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The new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kathleen Bartels, in Toronto on Nov. 20, 2020.

Yader Guzman/Handout

There’s a new sheriff on Sterling Road. In person, Kathleen Bartels is relaxed and cheerful, but the veteran gallery director, who took over Toronto’s struggling Museum of Contemporary Art in April, is also firm and forthright: “Build a program, raise the profile, build the donor base, that is what you need to do,” she said in a (carefully distanced) interview.

Those tasks will be made harder by the pandemic – MOCA closed its Junction Triangle premises as the city went into its second lockdown last month – but Bartels arrived just after the start of the first wave, and even if she didn’t plan to switch jobs in the middle of a pandemic, she does know what she is getting into.

“It’s a good time to be here,” insists the director, who lead the Vancouver Art Gallery for 18 years. “I think the institution is poised for change. It’s been a rocky four or five years.”

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Those years included MOCA’s much delayed move to the renovated Tower Automotive Building on Sterling in 2017, and also the departure of two executive directors after less than a year on the job each.

Bartels, who oversaw great growth at the VAG but didn’t manage to get its new building built, makes it clear that her long experience with an institution four times MOCA’s size is going to bring stability. No more revolving-door management and no more letting the board run the place; developer Brad Keast took over as chair last year and Bartels believes in regular board turnover. Since her arrival, the museum’s landlord, Castlepoint Auto Building, has forgiven a $5.7-million construction loan, letting MOCA finally close the capital campaign for its new building. The museum also announced recently it had secured an anonymous donation of $1-million to spend on programming, and once it reopens will display work from the Flowers for Africa series by Kapwani Kiwanga, the Canadian who recently won France’s top art prize.

“I’m sure there has been a lot of talk in the community about MOCA’s financial sustainability These two [donations] are important because they show people want this place to keep going, to flourish,” said Bartels, adding that she is close to balancing a $5-million budget.

With MOCA on surer financial footing, Bartels and artistic director November Paynter can concentrate on getting the programming mix right. That has been another area where MOCA has struggled, lurching between accessibility and impenetrability. Lately, the mix has been getting smoother, providing the visitor with a more seamless experience over four floors of exhibition space.

Although the building stands in a wasteland of empty lots still awaiting long-promised residential and office construction, the first floor is intended as a community gathering place. It features free art along with expensive coffee and pastries thanks to a Forno Cultura café. (You only need to buy a ticket to access the upper floors.) Last winter, Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga made the most of the space by erecting a cardboard arcade; this fall, Bartels got Taiwanese artist Michael Lin to plan one of his site-specific installations in riotous floral motifs. His installation at VAG in 2010 was a huge success – he covered the entire classical Georgia Street façade in massive pink-and-red floral banners – and he was commissioned to bring a bit of that zing, albeit on a smaller scale, to MOCA. He worked remotely, with local artists painting seating platforms and flooring, but unfortunately visitors will have to wait to judge the effect. The painters were just finishing when the lockdown order came.

Still, the Lin commission summarizes one direction Bartels thinks the institution should be going: popular but smart.

“I think Michael’s work is accessible but I don’t think that takes away from its intellectual rigour,” she says of the artist, whose work has been hailed internationally for questioning the difference between high art and mass production by covering elite architectural spaces with commercial Asian textile designs.

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Meanwhile, on the upper floors, the current exhibitions stick with the formula Paynter had deployed with success last winter, stressing site-specific installations that speak to each other and to the Tower Building’s industrial history, demanding both an admission ticket and more intellectual commitment as you rise.

On the second floor, the programming seems to hit a sweet spot of entertainment and intelligence with an exhibition devoted to Mika Rottenberg. The New York artist’s loopy video installations – you walk through a small tunnel to view one; another reproduces a room where bags of cultured pearls are sorted – play off their equally zany content. Spaghetti Blockchain, the title piece, features a soundtrack provided by a Mongolian throat singer and images of brightly coloured slabs of some unidentified gelatinous substance being sliced like salami and melted on a grill. Like Cosmic Generator, another video piece by Rottenberg, which features startling images of Chinese wholesalers surrounded by their plastic wares, the film speaks about production and consumption, delighting in an “ooh gross” aesthetic even as it ponders the cultural implications of globalism.

Meanwhile, on the third floor, the art gets more demanding as Canadian artist Krista Belle Stewart meets Turkish artist Fatma Bucak. Stewart, who is Indigenous, is working on a project where she visits German hobbyists who enact fake “Indian” gatherings, complete with feathered headdresses and war cries. Her photography and video work painfully examines the trend but does not overtly denounce it. Bucak’s photos and videos are also about cultural juxtapositions, in the Middle East in her case, but they’re more opaque. Previously, she produced a video where she asked women to wash the ink from newspapers as a metaphor for Turkish censorship; it is represented here by an installation featuring row upon row of photographs of the blackened water that produced.

“There’s something for everyone,” Bartels said, “whether you want to sit on a pod and have a coffee or engage with Fatma Bucak.”

So how does this display of international contemporary art, with the occasional Canadian contribution, make MOCA different from the Power Plant, the contemporary art gallery at Harbourfront Centre?

“I have heard that question a lot,” Bartels said. She argues there’s room for more than one contemporary art museum in a city as large as Toronto, but she also sees MOCA as special. “I like that it’s in a unique place; it’s really grounded in a neighbourhood and that’s unusual for a museum.” The Power Plant – or MOCA Los Angeles, where Bartels was assistant director for more than 10 years before she moved to Vancouver – are located in central entertainment districts. On the other hand, the former industrial area around the railway junction in Toronto’s west end could only be called emerging: MOCA should be an institution more solidly rooted in the city and its arts community, Bartels figures.

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When she arrived at MOCA she took plans for an exhibition devoted to seven local artists and expanded that number to 21 to create a big Toronto group show that will be the main act in 2021. She also wants to see prominent Canadian artists such as Jeff Wall or Xiaojing Yan at MOCA.

The timing couldn’t be better since international artists can’t travel, but there’s also a certain irony to these plans. MOCA lost the second C in its name, which stood for Canadian, when it moved to Sterling Road with grand international ambitions. Now, this Toronto gallery is relying on an American ex-pat from Vancouver to be put the local back in its global.

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