« Collecting as story telling »

Interview with Dr Kenneth Montague, founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects

By Érika Nimis
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Dr Kenneth Montague, owner of the Wedge Collection based in Toronto, Canada, is the founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting contemporary art that questions black identity. The story started in 1997 as a gallery space within his home.

What is your background ?
My background is fully Canadian – I was born and grew up on Windsor, Ontario.
As a border town, Windsor is the most southern city in Canada, and right across from Detroit, Michigan. Both Canada and the U.S. influenced me evenly. I grew up with a lot of U.S. media, sitcoms, and Canadian culture around me in schooling, and with classmates.
The other important part of the equation is that my parents were both born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada, giving me a good dose of Jamaican culture around the house, including food and language. So there was a bit of a tri-cultural experience growing up in Canada.
How did you start your collection ?
I started my collection in a very organic way, and not something that was so considered, as in « I’m going to start an art collection ». It was much more about opening a commercial gallery in my home, back in 1997 because of a love of art, and feeling there was not the forum available to show work by artists that had speaking to me in a very personal way.
So I opened the Wedge Gallery in my home. This was a physical wedge space when you looked at in plan. The double-entendre was to present work by artists that I believe needed to be‘wedged’ into the mainstream of the art world consciousness.
That was this word’wedge’ and where it came from.
Since it started as a commercial gallery, I decided to keep one of the works from each exhibition that we showed, and soon enough I had a collection started. I soon realized that I preferred to tell stories rather than sell artwork.
After four or five years it became less as a commercial endeavor. I started working more as a curator putting together shows that would talk about my own identity, which worked very well for people coming into a private space like my home to see work that would usually be seen in a public space.
This slowly grew into my personal collection of work, the Wedge Collection, and also Wedge Curatorial Projects, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of artwork and artists who are exploring ideas around black identity.
Why Photography ?
I started with photography because it’s a more accessible way for someone who has no formal training in the art world to gain access to a rarefied space.
Being all around us, it’s a very ubiquitous art-forum.
I grew up with the accent of consumer friendly photography. I was born in the era of the first Kodak Instamatic cameras – that was my first – and remember when my older brother got a Polaroid. It moved very quickly into the digital age where photography is just easy and snapshots are a part of everyone’s life on a daily basis. Formal photography has given way to this quick and easy time where snapshots are just taken from your cell phone.
It was a very pivotal and critical time when I grew up in the early 60s into the 70s, now moving into digital photography.
Photography also presented a very impressive body of work that was already in existence around ideas about black culture that I craved to learn more about. I was able to go to art shows, mostly at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, where I saw Couple in Racoon Coats and other works by James Van Der Zee, the noted Harlem Renaissance photographer. These images were burned into my subconscious and are critical to the Collector I would become.
It feels like photography was the best way forward for me, not having studied the plastic arts in any formal way.
What attracts you when you buy a photography ?
At this point, I look for some kind of reflection of self – this never really changed.
As I changed and became a little more contemporary about my ideas about art and complex about my thoughts around identity, the work that appeals to me has also changed. It’s now a much broader and inclusive idea of identity, which includes all cultures and all identities, where we’re moving to include works by artists like Rashid Johnson, Pieter Hugo and Viviane Sassen that use identity in a very tangential way. Dawit L. Petros and other artists are thinking about new ways of presenting their own identity and the identity of others.
A new acquisition for example is a promised gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario, a purchase that I made with other art collectors in Toronto, a new video work Factum by South African born and German based artists Candice Breitz.
Candice’s work is very much around thinking about pop culture and how it’s affected the way we think about identity. She’s also thinking about twins, and a doubling effect of similarities and differences, which is a major trope of the Wedge Collection.
Very early you have decided to show your collection, first in your own space, then in other galleries and museums. What are your goals in doing so ?
The idea is to share one’s collection, rather than keeping it all in storage. There is an investment made as a collector and you have to respect the value of the work, but it was never about how much the sale of the collection would warrant one day.
Fairly early I realized this is about story telling, and building a collection that moves from one artefact to another in the story. It’s about building a collection and, almost by necessity sharing it with people who also might also think about these issues of identity, and a way to build some value to the scholarship of the work, and not think so much about it’s monetary value, rather than it’s spiritual relevance in our lives.
You recently organized an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum called Position as Desired showing for the first time an overview of your collection in a Canadian museum. What was your intention for this project and do you think it was successful ?
I think that a lot of people were craving for, and waiting for a show that would speak to people about their own identity. I realized that I wasn’t alone in this thought of this need for a show about African Canadian culture through visual imagery in contemporary photography, and because I also realized that as a collector I also had a certain amount of important early and vintage images, I recognized that the show could be a very balanced one, that showed what came before, where we are now in terms of ideas around identity, and then suggest to where we’re headed in the future – with four young artists that were talking about identity.
