Power Ball: An Interview With Gaëtane Verna

We recently chatted with Gaëtane Verna, the Director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. In the midst of preparations for Power Ball XIX (presented by Max Mara), Toronto’s “original art party” and a major annual fundraiser for Canada’s leading public art gallery, she took a moment to reflect on her career and offer a glimpse of the coming event. 

Before becoming the Director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, you were Executive Director and Chief Curator at Musée d’art de Joliette and curator of the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University. What led you to art history and curating? Are you, or have you been, a practicing artist yourself? (In the traditional sense, that is; we know there’s certainly an art to the curatorial process!)

I was always interested in all art forms from an early age. I didn’t want to be an artist in the traditional sense, but I was interested in supporting all artistic disciplines: I played classical cello for many years and I was part of an orchestra when I was younger, and was a ballet dancer in a semi-professional company. As I went on, I realized that my interest was not in being the artist but in enabling artists to present their art to the public. I was therefore led to art history and curating because I was drawn to creating opportunities for artists to exhibit their work and share them with different audiences. To curate, you need to research, document, and finally present the work within the space of the gallery or museum. Art history is key – by understanding the history and the social political context in which art is produced, as well as viewed and experienced, it enables us to create entry points into the artists’ vision.

How was this year’s theme for the annual Power Ball, “Stereo Vision”, chosen? And how will the exploration of hidden worlds and realities at the event reflect that?

Every year the entire The Power Plant team gathers for a series of brainstorming sessions to come up with a theme for the upcoming Power Ball. This year, we wanted to move away from themes from previous years of excess. The TV series Stranger Things had just been released and we loved the idea of the Upside Down world, as well as Cronenburg’s films Videodrome, Stereo, and David Lynch’s TV show, Twin Peaks. This led to the idea of seen and unseen worlds, which ultimately became Stereo Vision. It’s a combination of getting different ideas from staff and board members, to hitting the catchy title that makes Power Ball XIX. The beauty of Stereo Vision is that it can be interpreted in many ways: our art installations will reflect the theme in different ways through different interpretations, through immersive environments.

Can you offer any hints as to what partygoers can expect at this year’s event?

As always, Power Ball will deliver a not-so-ordinary fundraising gala experience. We take pride in delivering our mission of exhibiting the best in contemporary Canadian and international arts in everything we do and Power Ball is no exception.

The Power Ball VIP Party, THE party before the party, will feature a one-night-only, site-specific, immersive and experiential installation by Mexican architect and artist duo Pedro&Juana, in collaboration with performance artist, Francesco Pedraglio. The artists will design a space where the real and the represented will be questioned by creating a mirroring play of vignettes.

Following the exclusive VIP Party, we’ll have our soon-to-be-announced artists take over the rest of The Power Plant’s galleries with projects that reflect the theme. Presenting Sponsor, Max Mara, will also be introducing a project by their 2017 Young Arts Award winner, catering will be by The Drake Hotel Properties and P&L Catering, and WayHome will be activating our East Terrace with a pop-up mini music festival. Each of these organizations have demonstrated a strong tie to arts and culture, and we are thrilled to count them as partners.

Serving as the Director for Canada’s leading contemporary art gallery is a position that must come with a lot of influence and responsibility when it comes to shaping the artistic identity of the country. How do you approach the curatorial process?

It is a lot of responsibility! Our mandate drives all of our choices at The Power Plant. We are dedicated exclusively to contemporary visual art from Canada and the world; we present the work of living artists, we strive to always be a vital forum for the advanced artistic culture of our time. To achieve this we have to really have our finger on the pulse of all that is happening in the world — not just in the art world, but in today’s social and political environment. We therefore begin the curatorial process through reading, research, and engaging with every aspect of our society. We meet artists, see their works, conduct studio visits and, from there, we choose artists whose work we feel asks questions that are current and relevant. We strive to connect our diverse audience with equally diverse artists whose practices are in tune with current issues, and, whose art transcends its medium by speaking to a greater context while touching the soul of each visitor. Our aim is to engage, question, and interact with visitors through the work of the artists presented within the walls of The Power Plant.

What draws you personally to contemporary visual art as opposed to work from other periods?

Although The Power Plant’s mandate and mission is to present contemporary art made by living artists, I am drawn to all human creation from all periods. I have a great appreciation for historical work, Indigenous work from all corners of the world; work ranging from sculpture to textiles and design to architecture. Art from all periods informs the contemporary and we need to understand what came before in order to understand art today.

You’ve been the Director of The Power Plant since 2012. What changes have been implemented during your time in the position?

The Power Plant has always had a mandate of presenting the work of living Canadian artists alongside international artists. We have been steadily building on this with a renewed sense of urgency and in the past few years we have really strived to expand the notion of what we understand to be international contemporary art. We have shown and will show work from artists of all origins: Belgium, France, Ghana, Morocco, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, and Lebanon…amongst others.

Additionally, we have built more bridges for different audiences and communities to access these artists’ work. Whether it is through presenting new public programs (our annual symposium, International Lecture Series, Sunday Scene Program, Power Kids Family Program, Power Youth Artist in residency program), publishing exhibition catalogues or developing and participating in many outreach initiatives; we create connections and access points for our diverse audience to experience our show: both onsite and outside of the gallery walls. We are expanding our reach beyond the gallery walls by traveling our exhibitions across Canada and abroad. For instance, our 2015 group exhibition The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding traveled to the Berardo Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. Maria Hupfield’s current exhibition will travel to Lethbridge, Montreal, Halifax, and Paris, while our Kapwani Kiwanga exhibition will go to Joliette and Calgary. Lastly, we are working in partnership with institutions across Canada and abroad in order to produce exhibitions and commission new works by Canadian and International artists.

We understand that you’re a lover of opera — do you listen to music as you work? What habits and rituals inspire you throughout your workday?

I do listen to music at work! I love opera but it can be a mix. Some of my current favourites include Renata Tebaldi, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. As for other habits and rituals, it’s an incredibly fast-paced environment that I have to work in, moving from meeting to meeting or handling tasks as they come up. To accomplish all that I have to do, often I find that saving some time at the end of the day to regroup and focus on specific tasks is really helpful in staying on top of everything.

Finally, are there any exciting developments in the gallery’s future that you’d like to share?

Needless to say, we’re incredibly excited about Power Ball XIX on June 1, as we outdo ourselves year after year. But what perhaps is most exciting is simply the work that we do on a daily basis and that we’ve been doing for 30 years: presenting the work of the artists of our time. I’m thrilled to be presenting the momentous exhibition of Ydessa Hendeles this summer. Opening on June 23, this will be her first major institutional show in Canada and the first time The Power Plant has dedicated its entire space to the show of a single female artist. Following that, for the last exhibition season of our 30th anniversary year in 2017, we’ll be presenting two solo exhibitions by Amalia Pica, from Argentina, and Sammy Baloji and Filip de Boeck, from Congo and Belgium respectively, along with a site-specific installation in our Fleck Clerestory by British artist, Michael Landy. Finally, to kick off 2018, visitors to our winter 2018 season in January will view solo shows by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia and Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh. Further to that…you’ll just have to follow us and see!