School of Art mourns passing of SOA alumna, colleague, and friend Sigrid Dahle
Sigrid Dahle, one of the most innovative curators, art writers and critics of her generation, certainly one of the most brilliant to have emerged from the Winnipeg art scene – in a tragic trick of fate – died on Halloween 2020 of complications related to the novel coronavirus.
Like many cultural workers in relatively small art communities such as Winnipeg’s, Sigrid played many roles in a number of professional capacities and associations. Her close association with the School of Art, the School of Art Gallery, and the University of Manitoba over a 36-year period replicated this multiplicity of roles. She was variously, a student, contract worker, and employee.
After completing a BA in Psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Sigrid entered the School of Art’s Art History program, completing her studies in 1986. She distinguished herself in several ways as a student, serving on the Gallery One One One (now the School of Art Gallery) Advisory Committee as Student Representative, and working as Curatorial Assistant to then-Gallery Director Grace Eiko Thomson, who introduced her to both curating and to pioneering Winnipeg artist and former School of Art Director, Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald.
In 1987, the year following her graduation, she curated two of her most important early exhibitions: Mary Scott: Textu(r)al Strategies, and A Multiplicity of Voices: Work by Manitoba Women Artists, a collaboration with Plug In. This landmark exhibition celebrated the extraordinary 1980s fluorescence of art by women, and included works by Eleanor Bond, Sheila Butler, Susan Chafe, Aganetha Dyck, Joanne Jackson Johnson, G.N. Louise Jonasson, Wanda Koop, Rosemary Kowalsky, Laura Letinsky, Kim Ouellette, Donnelly Smallwood, Reva Stone and School of Art Professor Diane Whitehouse to broad audiences The same year, on the strength of her curatorial projects, she was hired as the first Director-Curator at the newly established Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, where she remained until 1990.
In 1997 she was contracted to curate an exhibition for Gallery One One One. The result was Muse Ecology: A Critical Selection of Works from the Collection, a project that addressed the legacy of L.L. FitzGerald at the School. Her early study of psychology led to a lifelong interest in the object relations theory of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, which informed her intellectual frame of reference, including her analysis of FitzGerald and the School’s past. She went on to organize a number of exhibitions for Gallery One One One, and was notably sought out by then-Gallery Director, the late Cliff Eyland, who had a sure eye for talent and intellectual virtuosity as Curator-in-Residence, a position she held from 2002 to 2004. While serving in this capacity, she did some of her most innovative work, notably curating Blind Spot: The Gothic Unconscious in which she traced the multiple layers of trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples, immigrants, workers, women, and other marginalized people of The Red River/Winnipeg/Treaty One Territory going back to colonization and forward to present day. Blind Spot predates much contemporary discourse on settler colonialism and subjectivity. Her other projects during this period included Trauerspiel, which featured work by Guy Maddin, L. B. Foote, and T. G. Hamilton, Das Cabinet des Dr. Jeanne Randolph, and Ghost Month/Ice Fishing in Gimli, featuring the work of William Eakin and Rob Kovitz.
In 2010-11 Sigrid was hired as Interim Gallerist of Gallery One One One. During this time, she played a major role at the School, receiving a substantial Canadian Heritage Cultural Spaces Grant to support the provision of necessary infrastructure for the new School of Art Gallery in the soon-to-be-built ARTLab. In 2011 she enrolled as a student in the School of Art’s MFA program, graduating two years later with a hybrid thesis project that straddled the boundary between fine art and curation. After completing her graduate degree, she was employed as a Library Assistant at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections. In 2014, she was hired as Art Collections Coordinator for the University of Manitoba Collections, serving in that capacity with great distinction until the final year of her life. While at the University in her new position, she taught as a sessional instructor and she continued to serve the School of Art Gallery on its Acquisitions Committee and on the search committee for a new Gallery Director in 2019-20. Dahle also gave occasional, always engaging, guest lectures in various courses at the School of Art.
