The Third of May: A Canadian Curatorial Agency Betting on Big Art and Banking on Ambition

The Third of May: A Canadian Curatorial Agency Betting on Big Art and Banking on Ambition

When ARTINFO Canada became aware of the Third of May Arts Inc., a Canadian curatorial commissioning agency that, like the UK’s Artangel or its US equivalent, Creative Time, curates and produces large-scale public art projects, we saw a long-awaited answer forming to a long-standing gap in Canadian arts funding and production.

Founded in 2009 by independent curator, Rhonda Corvese, and TIFF curator, Laurel MacMillan, the duo introduced their agency through a wildly successful  inaugural project designed for Prospect.2 New Orleans. Recent news hit that this very project, Michel de Broin’s monumental “Majestic” (2011), has been purchased by the National Gallery of Canada, and now comprises one of just three monumental sculptures marking their hallowed grounds.

The internationally acclaimed artist, Broin, was the recipient of? the 2007 Sobey Art Award, and has exhibited extensively in Europe and North America, including exhibitions at the Musée nationale du Québec, the Museum Tinguely Basel, MAC/VALParis, and the National Gallery of Canada. However this marks the first NGC collection of his work, and appropriately celebrates an effort germane to the artist’s site-specific explorations in light media and recycled materials. (The news of Broin’s latest success precedes a much-anticipated solo exhibition of his work slated for spring at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal.)

Built from lampposts uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, the sculpture, titled “Magestic,” was donated to the NGC by philanthropists Donald and Beth Sobey well-known for their longstanding involvement with and support of the NGC and the Canadian visual arts community, and most prominently for their production of Canada’s most prestigious art awards for emerging-to-mid-career artists, the Sobey Art Award. “Majestic” is the first outdoor public sculpture by de Broin in the Nation’s capital and the third work by the artist to enter into the permanent collection.

Of the homage-like project to the city of New Orleans, and its title, Broin says, “I gave it this strange, untranslatable name because I like the idea of a birth taking place in a funeral home."

ARTINFO Canada sat down with the Third of May’s ambitious founders and curators Corvese and MacMillan, on the cusp of the NGC’s announcement, to discuss the project, the agency, and the gaps it’s working to fill in the Canadian art world’s landscape.

How did you two come together?

LM: Rhonda and I have known each other for over ten years. She has been working independently as a curator doing international exhibitions, and I have been working institutionally doing international exhibitions – at the NGC, the Guggenheim, the Power Plant, and now TIFF – and we came together to form the Third of May, to do something along the lines of Creative Time and Artangel for Canada. We wanted to empower ourselves to raise money and produce big projects, and we began in 2009. We approached Michel de Broin at that time to be our first artist.

Where does the name “Third of May” come from and signify?

RC: We wanted a name that didn’t work within an existing framework, and a date seemed fitting in that way. Also because we’re not exactly located anywhere …

LM: Yes, it’s a playful name, too. That being said, there are a couple of important references – I’m half Polish, and the third of May is significant in that it’s the date of Poland adopting the first modern constitution in history. Further, we’re big Goya fans, and his famous painting, “Third of May,” is a very revolutionary painting, it’s way ahead of its time. So we felt an affinity to that.

What’s the commonality, if any, that you two share in your aesthetic agenda?

LM: I think that, less than there being a shared aesthetic, it’s what we bring to each other. Like, I have always worked in big institutions and Rhonda’s always worked independently. Both our practices help and inform one another. We do have a common taste in artists, though. The last few we’ve decided on, it’s been immediate – “oh yes, that one.”

RC: From my independent practice, I’ve always worked outside the frame. Laurel works within it …

LM: And for something on this scale, you need both abilities and perspectives.

Did you two see yourselves providing something missing in Canadian art models?

LM: We want to do something that’s ultimately bigger than bureaucracy, bigger than the scrutiny that so often slows down ambitious projects. And for what it’s worth, when we began this, we knew we wanted to work with Michel, and we knew  we wanted to work in New Orleans, but we didn’t know much past that. I think a lot of institutions wouldn’t take that risk: engage in the process, and embark on making something great, being unsure what the result would be.

Can you describe the project?

LM: It’s a large-scale public project using New Orleans streetlamps that were felled during Katrina.

When we first went down there, the cliché of New Orleans French Quarter streetlamps ended up just being true to part of the city. Michel wanted to pull lamps from all different parts of the city (not just the cliché of the New Orleans French Quarter streetlamps). So he worked with a local artisan who was a master welder to conceptualize and produce the piece. Each lamp has a base with a different profile from the last, so they ended up producing a central core that’s welded steel -- to hold all the lamps. Forty feet in diameter, it has the appearance of a giant satellite. It was lit-up every night.

What was your process for choosing Michel?

LM: It’s like a curatorial commissioning agency, and we chose Michel because we’d been speaking with Dan Cameron, who was the director and curator of Prospect New Orleans. We’d seen the first one, talked to him and met him, and knew we wanted to be involved the next one.

RC: We were looking for an artist who could address the site-specific nature of Prospect.2 and thought Michel would be the best choice.

LM: So we did an exploratory trip with him in 2009, thinking that P.2 would be exhibited in 2010.  It was then delayed until 2011, but it was felicitous that we had that extra time.

RC: When we started, we were basically the first people looking at sites. Dan Cameron was impressed with our vision and our initiative to begin with. No one had gotten to that point yet.

What was your budget for this, and how did you find the funding?

LM: The budget is hard to say, because while we had help from the Canada Council and the Harpo Foundation Grant, we had a lot of in-kind support from property owners and managers in New Orleans. We also bought the materials from the city of New Orleans itself, which helped keep costs down.

How did the city initially react to your project?

RC: After six trips over two years, that city could see our investment, I think. So when it came down to being generous with us, and citing the work, providing materials, they could see were just as spirited about their city as they are.

RC: I was receiving press down there, and somebody said, “are you waiting for the mother ship?” [laughs] The New Orleans people really attached to the piece, and some cried when it had to come down.

LM: A couple auto-workers came by once and nodded, “I get it, it’s like our whole city, lit-up.” People connected very quickly with it, down there. We heard there was an issue of honking cars at the corner lot where it was positioned, because people were missing their traffic lights, so mesmerized by the sculpture.

What are you perceiving to be missing from the Canadian landscape, as far as funding and curatorial initiatives like this are concerned?

RC: For me, in essence, it wasn’t that I was looking at the granting systems and thinking something was missing. It was more, creating something. It was a creation of some vision that we had. I couldn’t keep doing what I was already doing without going there. Going  to where we are now.

Do you have anything slated for future projects yet?

LM: Not yet, but we know that we want to give artists the means and freedom to produce projects they otherwise wouldn’t be able to complete.

RC: We have the next artist figured it out, but can’t say yet. We’re prospecting a few, actually, and hope to be working on a couple at a time soon.