Interview with Rebecca Duclos (Professor of Art History, Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, Canada) by Maarin Ektermann.
I believe that many of the people in EKA have witnessed the fresh energy brought by guest lecturers Rebecca Duclos and David K. Ross during this academic year. Teaching in different departments and engaging with different projects, their presence has been strongly felt and their local network has grown at an speedy rate. Since Rebecca and I have a bit similar work experience in museums and the academy, I was curious to know more about her trajectory, how she has conceptualized her various roles (as dean of a large university, as a lecturer and as an art researcher), what is her teaching credo, what brought her to Estonia and last but not least – what is this the new and the ambitious UAx project, which Rebecca has initiated under the European League of Institutes of the Arts, ELIA.
Rebecca Duclos at the FAST45 workshop in EKA, typing away. Photo: Evert Palmets
Maarin: Could you please first tell me a bit about your background – what have you studied, where have you worked, your trajectory?
Rebecca: I haven’t always had a scholarly trajectory, though I first started with classical languages, Greek and Latin, which was a very good grounding. That then brought me into Minoan archaeology. So my official degree at the University of Toronto in the 1980s was in Classical Civilization and Near Eastern Archaeology. But being in the field, I realized that I didn’t actually want to be an archaeologist – I really liked the artifacts and I was intrigued with what happens when something comes out of the ground and then ends up circulating in the world— all the politics and the interpretive tangles that come from that emergence—but being in the field all the time was not for me. So after some time off I did an MA in Museum Studies. Following graduation, I taught in Australia while contemplating whether I should do a PhD as well, but honestly, I got cold feet, so I quit academia totally and went into the museum and gallery world. I worked as a museum educator, programmer and curator in three cultural institutions in Toronto, ending up a decade later at the Textile Museum of Canada. Then in my late 30s, I decided I was finally ready for that PhD so I went to England for a post graduate degree in art history and visual studies at Manchester. I put myself through most of my degrees working as a chef and a caterer. I was doing my PhD by day and chef’s work by night for years. I really loved that. It kept the body and the mind both alive.
Maarin: Was it normal among your colleagues to work and study parallel with that intensity?
Rebecca: No, I mean, the colleagues with whom I now teach at Concordia, most of them have had very straightforward art historical training, mostly in the academy, not even in museums for the most part. So, most of my colleagues have had fairly predictable careers in terms of their academic training. I didn’t even love my British PhD programme. But what I did admire was that there was no coursework and no exams, you just figure it out on your own. So I was able to do all of these other art and editorial projects while I was doing my doctoral work, and it just threw me right into teaching.
Maarin: How do you now position yourself between curatorial tasks, administrative roles and teaching?
Rebecca: To be honest, I’m at a really juicy crossroads in my life right now, just as I turned 55 (I love this age)! I think that I really have been a kind of accidental administrator. I was a dean for almost 10 years in Chicago and Montreal—and I’ve never worked so hard in my life, never felt so responsible for so many people, never lost so much sleep—but I kind of feel like I’m done with that now. I loved it, but I also felt that things were changing towards a much more neoliberal model. So I went back into teaching and I love my students! Because of COVID we had to find new ways to make it through. My students, grad teaching assistants and I were doing radical stuff in Montreal. My department didn’t even know what we were doing! Now, after the pandemic I feel like I have to behave again and I’m not sure I’m ready to do that. So I actually have my doubts about staying within the (research) university construct. Of course this is a from a very privileged position that I can even consider these options. I recognize that. But I do feel like I’m not wedded to this, I don’t need that status. I think being in Estonia has really affected me, particularly because it’s in parallel to my work with ELIA (the European League of Institutes of the Arts) and the work that we’ve been able to do around this UAx Platform that is in support of the many Ukrainian art schools who are suffering terribly. So I don’t know what’s ahead, but I just want to say yes to everything, even if that means that my life is going to lead me down a totally new track. I want to try to do that.
Maarin: We are going to talk more about UAx project shortly, but I first wanted to still ask, what kind of tendencies do you see in art schools currently?