Position As Desired is really about the need to fill the gap in public gallery system in Canada.
As well, it should be mentioned that the feeling I had is when we consider the title of the show, and it’s meaning it should be positioning ourselves how and where we desire, – hence the idea of putting the work in the Canadian gallery in the ROM, as an intervention. Such that we put Dawit L. Petros’ celebrated image Sign next to the portrait of Sigmund Samuel in the same space where there’s James Wolfe and General Montcalm, and our other European forefathers, and were able to position ourselves as we desire.
Your previous show Becoming, currently presented at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, also explores identity issues through photography. Can you tell us a bit more about that project ?
The Nasher show Becoming is the culmination of a lot of time spent thinking about my own collection, and the tropes and ideas that it contains. One of the major themes of the Wedge Collection is around identity in the sense of trying to answer the question,’who am I ?’ as a collector.
The answer to that question it turns out is many things, not one thing, but different and varied facts about diversity.
So the object with Becoming is about thinking about how identity can be expressed in photography. It starts with a look at the origins of modern photography where the subject has little or no control over how they’re depicted in image making, and moving through different eras or movements specifically within black culture, where photography moves to a point where there’s some increased interaction the sitter and the image maker, and ending with a section on new ideas and re-thinking concepts around questions of identity.
Early works include unknown photographers who are creating images for a specific audience, and putting their complete subjectivity into that process. Then photographers like Jamel Shabazz are in the middle of the show, who are adding their own ideas, but expecting the sitter or the subject to respond, where there will be a give-and-take. These are among works with Canada’s Deanna Bowen, and Megan Morgan who using new visual languages to express their own families, histories and identities.
The show originated in Detroit, Michigan at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, not meant to be a global survey of pop culture, but rather very specific and subjective take on black identity, through the mind of a collector.
The show has evolved of course, as I have as a collector with further experience and knowledge in the art world. The current show to be a broader and more enriched experience.
As a collector, what advice would you give to young photographers ?
Young photographers should not be afraid to express who they are and what they do. There may be a tendency in art school to homogenize and adapt the current trend in contemporary art making.
I see a lot of sameness as a collector. It’s very few and far between that I see a sense of newness and wonder when in new work and image making. Always, not only in photography, should artists show a piece of themselves in what they do, to create something that is far more authentic, and there will be a sense of sincerity about the work that people will relate to even in they don’t have the same story as you.
The way forward I think is about keeping it something honest and not following the trend of the art market. It’s about not thinking about money, but expressing ideas that are new for people to absorb.
… And to somebody who wants to start a collection ?
People who wish to collect art should be unafraid to express who they are in their collection. It’s a very hard trick to avoid the sameness that evolves from everyone, getting the same type of advice, reading the same magazines and going to the same art fairs.
Often times, I’m going to collectors homes in different parts of the world, and everyone wants to have the same piece from the same artist, and it’s almost as if owning a specific piece becomes a badge of honour.
What I find appealing, and what I hope the Wedge Collection will be representative of is collecting as story telling, and not trying to impress with big names, but rather a mix of high and low art, focusing on the message rather than pounding people over the head with one idea.
It’s about a healthy mix-up or mash-up of artists with diversity, that represents who you are rather than it being simply one of many collections however valuable we’ve seen before.
What is the next step of Wedge Curatorial Projects ?
Wedge started as a project that exhibited exclusively photography, and while that remains at it’s core, as I’ve evolved as an art lover and curator, Wedge will move forward in a more inclusive way, so that we’ll be begin to put on shows that are not only photography, but painting, photography, and design.
Our upcoming show includes works by Stephen Burks, a New York based industrial designer, who in his practice is working closely to a contemporary artist. I’ve recognized his practice as contemporary art, and see the similarities to artists in the Wedge Collection.
This is something that appeals to me, and I’m less concerned about the fact that he’s called a designer, rather than his process as an artist. Similarly, I can see Wedge branching into various art forms, including music projects, which I studied at University. In my first two years of university study, at the University of Windsor, I took courses in the history of music, and was the singer/songwriter/guitarist for CONTRADANCE, a reggae/pop/punk band. We scored a minor hit with the novelty song Black Preppies, a spoof on the popular Preppy Handbook – a style guide for wealthy white kids. So… I was actually exploring issues of black identity through music – at age 19 !
I continued to perform in various musical ensembles, from rock to jazz, even touring with the ska band ONE after completing my Doctor of Dental Surgery degree. My dental practice now caters to a lot of popular musicians as patients.

Contradance – Black Preppies

///Article N° : 10472

Les images de l'article
Dr. Kenneth Montague, Director Wedge Curatorial Projects. BECOMING : Photographs from the Wedge Collection, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University. September 2011
Charlie Phillips, Notting Hill Couple, 1967. Gelatin silver prints. Edition 3 of 25. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection © Charlie Phillips
James Van Der Zee, Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932. Gelatin silver print. Edition 106 of 250. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee.

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