From the Outside In: The Welcome Experience Beyond the Front Door
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery
|Preamble||Our Story||Learnings||Moving Forward|
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) is situated on the traditional lands of the people of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, a branch of the greater Anishinaabeg Nation, in the heart of downtown Oshawa. Featuring a Permanent Collection of over 4,500 works, and five galleries of diverse and changing contemporary and historical exhibitions, the RMG holds an important collection of modern Canadian abstraction and the largest holdings of works by Painters Eleven. The gallery has significant collections of Canadian contemporary art, including public art, and an active acquisitions program. A roster of dynamic public and educational programs, thriving volunteer program, gallery shop, inspiring event spaces, art archive and library, artist-in-residence lab, and art studio, comprise the gallery’s many rich and diversified assets.
As Toronto becomes increasingly unaffordable and saturated, the population in Durham Region grows steadily, with it comes increasing diversity. Aware of this, and the needs of the growing and broadening population, I was excited to participate in this project and began by delving into the ways that we perceive our public spaces.
One night after work, I headed for dinner and a drink with a friend. The two of us are notoriously picky Caesar drinkers – we like what we describe as a “thick” Caesar which means it’s using thicker tomato juice, probably has horseradish, and has some kind of food attached to it like an accessory.
To understand what we’d be getting into we took to Instagram to check out photos taken at this location assuming that people would take pictures of their food/drinks and post them to Instagram. We also checked the establishment’s account. We were able to verify that this place’s Caesar was satisfyingly thick before ordering.
A day or two later, the gallery hosted a comedy show called SHADE which is a collective of comedians who are queer, female-identified, and/or people of colour. Because comedy is so off-the-cuff and responsive, each of the performers had content in their shows that revealed their opinions and perspectives of the gallery. Describing it as “intimidating” or “the fanciest place” they have ever been became humorous in the context of the show, but also provided insight about some of the ways that our institution is inaccessible.
I felt something was beginning to come together but was looking for more information.
I was also a member of the Board of Directors for Durham Region Pride and by virtue of this am often in conversation with my local queer community. The gallery has hosted Pride events and has been trying to make deeper, more meaningful connections with the queer community. I was able to chat casually with members of the community who expressed excitement that the gallery had previously been so supportive but shared again the need for increased representation and consideration of how queer people navigate the space.
It clicked then that the ways in which we form perceptions about restaurants, and its ability to suit our unique preferences, parallels how people form perceptions about our cultural institutions. Similarly, people can access images by you and others at your site to form opinions and make decisions. The welcome experience is self-directed and self-informed and now extends well beyond our front doors.
The RMG is dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. Understanding that individuals are forming impressions of our institution well before they arrive on-site, I wanted to promote the diverse range of programming that the RMG already offers so that our communities could begin to see themselves reflected in our space.
As a second part to the project I wanted to make adjustments to our lobby and signage in order to make the transition from outside to inside easier and friendlier. In doing so, it was our desire to see community welcome begin outside of our physical space and extend all the way through our front doors.
Some elements of this project are still in process. We’re excited to document these changes and record feedback from the community as an opportunity to learn and grow!
Two pieces of video content are planned that demonstrate the RMG’s diverse and inclusive programming. These pieces of content are intended to promote our programming while also highlighting our commitment to visibility and representation in our space. These videos were produced by Empty Cup Media who we regularly work with.
RMG Fridays, a recurring first-Friday event, is one of the events that would be included in this ‘sizzle reel’ video content. Each month the gallery highlights and celebrates local arts and culture through musical performances, film screenings, tours and talks, and more. Often these events explore diverse issues and identities.
Another similar event is OPG Second Sundays – a family-focused event that use exhibitions as an entry point into learning more about real-world happenings and issues. RMG Fridays and OPG Second Sundays are often both co-produced with community groups or members in order to ensure the needs of our communities are met.
Video One: Sizzle reel
A sizzle reel of our free public programming that is often quite diverse and inclusive will promote the quality and content of our offers and emphasize that these programs are free and accessible. The goal of this video is to energize and excite both existing and new audiences about this programming. (View here)
Video Two: Pen Friend
This short video will demonstrate how to use Pen Friend. The Pen Friend is an audio labeller that allows us to use a braille label system to provide guided audio tours of our exhibitions. It provides information about the work including its context, dimensions, and formal details (including information about colour, technique, and texture) for those who have vision loss. (View here)
Social media boosting and other posts will support these video projects. For example: a social media post done in large format font that promotes the large format option of our exhibition information.
This project is readily adaptable for different sized teams with different availability of resources. Photos can replace the more expensive video content. Social media boosting can be done on smaller amounts.