Rebecca: I won’t even talk about what’s happening to higher education in America! They are digging their own grave with for-profit schools, high tuition fees, and student loan debt soaring. It’s really depressing. But even in Canada where I live and where education is highly subsidized, I still see this neoliberal model creeping in, monetizing education. And I see an overemphasis on research because that’s where the funding is coming from. Artistic discourse is still being wrenched into some sort of social-science language. Practice-led PhDs and artistic research is a huge, huge topic. Within the Canadian landscape, particularly, I have mostly negative feelings—not fully, because I’ve seen some extraordinary projects—but overall I think it’s good for artists, but it’s bad for institutions when using this pathway for reputational purposes only. In general, COVID reminded us that many of our students have other lives: they are raising families, they have jobs, they have other interests, other cares. And the fact that we still use this kindergarten model, where everybody shows up five days a week, between nine and five – this is not the most ideal way for people to learn. So it is throwing into question a lot of pedagogical practices that had been already in the process of remaking, but now they need to be remaking themselves at a greater speed. Also, about the teaching of skills – I worry for schools driven by accreditation committees saying that students have to tick all these boxes by the time they leave such and such school. I think art schools should learn more from what their own alumni are doing and what they tell us, what they say was missing in their experience. There is this course I’ve tried out in many different environments called the “Compulsive Browse”. The term comes from library scientists, who use it to describe artists when they come to the library and are referred to as “compulsive browsers.” I love this idea that they’re like, yeah, I need to see every map that you have that has red marks on the right hand side! And the librarians are like, What? That’s an interesting kind of compulsion. Meanwhile, the idea of the browse is this beautiful, constantly associative, lateral, inventive thinking. So in this course we work a lot on undoing all of the habits that the students have learned. We do tons of exercises and I see them transform as they gain this new confidence in the unknowingness. They become different writers, researchers, and curators. I’ve often heard the students say “we never get a chance to experiment like this.” So I think that many parts of the curriculum need some loosening up. We always talk about interdisciplinarity, but in practice, man, the whole structure is just not built for that, at least where I am teaching. We can’t align schedules, we don’t have enough money to do tandem-teaching… There have been some really amazing courses but they’re one offs, lasting maybe for a couple of years because the Provost kicked in some extra funding, but why does it have to be special?
Maarin: I completely agree, silos of contemporary art schools are a real issue!
Rebecca: Right now, we’re trying to figure out a new curatorial studies programme at my place of business. I am working with a very dear colleague, who is indigenous, and she and I set ourselves the goal of not following any of the rules—let’s try to invent a curriculum whatever way we want it! So we started with personas: an aboriginal elder, in his 70s, no formal education, in Western Australia. A 24-year old young woman, went straight through university, docent at the museum. Someone who comes down from the Arctic three times a year to Montreal, but otherwise is looking after her community and runs the Community Art Centre. What kind of programme would all of these people need? It was so enlightening.
We ended up proposing this whole radical situation of learning modes we called “on-site, online, in the field, and in the community.” The core idea was that people can mix and match. Like, I need my 15 credits and I’m going to be in Montreal for these three months, that is my “on-site” part, then I’m going to be in Peru, so I’m going to do “online” part there; after that I have an internship so that’s going to be my “in the field” experience, etc. So they could actually build their own unique programme. We presented it to our department and they said, there’s no way we can do this! But let’s see. We are still negotiating.
Eva Liisa Kubinyi and Rebecca Duclos presenting their knowledge sharing platform – Soul Sauna. FAST45 workshop, photo Evert Palmets.
Maarin: Have you tried your hand in other subversive methods?
Rebecca: You know this saying, if you use the Master’s tools, you can take down the Master’s House? I think I have worked a little bit with that. With COVID we had a serious lockdown and we were not able to be on campus in person for almost 1,5 years. And then we had the possibility to come back, with masks etc., but still most of my colleagues decided to keep teaching online. But with one of my courses, it was a big group, 70 students, we decided to meet on campus. I told them, this class is about you getting to know the school that some of you started a year and a half ago, and you haven’t even been here! So they explored the territory of Concordia University (which usually houses 50,000 students but was almost empty aside from us). As a result, they performed radical interventions across the institution that critiqued the idea of The Academy. They formed teams, ran this whole thing, and it became almost like a pop-up exhibition, with its own app, locative media, wayfinding, interpretive planning, everything! It was amazing, the students just rocked it. And they were hyper critical of the institution in respectful and quite humourous ways.
I can give you some examples of what took place. One student has a dog and she found out that dogs weren’t allowed in any of the school buildings. And she said, Well, what kind of dogs can come in? Oh, service dogs, because they’re working dogs. So, she made a T-shirt for her dog that said “artist at work” and then all of us walked through all the buildings, and not a single security guard stopped us! Another example – the Business School has all these trophies because the Business students do these “case competitions,”—it is this whole other world. So one of my students wanted to get into the trophy case, to place her own trophy there, which was dedicated to all the students who were slackers. Part of her project was to see how hard it was going to be to get into that trophy cabinet. And after I had exchanged almost 17 emails all the way up the chain trying to assist her, she finally got in. It was like a single key that was stored in some secretary’s desk! She did a performance where she opened up the trophy cabinet, took out her trophy and ate her morning cereal out of it while another student’s improvisational noise band played raucous music. So these kinds of things were happening all over the campus and I was really proud of my students. The Head of Security was a star. We know each other so he could tell what was happening, and he just let them set up beds in stairwells and stage sidewalk swordfights with French baguettes. It was great.
