Christina Ritchie doesn't suffer fools gladly, and she'll be the one to tell you who they are. And it's a long list. Formidable is the word to describe her visage, particularly when confronting the expression of an idea she finds simplistic or ill-considered. When it comes to talking about contemporary art, her diagnostic skills are surgically precise. Not many make the grade. Fluff is her enemy.
But while Ritchie can come across as the very epitome of pre-Cambrian gruffness, she is also one of the Canadian art world's wittiest subversives, with a seductive voice that she uses to dish, always saying less than you long to know, but with a provocative lift of the eyebrow that keeps you waiting for more.
Ritchie is currently assistant curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but in July she will become director-curator of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, another example of the westward brain drain. (The appointments of Daina Augaitis and Bruce Grenville at the Vancouver Art Gallery some years ago were other examples of this phenomenon.) If she has, to some extent, hidden her light under the bushel of bureaucracy at the AGO, she can do so no longer. Coming to the CAG at a pivotal ramping-up point in its history, she will be charged with increasing the $500,000 budget by 50 per cent, revitalizing a sleepy exhibition program, and fixing the CAG's place in the corporate community where it remains an unknown quantity.
The product of a middle-class family in Saint John, N.B., Ritchie has charted an intriguing underground course through the North American art world, always attaching herself to the most rigorous artists in her vicinity. When she arrived as a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax back in the seventies, one of her first encounters was with the Los Angeles conceptual artist John Baldessari, who was working in the print studio making a text work that read, over and over again, "I will not make any more boring art." It was an omen of things to come.
At NSCAD, Ritchie found her way into the filmmaking classes of the legendary American artist Robert Frank, with whom she apprenticed for two years. "It was up-close exposure to real passion," she remembers today, "a kind of daily lesson in the payoffs of hard work and paying attention." Visiting American conceptual artists Dan Graham, James Lee Byars and Lawrence Weiner were influences, but the ambience of the college itself perhaps left the strongest impression. "I remember Vito Acconci running naked down the halls, biting himself," Ritchie recalls, as a particularly electrifying "for instance." By 19, she was partying in Cologne, Germany, with the international art crowd. "I remember being in a hotel room with Lawrence Weiner, and every time he finished a Scotch he would throw his glass out the window. We would hear a crash, and then the hotel manager would come and pound on the door. Germano Celant would jump in the closet and Daniel Buren would hide under the bed." Life was to be a full-throttle affair.
Married a few years later to video artist David Askevold ("We got married on Pearl Harbour Day," she quips), she left Halifax for Los Angeles where Askevold got a teaching position at the legendary art department at Cal Arts. Casting about for a professional room of her own (she had a young baby boy in tow by this time), Ritchie teamed up with Morgan Thomas and Dorit Cypis to create Foundation for Art Resources, an organization that placed contemporary art exhibitions and events in a wide variety of places, from local artist-run centres to the Pompidou in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As well, they produced multiple art works and books. "We used everybody else's resources to do interesting things," she remembers. The organization presented exhibitions of Ritchie's NSCAD mentors Weiner, Baldessari and Graham, as well as organizing shows of emerging figures such as Tony Oursler, Mike Kelley and Louise Lawler -- all artists who came to dominate L.A. in the decades to come.
Ritchie says the lessons of filmmaking translated well to curatorial work. "You have your cast, your crew, your location, your concept, script, budget." Making something out of nothing became her forte. When the couple returned to Canada in 1981, settling in Toronto, she was responsible for a number of small spontaneous combustions, among them Talking/A Habit (a series of lectures at the Rivoli café), before settling into her role as video curator at Art Metropole, a Toronto distribution centre for video and multiple artworks founded by the artist collective General Idea. It proved to be a perfect nesting ground for Ritchie, with her avant-garde inclinations.
In the mid-eighties, however, catastrophe hit on several fronts. Her marriage to Askevold collapsed. Then her young son developed a brain tumour and died. "For a year after, I just breathed," she remembers today. When she resurfaced, it was at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where, in 1989, she took on the position of assistant curator of contemporary art.
"For the first few years, I used to describe it as going to school," says Ritchie of her early days in her new position. "There was so much to learn." The AGO was a collecting institution, a new thing for her. There were donors to deal with. There was administration, and the environment was more layered and complex. For all that her career at the AGO has been a quiet one, a list of her exhibitions reveals the breadth of her interests: an exhibition of language art (drawing on her old conceptual art roots); a small exhibition of works by notable German artist Gerhard Richter, exploring the theme of mourning; a survey of the early years of General Idea; and a series of prescient exhibitions of Canadian artists such as Jan Peacock, Christine Davis, Euan Macdonald, Ron Terada and Kelley Mark.
But it was Ritchie's funky group show Waste Management, an underground hit in 1999, that most fully revealed her wit, and her sensitivity to the grungy zeitgeist of a younger generation. One work in the show, by the American artist Tom Friedman, consisted of a wad of chewing gum stretched from floor to ceiling. Another, by Joe Scanlan, was a white coffin fabricated from Ikea furniture components hijacked by the artist's subversive intentions. Asked to define the thesis of the show, Ritchie allows: "It was a bit cheeky. Basically, the exhibition proposed a new model of the museum as a waste-management facility. It talked about how objects retain meaning through the many cycles of their life. The response was great. People came in there and they laughed out loud."
In Vancouver, Ritchie will have her hands full. The CAG board has been in turmoil for some time about its vision for the future, and the search for a new director has been long and arduous, involving at one point the internally contested candidacy of former VAG director Alf Bogusky, which leaked to the press. Notwithstanding these bad vibes, the CAG will be moving this May into a brand new facility in Yaletown, almost tripling its exhibition space, and the $600,000 required for the capital costs have been raised in full. Says Ritchie, "The CAG is at a point in its history where its program has to be a lot more ambitious. It's moving up. But there is no point in bringing the greatest art in the world to Vancouver if there isn't a reason for it to be there." Context is everything. Vancouver art dealer Catriona Jefferies notes: "Christina is a curator who has been following the practice here very closely, and she's been curating Vancouver work into the AGO for years. She is absolutely on top of the younger artists." As well, she is thoroughly up to speed on the city's older generation of photo-conceptualists, such as Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, who will have the exhibition's opening show, along with Toronto's Germaine Koh.
The city intrigues her. "Vancouver is a place where the local/global dichotomy is fixed in the consciousness," says Ritchie, a dichotomy that is much talked about in international circles where it is increasingly possible to maintain an international career without living in the major centres of New York, Los Angeles or London. "In Vancouver, there are many artists who established very respectable international careers without ever identifying themselves as Canadian. Instead, they have a profound sense of identification with Vancouver as the site of the work." Smiling her Cheshire smile, she adds, "They gave up on Canada a long time ago."