in Toronto.

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Weng’s position is that the visual arts are particularly useful for discussing cross-cultural issues and, when it comes to acquiring Canadian art, she hopes to focus on marginalized artists that have not been previously collected. “How can I be an active agent in connecting the dots?” she asked. “I really see myself as bringing some new perspectives and fresh eyes, looking not only at international artists but also local artists.”

However they define themselves, Canadian artists will wait and see.

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