Why we need luminaries

This third blog in our series on the luminary archetype explains its' important role in society. More specifically, a luminary’s role is to ‘make us aware’ and it is this goal that drives the work of many of today’s contemporary artists. One great example is the conceptual artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei whose statement of artistic purpose reinforces the important role that contemporary art can play. To quote the artist,

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” 

The artist’s power to convey important social commentary through his work is why the Chinese government confiscated Ai Wei Wei’s passport. In spite of those government imposed travel limitations (now lifted), the artist was still able to produce and show art that inspires the exchange of ideas. His work challenges viewers to think about and become more aware of social and political issues and in discovering more about the world also discover more about themselves.  

From February to June 2019, The Gardiner Museum in Toronto is exhibiting some of Ai Wei Wei’s work giving Toronto viewers a chance to experience this luminary’s ‘voice’ first hand. The exhibition, titled ‘Unbroken’, features ‘Colored Vases’, a seminal work acquired by the Seattle Art Museum. In that series, the artist sourced  Han dynasty earthenware vases and dipped them in bright hues of industrial paint. Covering these iconic forms from a defining period in Chinese history, says one critic “is equivalent to tossing away an entire inheritance of cultural meaning about China.” In the artist’s own words, “by covering the surfaces with new paint, what is underneath—like history itself—is no longer visible, but is still there.”  The vases represent centuries old craftsmanship and the industrial paint into which the urns are dipped serves as a powerful metaphor for the Chinese Cultural Revolution which also sought to destroy centuries of culture.

The Gardiner exhibit of select Ai Wei Wei works touches on such important issues as identity, free speech and human rights.  At a time in history when many of us bemoan the loss of truth and truth-telling, the call of the luminary to make us aware, to encourage us to explore boundaries , to face hard truths and in doing so to effect change is an even greater imperative.  It is this imperative that makes the work of luminaries such a Ai Wei Wei so essential in our lives.

How to harness the power of an archetype?

Many contemporary art galleries use the luminary archetype to guide creation of their programs and visitor experience.   In order to position themselves distinctively, they choose qualities consistent with their organizational values and mandate to create their ‘public face’.   In doing so these galleries use the art of our time to engage and make the public aware of important societal issues.  Some find their calling in youth civic engagement.

 Youth civic engagement is defined as working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community.   It involves developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It can also mean bringing the gallery to where youth are even when that place is a ‘civic desert.’ 

 The Institute for Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is a great example of a luminary organization determined to connect the museum to the world and ideas that are relatable to youth.   Its mandate of  ‘serving as an epicentre of artistic experimentation and an incubator of new ideas ‘ speaks to an institute that intends to bring edgy and adaptive qualities to its luminary positioning.  The 2017 move from Santa Monica to a new 12.7k square foot space in Boyle Heights captures that intention geographically.  Some of the verbs used on their website to describe the institute’s role such as ‘to spark, to upend and to challenge’ further reinforce ICA LA’s edginess.  Add to this the organization’s ‘Agency of Assets’ programs that engage community teens in the arts, the issues and realities of their neighbourhood of project housing and you get the sense of an adaptive organization unafraid to tackle important issues head on.  Examples of those issues and realities are evident in topics tackled by youth program participants such as gentrification and cycles of poverty. Finally, the gallery also works hard to find community partners to support youth field trips as well as searching out employment opportunities for youth in creative and cultural organizations.   

 ICA LA’s  ‘commitment to upending hierarchies of race, class, gender and culture,’ permeates every facet of their programming and public facing activities, making it a wonderful example of an edgy and adaptive luminary. 

 This luminary organization is motivating youth to seek answers and get involved in their community.    They are fearless in using art to be an equalizer in society.    It is an inspirational narrative that taps the aspirations of youth and helps them to create an oasis in the civic desert. 



