Tammy McGrath 

TAMMY MCGRATH, BFA, 1998, PAINTING
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY KERRY MAGUIRE

From top left to bottom right: Home Repair with One Night Only Performance Collective (ONO), Performance Art, 2004
Voir Dire, installation, over 1400 burnt books, leather, hair, feathers, petrified animal claws, paint, steel skeletons, 2009
THREE, video (still image shown here), 2012
Adagio in G Minor, mixed media installation, 2014 (work in progress)
Tunnel, mixed media, 2004

KERRY MAGUIRE: When did you graduate ACAD? What was your major?

TAMMY MCGRATH: I graduated in 1998 from Painting, but at that time many of the Painting instructors were moving towards developing the MADT (Media Art + Digital Technologies) department. So I was one of the guinea pigs for the MADT program.

MAGUIRE: Oh wow, I had no idea that’s how MADT came about.

MCGRATH: We had to write a proposal, I think, if you were interested in Media Arts, to work with this group of instructors who were creating this new program. If I remember correctly, it was mainly Painting as well as a few Printmaking instructors who created MADT.

MAGUIRE: So you graduated as a Painting major, but after you made that proposal, what medium were you mostly working in?

MCGRATH: I was creating performance that integrated media arts. For my graduation piece I didn’t include that, because the performative work and the media arts work relied on a certain amount of secrecy, so I didn’t want my name to be attached to the work. My graduation piece was actually a large sculptural tunnel installation in the Illingworth Kerr Gallery.

MAGUIRE: Do you still work in the same medium as when you graduated, or has your practice evolved towards other ones?

MCGRATH: I do whatever it takes to finish a project. I graduated from Painting, and I still paint, but usually my paintings are a jumping off point for large installation works. I still do some things online, I was involved quite heavily in media arts. I worked at EMMEDIA (Gallery & Production Society) for a short while. Before that I was at the Epcor Centre, which is now Arts Commons. I was the curator for Soundasaurus there; I was involved in the sound art community in Calgary for quite a long time.

MAGUIRE: A lot of ACAD students use their degree as a stepping stone. You’ve already discussed to a certain degree what you do and how your practice has evolved since graduating from ACAD. Are there any other specific ways ACAD helped lead you to pursuing these paths?

MCGRATH: ACAD helped me connect with a strong community. When I graduated, I’d intended to move to Montreal. I had my ticket purchased. But then I was offered a job at the New Gallery, and I ended up working there for five years as the programmer. Then I decided to go to grad school, so I did that and then came back [to Calgary]. So if it hadn’t been for ACAD, I wouldn’t have been involved in those communities and I wouldn’t have had those opportunities.

MAGUIRE: Moving away is always a topic of discussion among Calgarians. Especially creative ones – artists and musicians.

MCGRATH: I think moving away can be important at different times, but I’ve always come back. I was born in Calgary, left for many, many years, came back, left again, and came back. I’ve done it a few times. I see Calgary as a home base, and this is where my community is. I really can’t see moving anywhere else forever.

MAGUIRE: You’ve been involved in a lot of artist-run projects and still are, which is great.

MCGRATH: Yeah, my roles have changed over the years. Traditionally I’ve been a programmer and curator, I’ve also done a lot of writing, and I was the operations manager at EMMEDIA for a while. I worked with the staff to complete the grants and casino applications and I worked with the bookkeepers. I developed skills I already had, but in a different, concise, more focused kind of way.

MAGUIRE: That’s great. I see operations people as the glue that holds organizations like EMMEDIA together.

MCGRATH: Yeah, those people are the unsung heroes of not-for-profit organizations. I’ve seen a lot of people involved in administration who have saved organizations, and I don’t know if a lot of people are aware of that. Kari McQueen is a good example, she also worked at CADA (Calgary Arts Development). She’s a practicing artist, and has been an administrator for a number of arts organizations in Calgary. She’s helped a lot of organizations. There are a number of people in our community who have successfully filled those kinds of roles.

MAGUIRE: I’m always curious about people who balance working as an administrator and as an artist. It’s great to meet people like you who balance both, especially when you spend so much time and energy enabling other artists to do their work.

MCGRATH: It depends on what kind of practice you have. I’ve always had a practice where I do both. There are other kinds of people who need to focus on doing one or the other. I actually started out working at the Marion Nicoll Gallery at ACAD. I think maybe that role has changed somewhat over the years, but when I was there almost everybody who worked there ended up working in the arts in some capacity.

MAGUIRE: It’s probably a safe environment to build up an administrative skill set before being thrown into the “real world”. I believe that the Students’ Association still fills that position every year.

You’ve filled a lot of core positions in the arts community. Is there anything else you would like to be recognized for?

MCGRATH: When I’m introduced to someone new in the art community I’m often introduced as the co-founder of the Mountain Standard Time Performative Festival (M:ST) and Soundasaurus. It doesn’t matter what I do, it always comes back to those two things. I co-founded M:ST over 15 years ago now, but it still comes up. I’m also a practicing artist.

MAGUIRE: Excellent. Those are both festivals with pretty high visibility. I’m interested in the founding process. How did M:ST and Soundasaurus come about? What kind of people were you working with?

