The MacKenzie Art Gallery is reopening to the public next week — and it’s doing so under a new interim executive director.
“The gallery, like everybody else, has been facing a lot of changes to our world right now, but I think that we’re really well prepared,” said John Hampton, the new CEO of the Regina gallery.
“We’ve got a great team here, so that’s been helping ease me into the role and help us serve the community the best we can.”
Hampton is the first Indigenous person to be executive director and CEO at a major Canadian art institution, according to the gallery.
“I feel incredibly honoured for that, but also it is a really large responsibility,” said Hampton, who has been preparing by working for the past month with the outgoing CEO Anthony Kiendl, who is taking over as CEO and director of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Hampton said right now, staff are thinking through the gallery’s role as a cultural institution and as caretakers of culture for the territory.
“We know that there’s a lot of conflict and pain and hurt out there, and we can see [that] through the protests that are happening across North America,” he said.
“And so we’re putting a lot of work into thinking what our role is as cultural custodians in articulating the cultural difference and similarities.”
The gallery has a history of engaging Indigenous artists and curators, Hampton said, but has been challenging itself in recent years to represent the art of all cultures in the area, in the spirit of the treaties — and is focused on welcoming newcomers as family.
“We have a responsibility to not only Indigenous and settler people who signed those treaties, but also to Black and POC [people of colour] and new Canadians,” he said.
“And we want to ensure that this is a welcoming space for them, that we reflect those cultures responsibly and that we try to foster those relations in a good way.”
Hampton, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation in the United States, said he has a responsibility to be incredibly sensitive to the people from the local area.
He also said starting the job during a pandemic has been a challenge, but that people can feel safe returning to the gallery.
Visitors are being asked to purchase tickets online and arrive at a timed entry. When they come, they will have plenty of room around them in the gallery areas, Hampton said.
“Our focus is really just on people feeling comfortable and safe,” he said. “You can have a space of calm for just appreciating art to its … fullest sense, and having your focus on something other than the anxiety.”
As of Aug. 12, the gallery will be open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is currently half-price, as the gallery’s theatre and food services are still closed for now.
The gallery is reopening with three new exhibitions, including a feature exhibit by Divya Mehra called From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away).
Another exhibit, called Reflecting Dis-ease: Eh Ateh Pahinihk Ahkowsiwin — Rethinking Pandemics Through an Indigenous Lens, “allows us to see that history in a way that is much more relevant, and we’re much better at understanding those histories now that we are currently living through this pandemic,” Hampton said.
Staff are also slowly being transitioned back into the building and some are staying at home for personal reasons, but Hampton said he’s glad to be back in the gallery.
“I’m most looking forward to being able to share our work with the public again. While I was working from home, you lose a little bit of that quality of life just being surrounded by your four walls all the time,” Hampton said.
“And when I came back to the gallery and I saw works going up on the walls again and it brought that feeling of normalcy … I just felt so much joy in seeing art again,” he said.
“Just to be able to be surrounded by that and share that with the public is going to be a really enriching experience.”