Talk with Barbara Fischer about Art and Being German in Canada

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Barbara Fischer, the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, was born in Bochum, Germany, and moved to Canada after finishing high school. She studied visual arts at University of Victoria in British Columbia and started volunteering at an artist-run centre, getting a foothold in the arts community. Since moving to Toronto with her husband in 1985, she has worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario and The Power Plant as a curator and taught museum and curatorial studies at the university level. Fischer started her current relationship with the University of Toronto as a curator at the Blackwood Gallery at the Mississauga branch, becoming director and curator of the university's Barnicke Gallery in 2005. We sat down with Barbara Fischer to discuss contemporary art and being German in Canada.

Your CV is 15 pages long. Besides your position at the Barnicke Gallery, you also hold positions as Senior Lecturer and Director of the Master of Visual Studies in the Daniels Faculty for Architecture Landscape and Design at U of T. Where is your major artistic focus?

Barbara Fischer: I think that the focus really is contemporary art, but of course that's really big still. I've always been strongly committed to a sense of place, so I try to foster emerging artists and curators. I also try to bring a strong research perspective to the program. We do the history of contemporary art, looking at areas that may have not been given the kind of attention that I feel is important. In terms of artists, I tend to look at what is happening here very strongly, but try to connect that to what is happening elsewhere and create a kind of artistic dialogue across generations and across place. Enlarge image

You just finished showing the exhibition KWE Photography, sculpture, video, and performance by Rebecca Belmore, an Ontario born artist, and curated by Wanda Nanibush, one of your previous students. How do you find Canadian and international artists? How important is international networking?

BF: Finding artists is just part of a long history of being involved in the visual arts, observing what is happening, and being part of the conversation. Following what other artists or exhibition spaces do, what the artist-run centres do, what is happening at The Power Plant, what is happening globally. It's really important in the visual arts to connect, to immerse.

Which major differences do you see between the German and Canadian arts scenes in regards to funding, teaching, international exposure?

BF: I think there is support for art and culture in Germany that is quite extraordinarily developed. The resources are sometimes more significant. A lot of Canadian artists have actually found a place in the world through Germany. Some of the major exhibitions for some of our most renowned artists have happened in Germany, and so the repercussions of that encounter have meant a lot for artists here. So exchange, trade, doing exhibitions, and working with curators from there is always a real pleasure. In Germany there are a lot of really smart people who are involved and actively engaged. The artist-run network here is sort of what the Kunstvereine are in Germany. They precede, however, by some 200 years. The Canadian artist-run centre network is for that reason more open and porous, and much more mixed and diverse.

To what extent are you influenced by both the German and Canadian culture?

BF: I grew up in Germany, but the 20 years are now outpaced by the nearly 40 years that I've been here. I'm not so German even at the level of language, because I do everything in English. When I go back, I clearly have an English accent. I have my German passport. I'm actually still a citizen there because I'm hoping to apply for dual citizenship. I grew up in Germany, I am German, my family is all there still – I'm the only one here – but the arts community and the contemporary culture community in Canada is really my other family home.

The title of our interview series is “I am German”. When you think about this title and your life in Canada, what comes to mind?

BF: It's a little bit of a shock to say 'I am German'. I don't consider myself German in that way as one might normally if I had grown up and continued to live and produce there. It's not so much about being from where one is, but being this new entity, and I really feel I've embraced that.

If you had a visitor to Toronto, what artistic, cultural highlights would you recommend to them?

BF: I would always take people to the artist-run centres: Mercer Union, A Space, YYZ. They're kind of home base for contemporary art. Then the Power Plant, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Textile Museum, all of whom do great contemporary programming. And of course, really great food culture. Visitors often are amazed as to how well you can eat in Toronto and just about participate in any culture from around the world.

Barbara Fischer

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Barbara Fischer - picture gallery