Maarin: As an educator, what kind of guidelines do you have for yourself? What is that you are always trying to do?
Rebecca: Maybe we can trade? I’ll tell you one and you tell me one of yours!
Maarin: Great, let’s do this!
Rebecca: My first is “don’t tell me, show me.” I think we spend so much time being so loquacious! If you know Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, you’ll know that our school systems are built based primarily on logistical-mathematical intelligence. And all of the other ones – kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, musical, naturalistic etc. – we don’t make any allowance for them. I’m mostly teaching students who are in the academic areas, and they never get to do performative stuff, so this is something I always try to sneak in to my classes. What’s one of yours?
Maarin: I’d say presenting yourself as a human being while lecturing, with your own doubts, vs lecturer as someone who knows it all, has an authoritarian voice and always perfect (and very anonymous) presentation. I’d like to show them cracks in canon, ongoing discussions, and make associations that are personal, that come from my own range of culture, society and lived experiences.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think this relates to humility, which is very important. This dials down the anxiety for the students who often feel like they’re going to do something wrong. I don’t know if you’ve noticed something about this generation, but wow, they are so terrified of making a mistake!
Maarin: Yeah, this generation in universities right now – they are so aware of things, so critical of things, but this might also lead to inertia, because their awareness of problems and injustices is much greater than I had 20 years ago when I started studying in academia, it was kind of blissful ignorance of how complicated world is.
Rebecca: And COVID didn’t help that either! One of the things that I hate about teaching is overly-rigid assessments. That’s a huge discussion! But what I started doing last year was a new approach where everybody starts with an A, a whole class, because I tell them: I believe in your human potential, so you all begin with an A. What we do next is try to keep that A, month after month, as we go through a whole series of self- and peer assessments. And it’s been phenomenal. The students who had figured out how to maintain an A all the time in the “normal” academy felt completely flummoxed! And the students who never fit into the rubric, or who are neurodiverse, they soared. All the students really excelled and struggled in a good way. They set their own boundaries, and then they try to meet them. It’s been liberating to all parties involved.
Maarin: In the small department that I’m running, all the general theory courses are now pass/fail courses. And there was some prejudice around pass/fail courses, like it would lower the bar, but actually you can set the bar where C or even B marks would be. But yeah, the next thing on my personal list would be humor – I always want to make jokes while teaching, to break up the serious art history atmosphere and tension in the room.
Rebecca: That might link to sense of absurdity as well, I think it introduces sanctioned fallibility. For example, during workshop week now in Autumn 2022 I did a class in EKA’s Fine Arts department called “Writing Redux”. We were sort of trying to undo habits and rethink writing styles—of which there are often only four defined: persuasive, narrative, expository and descriptive. That’s bullshit! So, my partner David and I just sat down one night and we invented about a 100 styles of writing from A-Z, and there could be so much more! I brought that list on the first day and the Redux students looked at a single Frida Kahlo image. We randomly picked one “style” from the list of dozens and they had three minutes to write about this image in, for example, a medical style, or digressive, or dioramatic, or non-sensical, or pornographic, or somnambulatory. You get the picture. It was not art historical! And we did those rounds several times. I mean, it was amazing. The students had no problem sharing their writing, because it kind of wasn’t their writing. It just brought the class together and it really showed me right away like, Wow, okay, you’re the quiet one. But no, you’re not. You’re hilarious!
Maarin: Yeah, I’d say I have the same thing in my list – inventing new methods, to keep yourself as a lecturer fresh and also to find new angles on how to serve this task for students. We have had this seminar series in EKA, called “Good Teachings Seminar” where we have discussed those methods with colleagues, though, sometimes I have the feeling that we are inventing the wheel, like I have never studied pedagogy, I have learned by doing.
