Shauna McCabe Interviewed by Lee Bennett
What was your job when the pandemic started?
My position was, and is, the director of the Art Gallery of Guelph, and I also teach at the University of Guelph. As director of the gallery, I oversee the artistic program, our operations, the financial management of the gallery, hiring, education – so everything that the gallery does.
What do you teach at the university?
I teach in history and in art history. Right now, I’m teaching public art and I’ve taught architecture, museum studies, Indigenous art, special topics, and lots of different things.
How did the initial shutdown [of businesses during COVID-19] affect you?
The initial shutdown meant our gallery, as a public institution, had to close its doors like every venue. What that meant for us – we tend to work years ahead in terms of planning and booking exhibitions, for example, and booking artists to be involved in the development of those exhibitions. When we closed our doors, those schedules got thrown off quite a bit as public access to exhibitions was suspended for those first months. Then we had to figure out how to address the schedule as time went on. Also, things like our educational programs, which for museums tend to be in person and hands on – that creativity is really the crux of what museums are all about – were inevitably affected. We had to move everything online and even though there was a level of digital competency in art institutions and the wider cultural sector, I think the pandemic dramatically advanced that because of the demands of public engagement.
Could you describe a little bit about the process of moving the galleries online, and how that affected you and your job.
One of our areas of focus was transforming public engagement and public outreach programs that might consist of artist talks or dialogues between artists and curators or hands-on workshops, for example. If they can’t take place in your building, in your physical space, rather than suspend it completely, that was actually the element that we could advance and activate for the public. In terms of the technical details, just getting everyone equipped to undertake public programs from home – technology, webcams, Zoom accounts – was a first step. There is also an aptitude required to host and engage the public online, so there was a bit of a learning curve I think for everyone internally and across the sector – whether you are teaching that way, or you are in an institution involving the public that way. The other thing we did, like a lot of institutions in the arts and heritage, was focus on museum-at-home content. We started producing curriculum related materials for use at home or by teachers who were teaching remotely. There was an intense focus on resources that could be available online. Also we were thinking about our spaces and content within exhibitions and creating online tours. Interactive tours or exhibitions became a key element of our program. Before the pandemic, we did not do that with the rigour that we do now. Now every exhibition has an interactive tour once it is installed, and we had to learn the technology related to that, and develop skills and partnerships around producing those.
To some extent that is about training, but it’s also about financial resources – the investment to support access to technology but also the technological and digital capacity. The early months of the pandemic were committed to getting us up to speed and it happened very quickly. We pivoted quickly because we didn’t want to miss a beat in terms of our program. So although exhibitions in the space were inaccessible we were able to share images of them, and we also introduced virtual exhibitions that didn’t have a presence in our physical space. We had active online programs, talks, dialogues, and panel discussions, but also hands-on workshops where artists were leading public engagement remotely using cameras and zoom. We were engaging artists who had the capacity to do that, for example hosting sewing workshops and beading workshops in relation to specific exhibitions that we had on view, like Anna Torma: Permanent Danger and Breathe.
Compared to prior to COVID, do you think there is the same number of people coming to visit the art gallery?
I think generally, across arts and the performing arts sector, everyone has seen a drop in attendance – movie theatres haven’t recovered fully, theatres haven’t recovered fully, or art museums. I think generally ours is still a bit lower than it was before the pandemic, but that’s not unique for the cultural, heritage and performing arts sector, like business operations more generally.
Do you think that the adding of all these programs has increased usage of art galleries, especially among students at the university?
The biggest thing for us, particularly through online accessibility, is the global participation that’s possible. For talks, we could have an artist engaged with a curator outside of North America. Then your audience expands so attendance is not limited to just those who can come to the gallery or campus. Our audience is now beyond Guelph, beyond this country, beyond borders. We were able to undertake partnerships that involved people around the world. That was really key, and that’s why we will continue to do online programs as well, balancing those with events that are in-person. For example, tonight, we have an in-person dialogue between an artist and a curator that will take place in our lecture room but will also be undertaking online programs related to current exhibitions.
When people started returning to campus were there extra safety precautions that you had to put in place?
As soon as the pandemic started, we were planning for re-opening. The pandemic responses were guided quite heavily by government. There were requirements and policies in place that laid out what is expected of different institutions. We ended up, like a lot of institutions, investing in different safety precautions that would mitigate risk. We began cleaning daily and wiping down any sort of high contact areas, instituting hand sanitizer, installing plastic guards around the front desk to protect reception staff. We had to redesign the entryway to allow for social distancing. We had some staff on site; initially some staff were working from home but because we are a museum and we have exhibitions and collection to oversee, there was always a presence here. For those on site we instituted mask-wearing and social distancing, and we are still wearing masks in this building to ensure everyone’s safety. We went through the same transformation that everyone experienced. With each closure, our goal was to be prepared to re-open with our next season in place as soon as lockdowns ended. Work continued throughout lockdowns for us, as a result, and we continued with a full team.
