Donna Barrett 

DONNA (WHITE) BARRETT, BFA, 1995, INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES 
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY ARKATYIIS MILLER 

From top left to bottom right: Cyborg Collars, installation view #1, Gordon Snelgrove Gallery, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, 2006
Prevailing Past, image face 3, tri-vision billboard on the Stampede Parade route during Stampede, Calgary, 20’w x 10’h, 2008
Cyborg Project 1, east billboard in downtown Saskatoon, 20’w x 10’ h, 2006
Cyborg Project 2, west billboard in downtown Saskatoon, 20’w x 10’ h, 2006
Prevailing Past, image face 2, tri-vision billboard on the Stampede Parade route during Stampede, Calgary, 20’w x 10’h, 2008

ARKATYIIS MILLER: When did you graduate ACAD (and what was it called then)? What was your major? Do you continue to work in this area or did you change areas of interest?

DONNA (WHITE) BARRETT: ACAD, ’95. I was one of those rare people that did Interdisciplinary Studies – there were only a handful of us. I think that was the best program. My practice is a strange one. When I did my Master's I majored in Sculpture, minored in Gender Studies and Photography. The University of Saskatchewan’s Gender Studies program was the first to be offered in the prairies, and second in Canada. So that’s why I went there!

MILLER: A lot of graduates use the ACAD degree as a creative stepping stone. So, what do you do? How has what you do evolved since graduation? How did your education at ACAD direct your career?

BARRETT: Before I graduated, I was volunteering in the arts community. ACAD provided that opportunity and also, a positive reference. If the faculty knew you here as an active student, they propelled you outside of ACAD. I worked on visiting artist committees internally and externally, which brought in a few big ‘art stars’. That was a way to leverage the volunteer experience at ACAD to leverage a position in the community. When I was the Board Governors rep as a student, it was a horrible time. Ralph Klein’s cutbacks meant ACAD really suffered. I mean really, really suffered! And still hasn’t recovered. So I became more of an advocate for the school, and that changed how faculty regarded me. I was more than just a student. I was an advocate for the school as a whole.

When I was a student here, the building had 24-hour access. It took me 5 years [to earn a BFA] because I did so much extracurricular stuff. Running the Marion Nicoll was so busy, and with panel crits, I didn’t sleep for two weeks. My head was getting really hot. Never do that! My brain was literally over-heating. That’s why you need to lay down; your body has to work so hard to get the blood up to your head. I remember being so busy that I was actually running from point to point. A friend of mine was a massage therapist and she explained the full effects of what was going on in my body. “I will never do this again!”

I’ve become much more decisive about what I will invest my money and time into. I started here [as a student] when I was 26; gave up an oil company job to come here. It wasn’t just an investment of time and money, but also a loss of income, and I wasn’t going to tolerate substandard education. Interdisciplinary Studies allowed me to make the body of work that I wanted to make, with access to the faculty and facilities to make that body of work. Walter May mentored me for free. I didn’t learn until years later that he didn’t get paid to do that extra mentorship. I was very focused on getting the most for my time here, and Interdisciplinary Studies allowed for that. I got the best of the institution. And that gave me a ton of momentum. Everyone in the art community knew who I was, as I had already established myself as reliable, hardworking and a person with good ethics before I graduated.

Something I still do in my practice between applying for grants is apply for jobs that are a reach, and other opportunities that are a bit of a reach. Always update your CV, and figure out LinkedIn. (I’m still trying to fully figure out LinkedIn!) When I won an ACADSA Gracious Gratitude Award this past spring, I posted the awards email with all the other winners on LinkedIn, as a way to acknowledge ACADSA for doing such a great thing for ACAD faculty and staff.

When coming to ACAD as a mature student I was intimidated. I didn’t become a really good (disciplined) student until coming to ACAD. (I skipped a lot of secondary school and went to the Glenbow instead!) I can remember the ACAD instructors opening so many doors for visual stimulation and just having my mind blown by seeing so much great work being created around the world. What I was seeing were endless possibilities and endless solutions of how artists were communicating ideas. I try to impress that upon the few students that I have contact with. [After art school] no one will ever say to you again “look at this” or “Google that”. Even our library… What a resource! It’s fascinating to me all the retired faculty who come back and use our library. Their practices are always current, because they look at things. Students are intimidated by the library because it represents research, but I think after the paper is due, they can see it for the treasure-trove that it really is. Don’t limit yourself. You need to look at all the topics, not just those pertinent to your studies.