Rebecca: I think I’m more of a fan of the ladder than the wheel. That’s one of the problems with education programmes and degrees in education is that they’re just really educational theories. Why don’t we actually just experience that kind of learning ourselves as adults? Let me see what that feels like. I would say that my administrative style is also like putting the value on the realm of the social first. When I came to Concordia University to work as a dean there, I had a faculty of 4000 students, staff and teachers of 115, nine departments, it was huge and intimidating! As I showed up on my first day, the Provost said, We needed your strategic plan yesterday. I’m like, Oh, okay. But the last thing you want to do as a new dean is come in and say to your people, Here’s our strategic direction from now on. So, how to develop those strategic directions together with people? We just started having parties! We had pop-up PhD lunches, afternoon teas, after-hours parties in my office, you name it. I had faculty who had been teaching for 15 years, and they had never met each other! So there was this kind of revival of remembering why they were all here. Out of those parties, I started asking questions – where do you think we should be going with this or that? Then we staged more organized “idea labs,” but we came up with no strategic directions in the end. When I presented this result in front of the University Senate they were like, What? But we said, We don’t have strategic directions, we have strategic speculations! Ahaa. I had to tell them about the field called design thinking. Our whole Strategic Plan was just some crazy ideas that we knew would never happen, next to other profound ideas that were actually implementable.
We had tons of pilot projects, to see what would stick and what wouldn’t. The University thought we were bonkers. But I’ll tell you, at the end of five years, by one of the metrics that my university uses, money donated to you, our small Faculty was raising twice as much money as the business school! Because everybody out in the community said, You guys are on fire! We had all these pilot projects, and we were able to walk up to a donor and say, Hey, do you want to help start a platform for alumni? And they’re like, Yeah! And then the University started coming to the Faculty of Fine Arts whenever they needed good ideas and we had a ton of them, let me tell you. So, all that came out of just having people hanging out together in a completely unstructured, social way.
Maarin: But how do you as a leader deal with difficult situations, people not happy with the changes, working against you, ghosting? It all sounds marvelous, but I’m sure it couldn’t be that smooth!
Rebecca: Yeah, it wasn’t. We affectionately call it the Dean “sandwich” because you’re just always in the middle between your own faculty and the senior administration. It’s not only convincing the people above you, but also getting your own people to commit and contribute, to the actual work on the ground, no matter how speculative the project. But I think everybody loves a good project, a good story, and seeing some success already happening with some of those projects helped others to come along. We came out of the gate really fast with a few allies who were like, Yeah, I’m ready for this. And then, honestly, I didn’t have to do much begging or cajoling. Okay, there always are slackers, and people who just disappeared, but okay, they missed out. But there were a lot of people who said, It looks like you’re having way more fun over there, I want to be part of what’s happening! I didn’t waste any time. Those who didn’t want to be part of this, who are fighting against it, I just let them slip away.
Maarin: You mention fun, and I think this is really crucial, because quite often this administrative job is not something you relate to this word.
Rebecca: Exactly. In the dean’s office, there were 17 people in my charge, which was daunting! I treated them with respect and love and we had such a great time. And our cohesion was productive too! Whenever anybody wanted something to happen at Concordia, they would call us. They’re like, You guys seem to get stuff done, can you do this? And pretty soon, everybody just wanted to be part of our shop. We had a level of respect at the university that had apparently not been there before for Fine Arts. Yeah, there are lots of nice stories to tell!
Maarin: It’s also that you see the momentum happening and you want to be part of it, it is exciting!
Rebecca: We really enjoyed the work we were doing. They saw that we didn’t clear out of offices immediately at 4.30. We were going to university events and to student’s events, we showed up everywhere, that also really spoke volumes.
Maarin: But all that being said, I really want to know how you ended up in Estonia?
Rebecca: A big part of that has to do with ELIA (European League of Institutes of the Arts). Concordia University had a membership to ELIA as one of the few non-European members. As a new dean at Concordia in Montreal in 2015, I could see that ELIA was bringing people into some really interesting European projects, so when they asked me a couple of years ago if would chair a steering group for the Leadership Symposium in Tallinn with ELIA, EKA, and EAMT, I happily agreed. And then COVID happened! So our time working together was extended; over the months we spent a lot of time on Zoom. I got to know Sandra Mell and Mart Kalm pretty well from a distance.
Then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. Canada has the second largest population of Ukrainians in the world, so my husband, David and I, along with a bunch of artists and friends were thinking that we should try to do something to support the Ukrainian arts community. We were just so depressed from the whole thing, being so far away, every morning reading news. And then one day after an ELIA meeting, we asked Sandra and Mart: Do you know what we should do if we wanted to help? Do you have any advice? And they said, Well, actually, there are students who are making their way here; we could always use teachers. Because I was being paid by my own university during my post-dean leave, I was ready to take a gap semester and volunteer in Museology or Art History or anywhere I was needed! My husband’s an artist whose trained in architecture, so he could pretty much teach anything. So that’s how it started.
