Remai Modern's incoming chief curator dedicated to breaking down systemic barriers in museums

The Remai Modern’s incoming chief curator Michelle Jacques has been working in mainstream public art museums since the mid-1990s and she said in those early days, she was one of the only Black curators working in Canadian public art museums.

Michelle Jacques says she’ll bring an outsider’s perspective to museum of modern art in Saskatoon

Michelle Jacques starts working as the Remai Modern's new chief curator in February. (Remai Modern/Facebook)

The Remai Modern's incoming chief curator, Michelle Jacques, has been working in mainstream public art museums since the mid-'90s, and in those early days, she was one of the only Black curators working in Canadian public art museums.

"I've always thought a lot about how to shift the structures of the museum to make them equitable and accessible to everybody, because often I didn't feel like I belonged in the museum even though I was working there," Jacques told CBC's Saskatoon Morning, as she discussed taking the reins of the museum of modern and contemporary art in Saskatoon.

Jacques was one of several Black curators who signed an open letter last fall calling for Black inclusion and the dismantling of racism in artistic spaces.

She said Black curators have knowledge and understanding about the systemic barriers that exist in museums.

"We come with a lot of skill about how to open up museums and make them accessible, not just for Black communities, but for all communities."

There's a long history of Black artists working in Canada, she said, and museums haven't always been responsive to that work.

"There were times in the '80s and '90s in particular, when there was a real proliferation of Black artists working in Canada and, really, it seems as though for some of those artists, things became so difficult and there was so little uptake for their work that a lot of them don't work anymore or they're working in isolation and with little recognition of their work."

An outsider's perspective

Originally from Toronto, Jacques has spent the past eight years as the chief curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. 

She said she's aware that bringing someone in from the outside can be a challenge.

"It can often raise eyebrows and raise ire to hire outsiders," she said.

But she said she's also worked in Toronto and Halifax as well as Victoria, and in all of those places she was committed to artists in the region where she was working.

"[I] really ground myself in finding out what is relevant to local audiences," Jacques said. "So I think the balancing being from away and having a kind of outsider's perspective, with an ability to situate myself in where I am, should be a positive thing for the way I approach my work at the Remai."

She said she's heard the arts community in Saskatchewan and Saskatoon is tight-knit and active — comparing it to the community in Toronto — and she said Saskatoon feels like a young city that's growing and evolving.

"I'm really excited about that and understanding how the Remai and the work that I do there can contribute to that change and growth."

She starts the position in Saskatoon in February.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

With files from Saskatoon Morning