To say the St-Laurent brothers have created a cultural dynasty at SAW Gallery would not be an overstatement.
Over the past decade they have been vital to the artist-run centre, activating all the right kinds of controversy and innovation. There were many long faces in the Ottawa arts community when Stefan St-Laurent announced earlier this year he was stepping down as curator at SAW.
“I decided to quit my job to concentrate on my own art practice for two years — that’s my plan,” says Stefan. “I do love being a curator, but I take my art practice just as seriously.”
Luckily, his twin brother has swept in to take his place.
Jason St-Laurent, who left his post as programmer of SAW Video and Club SAW in 2006 to pursue work with the Inside Out LGBT Film and Video Festival in Toronto, knew that whoever stepped into Stefan’s shoes had to intuitively grasp the spirit of SAW: outreach-oriented, grassroots, inclusive, fearless and transparent. He decided to apply.
“I did my best to keep a foot in Ottawa,” says Jason, who created the Ottawa-Gatineau edition of Inside Out. “It was very dear to me that I pursue this kind of relationship with a city that gave me so many opportunities.”
The collaboration between the gay twin brothers all began with Jason’s participation in a youth program at SAW Video in 2000. When Stefan came to visit in 2002, he was just as smitten with SAW — and Ottawa. He’s been based here ever since.
In 2003, the brothers were given the opportunity to co-curate an anniversary exhibit for SAW Gallery. The result? A show called Scatalogue: 30 Years of Crap in Contemporary Art, which was about — you guessed it — poo.
The exhibit was an international sensation.
“We got interviewed by every media outlet in North America, it seemed,” Stefan says.
Like all the edgy and inventive exhibits the St-Laurents have curated, Scatalogue wasn’t only about sensationalism. There was a deeper underlying message.
“We were playing on people’s perceptions of contemporary art,” Stefan says. “[To] shift their perceptions of what contentious art can be. It positioned the gallery as not being scared of controversy or outside pressure. We do what we want to do at SAW Gallery.”
“That’s what’s kept my brother and I there in one way or another for almost a decade,” says Jason.
After the success of that first exhibit, Jason became the programmer of Club SAW and SAW Video, and Stefan became co-artistic director of SAW Gallery with Tam-Ca Vo-Van.
Over the years, Vo-Van and the St-Laurent brothers have wowed Ottawa art-lovers and expanded notions of what SAW could be — and who SAW could reach.
“Getting people to set foot in the gallery for the first time is actually an obsession for both Stefan and I — and Tam-Ca, for that matter: finding new communities, publishing in Arabic, in Chinese, reaching the Inuit community here. The centre is officially bilingual, but it’s gone multilingual. We’ve translated our material into 12 or 13 languages.”
“I know people are curious,” says Stefan. “They’re just waiting to see this work, and they can’t. Showing radical art is actually making our audience grow; it’s not making [it] shrink, which is what other galleries think. They think it’s going to ruin their reputation when it only solidifies it.”
As he passes the curatorial baton to his brother, Stefan reflects on his time at SAW. “The best contribution that I made in my eight years there as a curator was to create a space where we can explore everything . . . and to focus on artists that are historically excluded from mainstream museums and galleries,” he says. “It’s very important for us to create a context for discussion around contentious work. I did Radical Drag: Transformative Performance, which I co-curated with Tobaron Waxman a few years ago, because I know generations of LGBTQ people have wanted to see this work for so long, and they can’t access it at any centre in Canada.
“I’ll always remember — it was maybe a week into the Radical Drag show and there was an older gay couple, both in their 80s. They were holding each other, and tears were running down their faces. They looked at me, and they said, ‘Are you the curator?’ I said yes. One of the men said, ‘We waited our whole lives to see this work.’ Of course, I bawled with them. This is exactly why I do the work that I do.”
That kind of bond between curator and community is hard to break.
“I still say ‘our gallery’ and ‘we,’” Stefan says, laughing. “I am working on contracts, but I’m no longer employed by the gallery, per se.”
As Jason settles in at SAW, many changes are afoot. The $40 million Arts Court expansion is underway, and it has him thinking about how the architecture of the new space will influence or maintain the culture and programming at SAW.
“I hope that, in expanding and professionalizing, SAW still keeps its heart as a very open centre that’s willing to take risks,” he says.