As active as she was within the orbit of the School of Art, Sigrid’s curatorial and writing career (for she almost always wrote beautiful and incisive texts in association with her exhibitions) cut a wide and challenging swath through the exhibition history of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. She worked with many institutions in the Prairie provinces, including the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Ace Art, the St. Norbert Arts Centre, SITE Gallery, MAWA, Gallery 1CO3 and Video Pool in Winnipeg; the Muttart Public Art Gallery in Calgary; the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon; and the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, as well as Saw Gallery in Ottawa. In 2010 she was invited by Anthony Kiendl, Director of Plug In ICA to curate a section of My Winnipeg, the highly regarded exhibition held at the la maison rouge in Paris and the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Sète, France. The result was a documentary installation entitled There’s no place like home. Among others, her many curatorial and writing projects involved the work of Dale Amundson, Lorna Brown, Kay Cherniski, Peter Courtemanche, Sarah Crawley, Michael Dumontier, Vanessa Eidse, Tom Elliot, Jennifer Hamilton, Dianne Higgins, Ming Hon, Steve Loft, Divya Mehra, Kim Morgan, Jake Moore, Kim Ouellette, Hope Peterson, Taras Polataiko, Sheila Spence, Diana Thorneycroft, Karen Thornton, Martha Townsend, Kevin Waugh and Lori Weidenhammer.
A particularly brilliant project was Abattoirs by Artists, completed as part of the Curatorial Consortium assembled at the Mendel Art Gallery by then-Director Gilles Hébert. Abattoirs included work by Lois Andison, Blair Brennan, Dana Claxton, Richard Dyck, Joe Fafard, FASTWÜRMS, Steve Higgins, Matt Holm, Wendy Jacob, Doug Melnyk, Larry Glawson, and Bernie Miller, among others. Also notable are the exhibitions she curated for the Dunlop Art Gallery, particularly Dust, which included the work of Julie Andreyev, Michelle Bellemare, Joanne Bristol, Michael Buckland, Agnes Denes, Stan Denniston, John Noesthedan, Otto Rogers and KD Thornton. What is remarkable about this record of engagement/achievement is that while Sigrid championed the work of Indigenous, female, queer and racialized artists, she did not neglect the work of the established, generally male artists she admired, including artists of the older Modernist generation such as L.L. FitzGerald and Otto Rogers. Her artistic purview was as wide as her intellectual interests were expansive. She also experimented with collectives, forming the Free Associates with Kendra Ballingal and Joanne Bristol. Sigrid also occasionally engaged in performative public actions for organizations like MAWA and Plug In ICA.
Sigrid was a prolific writer who produced texts for most of her exhibitions – published upwards of 50 texts in association with exhibitions and for other occasions. She was also a frequent lecturer, curator and mentor for Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA). She served on many juries for various granting agencies, and on a number of boards (including as President of Visual Arts Manitoba, and Chair of MAWA in 1985-86 and 1994-96). Her engagement with MAWA was a particularly deep one.
She is perhaps best known to the general public as an outspoken art critic for the Winnipeg Free Press from 2000 to 2002. Sigrid took her role seriously, engaging in real critical discourse rather than producing the congratulatory promotional pieces that often pass for critique.
Sigrid devoted her life to thinking, writing, speaking, organizing, curating and dreaming about art, history and life. Born in Saskatchewan and educated in Alberta and Manitoba, she was dedicated to supporting and developing curatorial practice, art writing and art criticism throughout the Canadian Prairies. She brought a rare level of intellectual and critical engagement to her work. Our attempt to encapsulate her achievements, impossible as it has proven to be, generated within us a sense of the energy of her vivid curiosity, and with its all-too-early cessation, instilled in us the thought of what she might have accomplished had her life continued. Dahle’s death leaves us wanting more, and grieving at the impossibility of that desire. The School of Art community grieves with Sigrid’s husband Larry, her daughter Emma and her many friends and colleagues. She will be remembered as a creative feminist intellectual of the first order. Her sudden and cruel departure leaves a profound void in our community.
Dr. Oliver Botar and Donna Jones