At the start of COVID, how did you feel about leaving the physical workplace and now returning back to it?
I never really left. I was one of the people who was on site most often. Because I oversee this institution, I had a responsibility to be here and our administrator was also on site, able to answer inquiries and oversee the financial aspects of operations. I never really left, and though a fair number of people did work from home for a few months, they were back soon after with all the protocols we had put in place and adhering to them.
How did the pandemic affect you on a personal scale?
The one thing it brought to the fore for many of us in the arts and cultural sector was the intense pace we keep. We’re always working on the next projects; we always have many things on our plate. The pandemic interrupted that. With the first lockdown, for example, there was a sort of suspension of the schedule. That allowed everyone to pause and examine what our priorities and goals are. That moment of questioning was important. That points to how the pandemic was very difficult but also very valuable and will have a sustained lingering impact. The focus became very much on well being as part of operational goals. The moment of reflection that it offered has been pretty important, bringing self-awareness for most people in our sector because we often aren't aware of the demands we are meeting.
From your perspective how do you think COVID affected your friends and family in your personal life and your colleagues here at the gallery?
I think everyone felt a heightened level of caution – that is sort of the universal experience. What we thought was normal was no longer normal – for friends and family, as well as staff. It interrupted that sense of stability that people had generally shared and in many cases there was much more risk than we experienced at the University of Guelph, or in this country. That sense of stability and security was gone. Even a pandemic itself was a spectre no one thought could be a possibility – and now we do. The possibility of occurrence is always there. How we respond to it would now be different than how we responded to the first rounds of the pandemic. Those first moments were quite a shock to most people.
How did the pandemic change your relationship with your job?
My goal as the director of this gallery and the director of other institutions in the past is always about making the institution as strong, resilient, effective, and relevant as possible. The pandemic just changed the context for that. Now it’s made us more responsive. Recognizing that things can change on a dime, now planning has to be much more agile with that possibility. You need to build that into your planning. Our planning now is more nuanced and iterative, always checking as we move forward to make sure things don’t have to be adjusted. It’s brought an awareness of the potential for change and that requires a different type of leadership that is much more about change management. It’s about the management of precarity as opposed to managing in a period of stability.
Because of COVID, was the process of communicating with the artist and getting the actual art harder?
The only thing that changed for us was scheduling, we didn’t cancel any exhibitions. Because everyone was in the same situation, it actually made it easier – it wasn’t just our institution, for example, but a global experience. Artists were not only experiencing this uncertainty with the Art Gallery of Guelph, but with every institution and every project they are working on. There was this level of conversation required in order to map out for the institution what things will look like, and those artists were involved in many similar conversations. We didn’t cancel anything. We were in every case ready to reopen when lockdown ended, with new programming. Every time a lockdown happened; we were actually nearing the end of a season so we would make a determination when to deinstall and begin the next. As we were maintaining social distancing, every step of installation took longer, and we just used that longer time period to make sure protocols for staff health and safety were adhered to. In every case we were able to open again and in all of those cases, the artist came to Guelph as well. We were working with changing travel expectations and demands and policies, so it took a lot more managing. But we did manage not to cancel anything. In some cases, exhibitions began, then had a period of lockdown, then re-opened again. In those cases, we would extend the dates, so the artist’s work received the audience we expected for that exhibition. We layered programming on top of that. Quite a bit of programming went online; even our artists created programs for exhibitions. In the case of Collective Offerings, there was an online journal that the public could participate in; we also hosted film screenings online. One of the projects we also launched in response to how much things had changed during the pandemic and the emphasis on outdoor spaces was a series called Walking as Remapping, hosting local walks in the community led by artists or community members with a focus on the different perspectives you can bring to everyday landscapes. That was an initiative to involve artists in different ways, to incorporate their knowledge and perception of the world in a way different than exhibitions. We started to think a lot more consciously about how we can expand our program, what’s the role of the gallery in the community, in terms of social well-being and knowledge, and that became a key program that we are continuing to this day.
Would you say there are some positives of moving accessibility of the gallery online?
Absolutely, we don’t regret that at all. In this sector, for example, the level of digitization that we have achieved relative to our capacity at the start of the pandemic is certainly beneficial and there was support for that. There was investment, public funding, so there was an opportunity to secure funding for digital development. We have been working on our collections database and website since, and our new website is going to be launched in the next couple weeks which has been an extended process. I think every institution has gone through these transformations.