The Different Faces of the Luminary Archetype at Contemporary Art Galleries

A luminary’s role in society is to ‘make us aware’ and it is this motivation which guides directors and curators at major contemporary art galleries around the world. The archetype of luminary acts as a metaphor for ‘illumination’, with the revealing of truth and knowledge serving as the archetype’s purpose.  It is these unconscious associations deeply embedded in the human psyche that make the luminary archetype a meaningful narrative for contemporary art and the galleries that display it. 

Over the past eighteen months we have had the privilege of working with a Toronto based luminary gallery, The Power Plant.  Housed in a 1930’s coal plant, this non-collecting contemporary art institution is dedicated to engaging visitors with the best of contemporary art in order to increase the public’s awareness of the issues, art and culture of our time. ‘To understand contemporary art’, suggests Director Gaetane Verna in her Director’s message, ‘is to understand the world you live in’.    

 We looked at contemporary art galleries in North America and Europe.   We were intrigued by the way in which each of the institutions has imbued the luminary archetype with unique qualities and how this helps them position their programs and create distinct visitor experiences.   

 For example, MCA Denver has imbued the luminary archetype with playfulness and disruption.    These qualities reflect an intentional focus on the youth market and the use of contemporary art to help teens and young adults discover personal and societal truths.   A playful disruptor leads to such programming as the inspired Sh*T talk tours led by stand up comedians.  The comedy team was given docent training and then let loose to guide using well honed improv skills and asking questions many would dare not ask.  These tours illuminate by adding levity and engagement and allowing visitors to relax and recognize that it’s okay ‘not to get ‘ what is presented to them. 

Meanwhile the Serpentine in London appears to imbue the luminary archetype with sophistication and innovation.   Their ‘rethinking school’ program tenet and dedication to challenging the traditional pedagogy is evidence of this. Their sophisticated approach to having young people guide the process and define the relevant questions speaks to a motivation to make society aware of the cracks and the gaps in curriculums and to offer innovative options.    

We found another luminary who is experimental and urban.  Yet another luminary is empathetic and reassuring.    So there are multiple faces of the archetype and yet each engages the visitor differently in the dual discovery of self and the world in which they live.    How they motivate that discovery varies with how the archetype is uniquely brought to life.  The richness of possibilities for interpreting archetypes is an inspiring take away for the power of archetypes.  

More Healthcare Metaphors: ‘collision coverage ‘ and ‘waiting games’

Continuing on the theme of our last blog and building from the Commonwealth survey results as reported by the C.D. Howe Institute, the reality of Canadian ‘healthcare’ is that it is more akin to ‘sickcare’ with a system that focuses its limited resources on reactively handling ‘emergencies’.

While the system’s focus on  ‘collision coverage’ has become an accepted metaphor for its’ emergency orientation, patient stories illustrate a darker reality. A ‘collision coverage’ focus means ‘urgent care’ will also take second place to ‘emergency care’.  In other words doctors will need to prioritize between ‘collisions’ based on how immediately life threatening the damage to the ‘vehicle’ is.  This has the ‘urgent care ‘ patient, unlike the emergency patient, experiencing healthcare as ‘a waiting game’.

To help illustrate what this can mean from a patient experience standpoint, here is a story from a recent patient self-ethnography study.   Ted, a previously healthy adult runner comes down with pneumonia and experiences complications that damage one of his lungs. Laparoscopic lung surgery is needed to restore function to the lung and to rule out a possible life threatening malignancy. Ted is admitted into hospital where the only bed is on a surgical ward of older male patients suffering from dementia. Once in the ward, the  ‘waiting game’ begins for Ted.  Each day he is told surgery will likely happen only to be bumped by more ‘life threatening’ collisions. Ted, eager to avoid contracting more germs and in need of restorative sleep asks if he can play ‘the waiting game’ from home. The answer is no for if he leaves the hospital he loses his place in the queue.  Waiting time in the queue can be anywhere from one day to seven. In Ted’s case he waits three full days for ‘urgent’ surgery. 

Both ‘collision coverage’ and ‘waiting games’ represent potential ‘holes’ in the healthcare ‘net’ rendering it unsafe. Attaching real life scenarios to the metaphors from patient ethnography bring clarity to the problems being solved and make solutions work tangible.