Shaping Saskatchewan: John Hampton

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WATCH: Regina's Mackenzie Art Gallery had to adapt quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, its new interim CEO wants to bring that same urgency to other institutional changes. Daniella Ponticelli sits down with John Hampton in this week's Shaping Saskatchewan – Sep 25, 2020

Since reopening to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina has ushered in new rules — and a new leader.

John Hampton, the former director of programs, began his appointment as interim CEO and executive director on Aug. 1.

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He is now the first Indigenous person to hold those positions, even on an interim basis, within a major Canadian arts institution.

“It’s a humbling title, and something that’s a great honour and a great responsibility. So I have a lot of complex feelings about it,” Hampton said.

“I’m a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, my reservation is in Oklahoma … Holding that title (of being first) in a territory that I’m a guest in maybe makes me more attuned to that responsibility, but also gives me a degree of sadness.”

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Hampton said he would love to see people who have ancestral connections to the deep art history of the territory being engaged in — and leading — the cultural dialogue.

Prior to starting at the MacKenzie in 2018, Hampton served as the executive director of the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon and adjunct curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto.

Currently, he also co-chairs the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, which provides support for current and future Indigenous curators.

The group started in 2005 as a response to the authority afforded to the non-Indigenous curatorial and academic community within the discipline of Indigenous arts in Canada.

“Equity in the arts, and thinking about the intersection of Black, queer, Indigenous, POC artists and the systemic challenges and inequities that have existed — not only in society, but in cultural institutions — has been a long-standing concern for me,” Hampton said.

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Hampton added that he had time to transition into his new roles, carrying on initiatives started by outgoing leader Anthony Kiendl, who is now the CEO and executive director of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“We had a lot of conversations about the current protests that are spreading out across the continent and what it is we’re doing at our institutional level. We have a lot to be proud of, but there’s also a lot of work we have not yet done,” he said.

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Hampton said seeing the MacKenzie usher in “significant institutional change” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic gave him a different perspective on the speed with which institutional issues can be addressed.

“We took that as a point of inspiration to strike an equity task force, somewhat modelled after our COVID task force, to have a small, internal team see what needs to change in response to this cultural moment and to the long-standing issues,” he said.

Well before his start at the MacKenzie, Hampton began research for his forthcoming exhibit, Conceptions of White.

“In addition to being Chickasaw, I am also white …  It’s a reality that my accent, my relative fair skin and just some features afford me some privileges and access that aren’t granted to many people in the Indigenous community,” he said.

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The exhibit will explore the origins of whiteness, examining how the colonization of North America helped create a unified understanding of white people.

It will also look at the role of artists and the models they painted in perpetuating the narrative of whiteness as the ideal of beauty — “how that’s persevered into the current moment and how artists today are challenging that and are breaking down those myths,” he said.

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“The exhibition is trying to take those historical pieces and put it into context.”

Conceptions of White is scheduled to open at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 2022.

Learn more about how Hampton is Shaping Saskatchewan in the above video.

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