Dean Baldwin and MOCCA turned a museum into a yacht club
Is looking at valuable stuff the best form a museum can take?
A museum is traditionally a place where we go to look at stuff, whether it's an original painting by an Old Master or a shard of a broken vase from a thousand years ago. The final show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA)'s current digs in the Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto signals a change in, or expansion of, the way we think about our institutions. Is the museum about more than just gazing at things?
MOCCA is pulling up stakes and moving out of the area where it's been a staple since 2005. Queen West has long been a centre for art in Toronto, one that gave visibility to artists from photographer and performance artist Suzy Lake to painter Kris Knight. With the museum moving out of the neighbourhood (though not far — it's still in the West end of the city, albeit further north), the decision to make its final exhibition Dean Baldwin's show Q.W.Y.C. (Queen West Yacht Club) suggests MOCCA is asking itself some probing questions about whether the traditional model of a museum is still the best one.
Visitors have hung out on the bunk beds lining the Chalet while they drink wine
Plans for Baldwin to be the last artist to show his work in the building have been in place for a while. Baldwin is known for his relational art, creating immersive and participatory environments. To the uninitiated, relational works can be easy to confuse for everyday activities or part of the surroundings, like Baldwin's Tiki Bar at past exhibitions, a functioning bar that the artist tends where yes, you can order drinks (good ones!). The focus is on the interaction between the viewer and the work, and Q.W.Y.C. includes a roster of social activities for MOCCA's last days on Queen Street.
The entrance to MOCCA now features Baldwin's fountain, seemingly built from beach detritus like old rope and pool noodles. It's lined by the picnic benches, where the artist is staging gatherings throughout the show's run. Inside the museum, the visitor makes their way through a wooden Chalet, constructed from leftovers and odds and ends, filled with the hodge podge of items families leave behind at their cottages (old Trivial Pursuit games; mismatched cutlery; appliances in various states of disrepair).
In the main exhibition space, dividing walls have been removed to make a cavernous hall inhabited by a full-sized 1950s Nordic sailboat that's installed precariously on a tilt, resembling either a shipwreck or a boat racing at full speed. Its interior is lined with tinned food, bottles of alcohol and other stuff to keep a castaway occupied for a while. Not all the items are lowbrow – they range from canned sardines and vodka to blueberry preserves and fencing gear. With it, Baldwin has created the space for an imaginary yacht club – a space for people who don't have boats, arranged around a land-locked vessel.
The label text on the wall lists not only the works in the exhibition, but a schedule of events – talks, dinners, performances that seem like the kind of evenings you'd spend at a summer cabin with your friends. In our interview, Baldwin mused that "The role of the museum is shifting out of a collecting institution with valuable objects that rich people have, like gems, to a social club where we gather an see each other and connect." The objects in Q.W.Y.C. aren't treated like they're precious – Baldwin uses his ship's supplies during the events, and visitors have hung out on the bunk beds lining the Chalet while they drink wine from a makeshift cellar built into the cabin's rough floor.
The shift from a focus on objects to an acknowledgement of what an institution means to the people who visit it, and to the larger community, is a concern that echoes across many museums and galleries. What is contemporary art and how should we look at it? And what role should MOCCA, with its new iteration in a larger building on Sterling Road, play? Baldwin's Q.W.Y.C. is sending the old space off with some questions for the institution to answer, as well as a good-natured month-long farewell to a neighbourhood with a storied art history.
Q.W.Y.C. by Dean Baldwin is on now until Auguust 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. W., in Toronto.