Being here has also allowed me to work very tightly with ELIA, finding out what the whole European network was doing to support Ukrainian students. This summer in Florence, I happened to meet a former colleague with whom I had worked in Chicago years ago. Amongst her many roles, she co-directs the Abakanowicz Arts and Culture Foundation. I told her that a real problem is students who can’t get out of Ukraine and how much their arts institutions are suffering. She said the Foundation would be willing to offer support if there was a good enough project proposal on the table. I called ELIA right away and they were amazing! In less than three months we had designed every detail of a three-year Platform of support that we called UAx (read more about it here!). UA is the country code for Ukraine. “X” stands for everything from exchange to exile. We liked the airport reference… Like LAX. Things were taking off and landing. We received significant funds from the Abakanowicz Foundation, along with a huge commitment from ELIA’s European membership, and made the announcement at the Tate Modern in November last year! We did it live at the opening of the gorgeous survey of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work co-curated by Ann Coxon and Mary Jane Jacob, our Chicago angel…
Maarin: What does this UAx project contain?
Rebecca: It has four pillars, with the core structure built around the idea of a “sister school” network—up to fifteen schools in Ukraine and fifteen ELIA members over the next three years for a total of 30 academies. That’s huge. The second pillar is to provide Ukrainian schools membership to ELIA, which the UA academies have not been part of so far. All fifteen of them will be completely subsidized for three years to join this network and have access to over 300 art, performance, and design schools in Europe, along with their expertise and knowledge, support for training, partnerships, project funding, etc.
The third aspect is to open up an ELIA UAx Bureau in Amsterdam. We are in the process right now of hiring a Ukrainian speaking Bureau Manager. Part of what they will do is help Ukrainian schools understand the dense funding structures within the EU, so that the minute they can access this type of support, the UA art schools would be familiar with how, and where, and with whom to apply. The rest will be overseeing this complex and growing network of sister schools across multiple countries over the years during wartime and what comes afterwards.
And then this sister school relationship… at its heart is personal mentorship and financial support directly to students. Each of the sister schools from the ELIA network will put two mentors into play, attached to their sister school in Ukraine. That is happening online right now, but there is money to get all the mentors into Ukraine eventually. Mentors will stay in residence with each of the schools, and do whatever they can – masterclasses, workshops, labs, consultations, etc. Along with this comes emergency bursaries for Ukrainian students who had to drop out of their educational programmes during the war. These particular details are yet to be solidified because the UAx Platform really needs to the UA schools to drive these decisions. It’s their call. ELIA is here to listen and support and respond within the framework of the Platform.
So that’s the framework. This year is a pilot year and we are leaning on our first ten astonishing sister schools to guide us and work out the kinks on the ground with us. There is an eleventh EU school focusing specifically on supporting third cycle arts-based research initiatives across all the Ukrainian partner schools. All UAx Platform details and a list of sister schools is on the ELIA website right now.
Maarin: There are so many levels at play at once – immediate issues and then maintaining some normality and then preparing for rebuilding.
Rebecca: Exactly. UAx was only announced at the end of 2022, so we had like a week to get the plane tickets and hotels and bus tickets for our first five Ukrainian schools to join the ELIA Biennial in Helsinki in November. And it was insane that they made it to Finland! Honestly, it just shows how rugged, and determined, and strong they are. One piece of feedback we got right away was Thank you for not forgetting about us. There were hundreds of people at the ELIA biennial just cheering them on, supporting them. It brought tears to our eyes.
So, in the future, the Ukrainian arts academy leaders are the ones driving the agenda of this UAx project, knowing that there are sister schools waiting, and a whole network of support behind them. We want it to go the way they need it to. Right now it has started on a very practical level – for example, I know that some film schools in Ukraine sent some of their material to a sister school in Germany to render these huge files, because they didn’t have electricity. It has been totally humbling for us to understand their resolve. They are teaching us so much about the importance of the arts in times of struggle and survival.
Maarin: But what is your own role in the midst of all of this?
Rebecca: Right now I operate in a volunteer capacity as an advisor to ELIA doing what I can to assist them, and acting as the head of a steering committee which we haven’t even formed yet, it’s so fresh. And I, of course, have a special love for EKA who is one of the first five sister schools in the pilot! What I would really love to do is to be a bigger part of UAx and actually go to Ukraine to be helpful in whatever way I can. I would love to raise more funds for this cause, use my experiences and connections. Support the UAx Bureau in Amsterdam. Be available—there is so much we don’t yet know. So yeah, I think that there’s a role to play, but I don’t know exactly what it is yet. Perhaps after three years, if this model works, we can figure out something for other conflict zones, using art schools as a structure and base to anchor one of the most important things in any war zone: the citizens’ sense of self, and dignity, and cultural memory.
Thank you for this conversation, Rebecca!