In order to make the entry experience more welcoming, changes were made to the face and lobby spaces. The welcome facing doors will include vinyl reading “welcome” in English, Ojibway, and French. Immediately after the front doors, before a second set of entrance doors, we sought to place a land acknowledgement for our area.
We reached out to Kim Wheatley, a local elder and consultant who we work with regularly. She put us in contact with the Chief of Scugog Island First Nation who provided us with new text, which reads more as a welcome than an acknowledgement.
Recognizing the need for artistic and personal representation and a spatial opportunity, a space off-of the lobby space was transformed and dedicated as a space for Indigenous interpretation and reflection on works from the permanent collection. One of our goals this year was to deepen and maintain our relationships with regional artists. With that objective, we reached out to Reagan Kennedy, a local Indigenous artist who selected a photo by Edward Curtis and responded to it. The response looks at the artist’s perspective on this kind of photo documentation, considers a local and regional relevancy, and calls the viewer to consider a new perspective.
Prioritize a person-first perspective
When planning an event at the RMG we often try to put ourselves in the position of the visitor, imagining the flow of foot traffic, if signage is clear for navigating needs, etc. What this project taught us is that we’re not always able to perform this exercise fully since our lived experiences are not necessarily shared with the visitors coming through our doors. It will be important to include the appropriate community members in this practice in order to complete it holistically.
Shared respect in shared authority
The communities we work with appreciated not having decisions made for them, but rather, being a part of the decision making process. Being consulted and considered as changes to the gallery are being made reiterated the respect and commitment we have to these communities.
We received feedback from community members we consulted with, expressing their satisfaction with the way the gallery approaches community members when making such decisions, stating that they felt our continued work and outreach was meaningful, in-depth, and thorough.
It is important to work with community members and partners in programming and communications in order to make sure things are done thoroughly and respectfully. It is also important to note that working in this way will require a shift in responsibilities, a realignment of resources and the allowance for time to develop this type of community-informed work.
I believe that the changes we have made have set a foundation for future projects and engagement that represents our complete community. We’re excited to expand on these projects and increase their impact. An interactive component is going to be added to Reagan Kennedy’s response where visitors are invited to reflect on the work and on what they’re learned before being given the opportunity to respond as well. This exercise will allow the community to be a part of the conversation and has the potential to provide us with more information on how to continue making space for others’ stories.
We are also looking to make the welcome experience more engaging and holistic by having video welcome in ASL and LSQ play in the lobby on a TV mounted to the wall.
We are excited to continue putting artists and community members at the centre of the work we do. Building partnerships, deepening connections, and nurturing an ecosystem that supports and enables artists to thrive and communities to participate will strengthen the programming, make way for new ideas, and enhance our capacity to better serve our community.
We would like to acknowledge our local queer and our local Indigenous communities who we look forward to working with in continually meaningful and impactful ways. We’d also like to thank Kim Wheatley, Anishinaabe Cultural Consultant, Kelly LaRocca, Chief of Scugog Island First Nation, and Reagan Kennedy for their contributions to this project. We look forward to working with these communities and their members as this project grows.
CEO, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery
Donna Raetsen-Kemp is actively cultivating arts and culture through her role as chief executive officer at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Previously, Donna served as the chief executive officer of Station Gallery. Through her work Donna hopes to connect communities with art in order to contribute to flourishing cultural and civic landscapes. With all hands on deck, Donna integrates the passion and perspective of stakeholders into meaningful, informed strategies.
Donna served as the Lieutenant Governor appointee on the Durham College Board of Governors. She is a founding member of the Art of Transition Creative Leadership Group and is the recipient of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Organizational Excellence Award and the Paul Harris Fellowship.
Communications and Digital Media Lead, The Robert McLaughling Gallery
Lucas Cabral graduated from the University of Western Ontario where he received a BFA: Honors Specialization in Studio Arts. Lucas is currently the Communications + Digital Media Lead at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery and has worked in marketing and communications for McIntosh Gallery in London, Ontario and the Harbourfront Centre, Toronto.
Advisory Commitee Member
Advisory Commitee Member
Founding Artistic Director, Why Not Theatre
Founder and Owner, small LANGUAGE CONNECTIONS; Co-Founder and past Co-Director, DEAF CULTURE CENTRE
Exampled Artist Response: Regan Kennedy's Response to Edward Curtis Photograph
This project was produced in consultation with people rather than publications. It has been rewarding and meaningful to strengthen existing connections and build new ones. We recommend looking deeper into your area, discovering the resources that serve your communities, and connecting with them.