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November 8, 2001 Curator Karen Antaki departs amidst well-earned gratitudeude



by Barbara Black

One day late this summer, Karen Antaki gazed around the empty art gallery, and realized, with a pang, that she would miss it. However, she left her position as director/curator in September with a sense of accomplishment.

Antaki was hired as acting curator in June 1992, overseeing the move into the renamed Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery in the J.W. McConnell library complex, which opened that fall. In 1995, she became director curator. (The Dean of Fine Arts had been the director up to that time.)

As of last year, the Gallery’s official ties to the Faculty of Fine Arts were dissolved, and it fell directly under the jurisdiction of the Rector’s Cabinet.
Lynn Beavis, a Concordia graduate who has worked at the Gallery, has stepped in as interim director while a search goes on to fill Antaki’s shoes on a permanent basis.

The administrative and curatorial roles will likely be split, a suggestion that came from Karen herself. She found juggling these sometimes contradictory roles difficult, both in terms of function and time.

The Gallery has gone through enormous growth in the past few years, including the formation of an advisory board and various committees, a new visibility, and a heightened profile in the community. It was ironic, Antaki said in an interview, that at the very time it gained splendid new facilities, its operating budget was drastically cut, as a result of the general budget-tightening that hit the whole university sector.

During Antaki’s tenure, the Gallery secured some $550,000 in exhibition and programming grants, including several sponsorships. The collection has grown over the past nine years through the acquisition of $2.3-million worth of several hundred culturally significant objects. With the help of an enthusiastic advisory board, the Gallery now has a promotional brochure, and has instituted a “friend-raising” program.

Curating — “the choreography of it all” — is really Antaki’s first love: “I believe you’ve first got to seduce your audience with the space, through the visual and sensory impact of the art installation. An interest in the conceptual basis of a show will naturally follow.”

She’s particularly proud of the shows she curated herself over her nine years. Of the eight to 10 shows each year, about 30 were her own projects. However, she regrets not having the money to publish accompanying comprehensive catalogues more frequently.

Another obstacle was not having the resources to fund truly high-tech exhibitions that reflect current advances in new-media art. “It costs a lot to run an art gallery,” she said, with some resignation.

Conservation is another issue that must be urgently addressed. Thanks to an idea from one of the board members, Dr. Sean Murphy, a cocktail party will be held at the Gallery on Dec. 6 at which guests and patrons will be invited to “adopt” a work on display and support its conservation.

Storage presents a challenge. The Gallery has a substantial and important collection of Canadian art, and its small storage area is absolutely packed. Another challenge is human resources, although Antaki always had a close relationship with the Faculty of Fine Arts, and built up a network of docents and curatorial assistants, as well as an educational internship program, now three years old, based on a Canada Council grant, and offered in conjunction with Concordia’s Art Education Department.

She also introduced the Ann Duncan Award for the Visual Arts, annually given to a fine arts student to fund their tuition and give them hands-on museum experience in a gallery setting.

Stabilizing the Gallery’s support staff will be especially important as the new director and curator take on their roles.

Antaki is enjoying respite from her duties after a busy period, and will concentrate on independent curating. A Concordia graduate, she did her master’s thesis on Henrietta Mabel May, a Montreal painter of the teens, 1920s and 30s.

She has been working for the past year on an exhibition addressing animal rights and environmental issues that will take her another year to finish. Art shows, she believes, should be “both evocative and provocative.”

The Ellen Gallery, with its rich collection of Canadian art — historical (pre-1945), modern (circa 1945 to 1970), and contemporary — not only has a historical mission, but an educational one, and as such, deserves financial support.

“We always had such great response from the public,” Antaki concluded, “whether it was novice gallery-goers or veteran art-lovers — and the gallery has always striven to serve them all. The Ellen Gallery is one of Canada’s most highly regarded university art galleries. It has been a privilege to direct its activities over the last nine years, a most rewarding and memorable journey.”

Lynn Beavis appointed Ellen Gallery’s Interim Director