I’ve worked for the Nickle Art Museum at the front desk, and I’ve worked for Stride. At 30, I started doing some contract work for Nancy Tousley, assisting her with admin work for an exhibition she was co-curating. I was so nervous the first time I went to her home. I was a mess! 

“Plan A” was to teach Sculpture and Professional Practices at ACAD and continue an active studio practice. While working towards Plan A for the last 20 years, I didn’t realize I was going to accumulate a vast set of business and administrative skills along the way. “Plan B” was the “keep working the arts admin jobs”, so that I could pay the bills. What actually happened was Plan B was the Real Life Plan A. It has been hard accepting the reality of how the last 20 years have set the path for the next 20 years and beyond. I am identified as an arts administrator only by my peers. As I work more than full-time, I have to fit making art in with the balance of other life tasks. I am not a person who gives up. But I am a person who can find the hardest way to do something, as the hardest way is most likely the best way. Like Katie Ohe always said, “You can’t make something bad and hope to cover it up at the end like icing on a cake. You have to make something good all the way through.”

After 20 years working in Real Life Plan A, I can read a balance sheet, budget/actuals comparison, or audited financial statements and see the cash flow problems immediately. The problems leap off the page and the more they are attempted to be hidden, the more they glare out at me. I have deep experience drafting policies and procedures, researching and forecasting budgets, grant writing, and event management. I have written art catalogues, organized a national touring exhibition of very fragile artworks, hosted curators from the National Gallery of Canada, assisted in thwarting a donation tax fraud scheme with guidance from the Department of  Heritage, oversaw the restoration of a heritage garden, developed an annual house and garden tour fundraiser, and broke the rules around what constitutes fine art exhibitions starting with an exhibition when I was a student at ACAD (I did an exhibition at the Marion Nicoll Gallery that showcased ACAD students who were also mothers).

MILLER: What would you like to be recognized for?

BARRETT: The nice thing that I already get recognized for is that I’ll help anybody. That’s a goal every day. How can I help somebody?

I’m a pretty loyal friend. I’m still in contact with all my ACAD friends. That’s part of what you do here. You build a network of people to share things with – especially job postings and residencies. You’ll find throughout your path that you will gather friends as you go. People think networking is hard and that it’s hard to have friends or make new friends when you’re older, but that’s not true at all. It’s [friendship is] a selfless act. I didn’t learn it here, but I proved it here that if you treat everyone well, you never know when that person may be in a position to help you.

MILLER: Given your experience, what advice would you give a student when it comes to establishing a creative business?

BARRETT: Don’t create any rules for yourself or your business, and challenge yourself to question everything you do every day.

MILLER: What insights did your five years at ACAD give you when looking at things?

BARRETT: I changed my definition of “smart” because when I came here I had a very “book smart” idea of what smart means, but now I see there is no greater power than to be creative. Problem-solving in any discipline is imagination and creating something from nothing.

MILLER: After graduation, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

BARRETT: As all artists will face, balancing earrings/money and a personal life AND your practice is very difficult.

I gained a solid foundation in arts administration and committee/non-profit organizational governance alongside my training as an artist while at ACAD because I pursued both while a student. All the volunteer experience and student governance work was a second education I was getting at ACAD. The price I paid for it was hundreds of hours of work on top of my studies and hard times that shaped my moral compass.

I have tried to work both aspects of my education and experience, in balance, since graduating. Sometimes I am successful at keeping the balance but mostly I am not successful at working the balance. I do believe this balance is much, much harder for a female graduate to achieve. The reasons why are as complex and as vast as the society we live in. I also believe this path is harder for a female in Alberta, which is why I chose to stay in Alberta. I can, and have made a difference, to young female artists at ACAD and I have made a difference as a curator to self-taught mature artists when I was in Grande Prairie.

There are still obstacles of gender. Two articles came out recently in Canadian Art and Momus about these barriers that exist and prevail. That is why I chose not to leave Canada.

I would say that, unfortunately, the glass ceiling is in place in academia just as it is in place throughout the business world in Canada and beyond. Some would point to Trudeau’s new federal cabinet as an example that things are changing. Yes, that would be a glass half full perspective. The fact is, a young white male selected and appointed those women to the cabinet.

