The Opening – Rachel Rosenfield Lafo

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THE OPENING is all about introducing the fascinating, quirky and wonderful people working in and around the visual arts in Vancouver. Each week, we’ll feature an artist, collective, curator or administrator to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo is a recent transplant to Vancouver from Boston, MA. With a long career as a Curator in a couple of different institutions in the United States, she expected to have little problem finding a similar position here. I chatted with Lafo at Everything Cafe in Chinatown recently about what she’s done before, what she expected in Vancouver, and how she’s overcoming a lack of institutional art positions in the city.


Lafo leading Public Art Tour of Coal Harbour during Vancouver Art Hop, April 30, 2011

Before you moved to Vancouver you worked at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum for 24 years in Massachusetts, first as Senior Curator and later as Director of Curatorial Affairs. Can you tell me a bit about your roles and what you did during your time there?

The DeCordova was, at that time, a regional New England museum. It had a collection of modern and contemporary American art focused primarily on New England artists, as well as a 35-acre sculpture park. In the Sculpture Park we exhibited artwork from all over the United States. The Museum’s focus has changed since I left but that’s what the mission was when I was hired.

As first Senior Curator and then Director of Curatorial Affairs I was administrative head of the department. I organized exhibitions, wrote catalogues, recommended works for acquisition for the collection… basically all the things museum curators do. I was very active in the local art community going on studio visits, seeing shows, giving lectures, serving on art juries, leading art trips, and meeting with collectors and other colleagues. I also traveled to see art outside of the area.

Which artists did you work with while you were there?

Many, especially after being there for that many years. You probably will not have heard of these artists who are well known in the New England and New York art communities – Gerry Bergstein, Mary Frank, Scott Prior, Gregory Amenoff, Tabitha Vevers. They all had New York gallery representation and so are known there but I don’t think they are known here. I organized a one-person show of William Tucker’s sculpture – he’s a well-known British artist now living in the US, and another of bronze self-portraits by Robert Arneson, a well-known California artist who died in the 1990s. I also curated many group exhibitions on themes such as self-identity, humor, photographs of children, highly detailed mark-making, and animals in art. I worked with a range of artists from younger emerging artists to older more established artists.

At the time, what was your impression of Vancouver as an art community?

I don’t think I had much of an impression, frankly. It wasn’t really a scene that was discussed in Boston. Now the Boston art scene, although quite lively, is not well-known outside the area because Boston lives in the shadow of New York. Years ago I lived in Portland, Oregon and worked as a Curator at the Portland Art Museum. I did visit Vancouver then. So I had some idea about the Vancouver art scene, but that was a long time ago! Things were much different then. I remember going to the Vancouver Art Gallery… I don’t think the Contemporary Art Gallery even existed… it was a really small scene here. I’d heard of Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas and Jeff Wall of course, but they may have been the only Vancouver artists I had heard of.

So what actually brought you to Vancouver and what did you expect in coming here?

We came because my husband was offered a job here. A few years before we knew we were moving here, my husband came out on business and I accompanied him. It was wonderful trip – the typical tourist thing in the summer when the weather’s great, when you think “This is the most beautiful place in the world! It would be great to live here!”


With Danny Singer at opening of “Drive-by: Danny Singer,” Seymour Art Gallery, October 18, 2011

Meanwhile, in February…

Right. The reality of being in a place on vacation is very different than the reality of moving to a place. Anyway, my husband got the job offer and we were ready for a change. I had already been looking around for other positions. I was actually offered a couple of jobs that I turned down so we could move here together. I expected that I would be able to find a curatorial position in a museum here.

So was that expectation met or not met?

It was not met, as you know! Vancouver has a small art scene compared to most large cities in the US. There just aren’t enough art venues of any size; many of the public galleries and artist-run centres are quite small with tiny staffs. And despite my years of museum experience I am an outsider without a deep background in Canadian art.

I set some goals for myself: get to know the art scene here, go to artists’ studios, meet as many people in the art profession as possible by e-mailing and cold-calling. Most people were very gracious. These contacts haven’t lead to a full-time job, but they have led to a variety of interesting free-lance projects and my growing involvement in the art community.

You’re doing a wide breadth of things, like writing, curating, and are now President of the Contemporary Art Society.

I’ve been doing a lot actually. Sometimes it seems like too much! I write articles, I write art reviews, I do artist interviews – I’m actually working on one right now with Liz Magor which is going to be published in Sculpture magazine. In addition to Sculpture, I’ve written for Canadian Art, Galleries West, Art in America, and Mousse (an Italian magazine) – whatever interesting comes my way. I also wrote the essay on Thomas Houseago for the Rennie Collection catalogue.

