Ellyn Walker: A curator who works outside the lines
Professor Walker shares her journey decolonializing art, making artistic sacrifices, and reveals how to interpret rejections and make decisions with passion and comfort.
Growing up and listening to my parents share stories of teachers that they had over twenty years ago, recalling the wisdom and impact they had left on them, I was always amazed. Amazed that decades later, they could still remember exactly what their teachers had shared, or how greatly they had influenced their academic path. I always hoped that I could experience that same feeling one day. Then I met Ellyn Walker. Professor Walker, who has taught in the department of visual studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) since 2017, is an independent curator and writer, and former acting director-curator of the Blackwood Gallery at UTM.
I was first introduced to Professor Walker when I enrolled in her third-year course FAH310: Contexts and Issues in Contemporary Curatorial Practice. Even though the class was held on Zoom, the passion Professor Walker had for curating was palpable through the screen. Inspired by her radical thinking that strayed from tradition, I made sure to take her fourth-year seminar courses: FAH496: Unsettling Curatorial Practices and Studies and FAH451: Turning Concepts into Curatorial Projects. In every class, each word Professor Walker spoke was full of spirit and every lesson was more impressive than the last. She never hesitated to share the often-silenced realities of the art world and to teach her students about the discrimination that occurs, and the injustice that artists have faced throughout history. Professor Walker introduced her students to a variety of modern and contemporary works that commented on issues of representation and that spotlighted artists in ways that gave voice to those who may not have one. Professor Walker’s lessons greatly impacted me; and so, I wanted to learn more about her and what brought her to her work today.
Professor Walker explained that she was always interested in the visual arts, making art from a young age, but after completing an undergraduate degree in sociology at McGill University, and a bachelor of arts in art history at the U of T, her way of thinking about visual practices and politics began to shift. “When I got to school, all the art making I was learning was about or tied to whiteness. I realized that there were so many amazing artists out there already making work, that I didn’t need to make anymore, but I could help by making space to show [emphasis added] this kind of art,” she shared. Professor Walker explained, “As soon as I started taking classes that were about decolonizing the museum, and other ways of thinking that challenged me, I started to really excel in school.”
Following her passion to look critically at art and institutions, in 2012 Professor Walker enrolled at OCAD University in the criticism and curatorial practices graduate program; and in 2015, she began doctoral studies at Queen’s University in the cultural studies program. Her interest in cultural studies provided her with the opportunity to train with Indigenous scholars and Black feminist and critical race theorists who encouraged her to critique art from different perspectives than her own.
Professor Walker’s work has always proved to disrupt dominant curatorial methodologies. Projects she has worked on prompt viewers to reflect, engage with, and challenge Canadian art practices and conventions rooted in inequality and white supremacy. WISH YOU WERE HERE, WISH HERE WAS BETTER (WYWH, WHWB), was a mobile public art project and event series that Professor Walker co-organized with organizer Zoë Dodd and artist-writer Theodore (Ted) Kerr, that took place from October 3–9, 2022 across the Peel region. WYWH, WHWB was a unique vessel for reflection, mourning, and education. Starting at the UTM campus, a curated van traveled to different locations across Mississauga and Brampton, creating a safe space for those impacted by the ongoing overdose crisis and the systemic issues of homelessness, criminalization, and precarity, that follow.
Within the practice of curating, there are many moments when curators must negotiate, compromise and, at times, sacrifice their artistic vision for the powers that larger institutions hold, or external and unexpected factors that interfere or may present themselves. I wondered if there was any advice Professor Walker could share about dealing with the feeling of “abandoning” an initial vision, a feeling I have felt before as an aspiring curator. Professor Walker shared that throughout the curatorial process, she asks herself: “Can you sleep at night with your decision?”
Referring to her work on WYWH, WHWB, Professor Walker revealed that part of the original mural on the van contained an inflammatory statement. She shared that even though she was in full support of what it said, the fact that the van popped up and parked on the UTM campus throughout the week could have led to the whole project getting shut down because of that statement and potential censorship enforced by the university, campus security, or the public. “We would rather have the project live than have it be shut down. So, in the end, we decided to remove the statement from the mural but keep it in the take-away postcards and posters we freely offered from the van. This was because we had so much respect for the project, and everyone involved, that it wasn’t worth risking everything for this one statement,” she explained. Although having to ask an artist to amend their artistic vision made her uncomfortable, she could still sleep at night knowing that their project was still able to impact others.
As a student, there are numerous times when it feels like you have to prioritize practical matters over aspirational ones. Sometimes, these moments of experiencing rejection within ourselves, or from the world, can diminish the spark we have for what we initially desire. “Rejections are not actually rejections,” Professor Walker reminded me, “Rejections are more so critical junctures in your journey.”
Experiencing this for herself, Professor Walker shared that a few years ago, she interviewed for a senior curatorial position at a prestigious institution, yet did not get the job in the end. Despite this, the opportunity led to greater things—the gallery called her and said that although it wasn’t the right fit or the right timing for the position at hand, they really loved her work and wanted to find other ways to work with her in the future. This led to Professor Walker becoming the acting director-curator at the Blackwood Gallery while director/curator and professor, Christine Shaw, was on research sabbatical. “Just because you get ‘no’ for something, doesn’t mean it won’t come around,” Professor Walker expressed.
She emphasized that the moments when you put yourself out there, expose yourself to the world, and build your character by being vulnerable and making new connections, are important learning experiences. Professor Walker revealed, “Everything ebbs and flows, according to life or the projects that you work on,” and reminded her students that, “in the moments that you feel like you’re falling off course, or that your journey may not be expected, or linear, if you follow your initial passion, you’ll always find your way back.”