MCGRATH: They’re both very different. Mountain Standard Time was grassroots and we only intended for it to be done once. It came out of the New Gallery when I was there, out of a project called Space for Space that I had started. [Space for Space] showcased mostly performative works that took place in the gallery space between regular programming. It was run by a core group of people, plus a few other people in the community.

At that time, there wasn’t a place for those activities, an ongoing space. People were doing short little sound pieces and performance pieces in cafés or wherever else they could. Actually, it’s funny, I walked by Stride [Gallery] earlier, and noticed that there’s a new juice bar. There was a juice bar there 15 years ago and that was where a lot of the sound [art] people hung out. It was weird for me to walk by and see history repeating itself. But yeah, getting people out of their basements and into a gallery space to collaborate was really important for us.

For M:ST, I asked a few other Programming Coordinators [at Artist-Run Centres] to collaborate. Many different coordinators were on board right away, such as Stride, Truck and of course the New Gallery because that’s where I was working at the time. The Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers was on board, and we also invited the Art Gallery of Calgary. The group of us got together and chatted about how this could work. We did the programming together, and put out a call for submissions. The New Gallery actually, funnily enough, got funding through DuMaurier Cigarettes for the festival. 

MAGUIRE: No way! I guess that’s not legal anymore

MCGRATH: Yeah, we got a substantial amount of money through that grant. They agreed to fund the project, and then they sent me this letter saying essentially ‘you can’t put our logo on anything because it’s illegal’. I asked them how we could recognize them and they basically said we couldn’t. I think it’s because the laws changed the year they funded us. We definitely lucked out. We also got funding through Canada Council’s Inter-Arts program. That program was originally established for performative artists, but it has now changed substantially. I don’t think M:ST is even eligible for that program anymore.

MAGUIRE: Given your experience, then, what advice would you give a student wanting to start a festival, artist-run centre, or even a business?

MCGRATH: I think students underestimate how important community is. If you don’t cultivate that before you leave ACAD, you’re probably going to be in trouble.

MAGUIRE: That’s something I’ve heard over and over from alumni. Everyone I have interviewed has underlined community as the most important thing you can get out of ACAD.

MCGRATH: People think cultivating community is strategic, but it’s not – it’s organic. You have to be open to making a community grow around you, and you have to surround yourself with people you know you’ll want to help, and that you know will want to help you. It’s a support structure.

MAGUIRE: I know with some students there’s an aversion to words like ‘networking’ or ‘community building,’ it has a bad reputation as being elitist or something. There almost seems to be this Hollywood conception of networking that’s really fabulous and maybe kind of vapid.

MCGRATH: There’s no Hollywood in the visual arts. The days of Andy Warhol art glamor are over. Anyone trying to recreate that is going to end up with something that looks very contrived.

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

MCGRATH: I think I was really lucky with the instructors I had. I entered ACAD a little naively, saying that I was going to be a painter. I have family members that are painters that are very traditional, and they sell their work and do well for themselves. I ended up taking a different path as soon as I knew that there were other options.

I initially started down a different degree path altogether, and I was working at a café and we were all showing our artwork at the café, and I showed some paintings. One of my friends asked me why I was pursuing this other degree while spending all my spare time painting. She wanted to know why I wasn't in art school. I took some part time art courses just to see what it would be like, and then left that other path when I applied and was accepted to ACAD.

MAGUIRE: After graduation, what obstacles did you encounter? How did you overcome them?

MCGRATH: I don’t necessarily see them as obstacles, but there have been some challenging times. Working at an artist-run centre, you don’t necessarily make a lot of money. The rent in Calgary is just nuts, though it’s getting a little better now. As an experienced practitioner, you learn how to not spread yourself quite so thin. Pick your battles. I was involved in so many things. Now, I am still involved, but I am more selective about what I pick and choose, and who I collaborate with. I feel like I’ve earned that.

MAGUIRE: I’m definitely experiencing that now. I feel like the ball is getting rolling and all these great opportunities are coming my way that I can’t turn down.

MCGRATH: It’s important to recognize that balance, because if you over-commit, you can get swallowed up and that’s when you stop making art.

MAGUIRE: Are there any new ways you can imagine ACAD supporting alumni?

MCGRATH: I think the Alumni Awards are a good starting place. I think they’re really important. Acknowledging the work that alumni do in the community is super important, and not only through these awards, because those only acknowledge a handful of people when there are thousands that do a lot of work in Calgary and beyond.

MAGUIRE: What do you think that the role of ACAD is in our cultural and economic prosperity?

MCGRATH: That’s a pretty broad question because there are ACAD alumni in every field, and they bring a lot. You learn how to problem solve at ACAD, and you learn how to be independent, but you also learn the importance of community and giving back to your community. All of those skills are important in almost any profession. I think the art schools haven’t been given the credit they deserve. I meet people all over the place that have graduated [from ACAD] and other art schools that are doing well and making their mark in different areas. More research into that – what people are doing after art school – is important.

Generally speaking, you have independent thinkers at ACAD. They are the square pegs that don’t fit into the round holes. Now that I’ve finished my Master’s, I can’t imagine not having that art education. The skills I’ve gained have been invaluable.

On the other hand, we think that art schools own creativity. We can’t forget that there’s a lot of crossover with other disciplines, including the sciences. I think that we [artists] contribute in a different way but we’re all part of this microcosm that makes change and growth in the community.