It is difficult to be a conceptual feminist sculptor in Alberta, but I always felt like… if I stay here… at least I’ll have Katie Ohe. There is a British saying, “knock the chocks”, which means constant resistance. Katie Ohe didn’t go somewhere else. Katie stayed and paved the way for so many others, including me. She set an example of how to be. I will always be grateful to the influential instructors I learned from at ACAD: Katie Ohe, Walter May, Mary Scott, Wayne Giles, Rita McKeough, Amy Gogarty, Bill Morton, Mireille Perron, and Dee Fontans. Some of those instructors are in my head when I am in my studio still to this day. They remain my critical, intellectual, and technical mirrors.

MILLER: Something that has been a struggle for me in this first year out [of art school] is this idea that I’m falling behind in my practice by letting it go by the wayside now that I have a day job, and also this hang-up that my practice isn’t “contemporary”.

BARRETT: The question we need to be asking ourselves rather than “is my practice contemporary?” is “how do I learn about myself in the world through my own work?”

The thing that I want every student to gain at ACAD is the time in the studio to prove that they can make that thing that is an idea or a spark of an idea inside their head. To create something you have imagined is a transformative act – it transforms the maker forevermore.

Don’t ever tell yourself your career is over, and don’t feel like you need to let any of those voices of doubt in. Artists in Canada are so mean to each other. Like, unnecessarily mean. You know the saying about New York, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”? Nancy lived in New York after completing her education at Vassar. She said to me when I was just starting out in arts admin at Stride, that in New York, artists help each other all the time. They want each other to succeed, to make the whole scene more creative and strong. I didn’t think that would be the case. I imagined it as very competitive because the Canadian visual arts sector is so competitive. The opportunities in Canada can be so limited that artists are really are pitted against each other. It tends to be a culture that isn’t necessarily supportive and encouraging, perhaps despite certain perceptions. Competition is all I have ever known as an artist and arts administrator in Canada.

MILLER: Would you recommend someone put themselves in a position financially to be able to take a year off and focus on their practice?

BARRETT: Someone in business would tell you to only take that year off when you know what will come in years two, three, and four...

MILLER: How could you imagine ACAD supporting our alumni?

BARRETT: That’s all I think about. Well, I think about it a lot! Because I share the perspective of an alumnus and am part of a department that is growing and evolving, I'm hoping to offer a broader scope of support for alumni, by having them re-engage via Continuing Education.

MILLER: What do you feel is the role of ACAD and our alumni in shaping our cultural and economic prosperity?

BARRETT: I feel we already do. If I go to Inglewood, the Royal Tyrell Museum, look at Calgary Farmers' Market ads – that’s all ACAD alumni. When I look at the sculpture at the airport, Upper Case magazine in the rack at Chapters – they're ACAD alumni. And it’s inspiring how many of them are female. I would like to see ACAD get better at telling the success stories of grads. Because our grads are all over the place and on such diverse paths, we struggle to keep track of what they’re up to. The Alumni Awards in the past few years help document those people. Failing to document alumni has been ACAD’s Achilles heel.

MILLER: Why do you think that creativity matters in the big picture?

BARRETT: Creativity is power!

MILLER: Do you feel that a person needs to have a Master's degree in order to have a successful career as an artist?

BARRETT: No. No. It’s not necessary.

MILLER: Then why is that the prevailing opinion?

BARRETT: That’s the old way. Artists with an entrepreneurial skill set are the future of successful artists. That’s why I’m taking business courses.

Since gaining all that real world experience, I have thought about what the next 20 years could be in the Real Life Plan A. I have considered doing an MBA, a PhD in art, a curatorial MFA or an MA in Feminist Art History. I recently completed the RAMP program at the U of C Haskayne School of Business. RAMP stands for the Rozsa Arts Management Program. It was a 9-month course that aligns current business skills with practical application in the not-for-profit arts administration sector. The cohort is 30 people from visual, film, performing arts, festivals, and arts sustaining organizations. The cohort I was with was truly exceptional and inspiring. At the conclusion of RAMP, each participant has completed a project, with guidance from the Haskayne faculty, which benefits their own not-for-profit organizations. I completed a market survey of the last 10 years of ACAD Con Ed students within the framework of why adults in North America pursue non-credit art and design education. The results of my research will assist ACAD Con Ed to transform to better meet our current audience as well as attract new audiences for new programs. My project research and presentation for RAMP was more work that my MFA thesis paper and jury defense!