In terms of curating – I responded to a call for a guest curator from Seymour Art Gallery, and they hired me to curate two shows. One was up this Fall – it was called “Drive-by: Danny Singer,” and featured a mural-sized photograph constructed from digital images taken by the artist as he drove through the city. The second exhibition will be in September 2012, a show of four women artists on the theme of narrative called “Odd Occurrences.” So that’s exciting. I’m also curating a show for SFU Burnaby Gallery that opens in March. It’s called “Circulation Pattern” and features installations by Michelle Allard and Khan Lee. My real passion is curating exhibitions and I hope to do more of that.

In addition, I have an exhibition project underway that will include five contemporary aboriginal artists. I have two museums in Washington state that are interested in taking it, but I’d like to find a Vancouver or British Columbia institution as a partner so that the exhibition can be seen here and we can apply for Canadian funding.

The first show I curated in Vancouver was actually for a commercial gallery, Jennifer Kostuik, and that’s really because I developed a friendship with her and she agreed to have me guest curate an exhibition called “Redefining Drawing,” a show that included the work of four American and two Canadian artists. I had never curated for a commercial space before, but when you’re freelancing you need to be creative and wear many hats. It’s very different from being a salaried museum staff person which I had been my entire career.

You have to be very motivated – you get up, don’t want to do anything, but have to do it anyway.

You have to keep busy. Stay involved.

You’re also on the city’s Public Art Committee as I understand. Are you drawing from your experience with the DeCordova Sculpture Park for that?

I am. I’ve been on a lot of public art juries over the years because of my experience with the sculpture park and public art. When I moved to Vancouver one of the first people I met with was Bryan Newson of the city’s public art programme. I started going to Public Art Committee meetings just as an observer – it is a public committee so anyone can attend, just not comment or vote. I went to about six months of meetings as an observer, and then when there was an opening on the committee I applied. I’ve been on it for a couple of years now.

What do you do on the committee?

I’m Vice-Chair. We meet once a month. It’s an advisory committee – we do not choose the art but we approve process. Many of the art consultants that work with developers or on city projects present their plans to us. If we have suggestions or issues, that’s when we voice our concerns. Then we vote our approval (or not) of whether the plan can go forward. We also can advocate for policy change.


Presenting talk on “Drive-by: Danny Singer” at Seymour Art Gallery, Nov 13, 2011

I also teach for Emily Carr in the Continuing Studies program. My classes have basically been walking tour classes – walking tours of galleries and walking tours of public art. I have also led public art tours for different groups – one for the Canadian Art Foundation Art Hop, two for the Associates of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and another for a group of art collectors that were visiting from Los Angeles.

What will you be doing with the Contemporary Art Society?

The group has been in existence since 1977, which is pretty amazing. I think it’s grown significantly in size from a small group of collectors to now between 80-90 members. We sponsor studio visits and artist, curator, and collector talks, visits to private collections, and we often collaborate with other local arts organizations on events. The purpose is to introduce our members and the public (not all events are open to the public but some are) to important people and issues in contemporary art. In the early years, the society brought Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Anthony Caro, Michael Snow, A.A. Bronson… you know, some pretty heavy hitters. This year we’ve sponsored talks by Brendan Fernandez, Aurel Schmidt, and Paul P. Every year we do an art trip somewhere. Last year members went to Berlin, this year it looks like it will be Santa Fe.

Our newest initiative is the Emerging Artist’s Prize. We’d like to bring more attention to ourselves as an organization and want to support emerging artists. I did some research about art awards in Vancouver and found that the VIVA awards and Audain Prize are for more mid-career, established artists. They’re not open competitions and are by nomination only. I couldn’t find any prizes in BC for emerging artists working in any medium. There are other Canadian art prizes, like the Sobey Award and the RBC Painting Award, but they’re different. We announced our competition in November and I’m curious to see who is out there and how many artists will apply by the January 31 deadline. We have invited five local art professionals to be jurors and select the five finalists who will have a show at Access Gallery in late May-early June, and the winner will receive $3,000. Seems like a good thing all around.

How have all these experiences shaped your impression of Vancouver?

The art community here, even though it’s small, is very active. That means that there are so many things happening that it’s not unusual to find two or three interesting events on the same night. There’s plenty to keep people busy if you are interested in hearing panels and talks and going to openings, so that’s great. However I do find it to be a very insular community, and too narrowly focused on certain types of art to the exclusion of others. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s very easy to live in, and I enjoy that. But unless you have a lot of money or time to travel to see art, what you can see in Vancouver is limited.

So you find Vancouver a little disconnected from what else is going on in contemporary art?

I do. I’m used to seeing a broader range of art. Sometimes I feel like I’m out of the loop – you can only do so much research via the internet and books. You really have to experience art first-hand. On the other hand I have learned a great deal about Vancouver and Canadian art history and been on many interesting studio visits. It’s all a learning experience!

All images courtesy Rachel Rosenfield Lafo.