Interview with Gaëtane Verna, Director, The Power Plant Toronto

The power plant Toronto
Gaëtane Verna, Director, The Power Plant Toronto

"I, very humbly hope that the work presented — whether contemplativeor not — transforms our visitors into better citizens aware of the universal context and issues that impact us all regardless of our differences."

Gaëtane Verna is the Director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada’s leading public gallery devoted exclusively to contemporary visual art since 2012. She will be a contributing panellist to the moderated talk, Claiming Other Art Histories, part of the art program of the ENTER art fair. The talk will take place on Saturday August 31st, at 2pm, at the ENTER art fair on Refshaleøen.


Founded in 1987, The Power Plant (TPP) was initially established in 1976 as the Art Gallery at Harbourfront in Toronto. In 1980, the Art Gallery at Harbourfront was provided with the opportunity to renovate the 1920s powerhouse as its new home. Since its earliest programming, The Power Plant has been dedicated to presenting new and recent work by Canadian artists along with their international peers. Over its history, the program has included ambitious thematic exhibitions and major solo exhibitions by Canadians such as Stan Douglas, General Idea, Geoffrey Farmer, Liz Magor, Annie Pootoogook, and Michael Snow. Solo exhibitions by international artists include those by Fiona Banner, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Ann Hamilton, Pedro Reyes, Nancy Spero, Franz Erhard Walter and many more. In 2006, The Power Plant inaugurated an annual commissioning program, which included the presentation of new works by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Scott Lyall, Mike Nelson, Pae White and most recently Maria Hupfield, Kapwani Kiwanga and Amalia Pica amongst others. In 2014, the gallery introduced The Fleck Clerestory Commission Program with an inaugural exhibition by Toronto based artist Shelagh Keeley followed by Carlos Amorales, Latifa Echakhch, Michael Landy and Abbas Akhavan. Over its thrithy-two years, The Power Plant has produced over forty influential and award-winning publications to accompany the many exhibitions.  

The Power Plant has always been a forerunner in the contemporary art scene since its foundation. The institution has granted shows to generations of both internationally recognised and emerging artists, proving how the latter would establish their career a few years later following their presentation in Toronto. This has been the case for Candice Breiz, Keren Cytter, Jos de Gruyter, Peter Doig, Simon Fujiwara, Simon Starling, and also including Danish artists like Superflex and Joachim Koester.

Power Plant Toronto
John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Collection of the Tate: Jointly purchased by Tate and the British Council, 2013. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2015. Courtesy the artist; Smoking Dogs Films; and Carroll Fletcher, London. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

What does it mean for a non-collecting institution like TPP to ‘promote and foster the understanding of contemporary art’?

It is my personal belief that a contemporary visual arts institution must reflect the urgent questions of our society. In doing so we must disrupt, we must question, we must stay abreast of key issues that are of interest to both artists and audiences alike. We must be a beacon for change and dialogue. Freed of the constraints of a collection, exhibition making, and the commission of new works, public programs, symposia and publications become essential in order for us to further nurture our mission of exchange and discussions within a multidisciplinary environment. We also take our responsibility to the different communities that we serve quite seriously and artists are a key community that we strive to be in constant dialogue with and support through a diversity of initiatives that we specifically develop and gear essentially to their sole benefit.

TPP is also known for its politically significant exhibitions. You have curated some of them, including exhibitions with historically renowned artists such as Franz Erhard Walter and Pedro Cabrita Reis, Jonh Akomfrah, Pedro Reyes and younger artists such as Mario Pfeifer.

How do you choose to curate exhibitions in the program? I imagine you develop the whole artistic program for the gallery. How do you choose exhibitions? What is the drive that leads you to work with certain artists?

I am unapologetically interested in people and extremely curious and perceptive. I am often thinking of issues that are at the forefront of our community, whether they are of local, national or international relevance. Keeping these issues in mind, when I come across the work of artists that explore these questions and beyond, I tend to seize the opportunity to invite them to exhibit or develop a new project with our team at TPP or invited guest curators. The nimbleness of our institution enables these rapid decisions. In other cases I follow the work of artists for many years from a distance and then when the right moment or context presents itself we will work together on a project that will then be presented as an exhibition at TPP and beyond through our circulation or co-production initiatives. I am interested in the artists that through their artworks enable and affect the power of imagination in their viewers. My hope is always that these projects are both a catalyst for the artist and benefit to the public near or far. My deepest wish is that through all these endeavours we create opportunities for audiences to think and to be attentive and active visitors. In the end I am driven by a deep concern for the world in which we live in and a yearning to break the silos that too often separate and divide people. I, very humbly hope that the work presented —whether contemplative or not —transforms our visitors into better citizens aware of the universal context and issues that impact us all regardless of our differences.

Power Plant Toronto
Mario Pfeifer, If you end up with the story you started with, then you're not listening along the way, 2019. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Could you tell us more about a project that you curated at TPP which had the strongest impact in your career and why?

It would be impossible to do so at this point. The reason is simply that each of the projects that I have curated have provided me with encounters of varying sorts. Some curatorial projects have provided me with long-term collaborators, some have introduced me to entirely new communities of artists, some have enabled me to understand the world that is constantly transforming itself before our eyes and forcing me to do so. Other projects will stay in my mind as perfect examples of synergy between space, time, place and architecture. Throughout these different projects I have learned an awful lot about my self and human spirit. Exhibition making and curating is a continuously evolving journey and one that I am always excited to undertake without any certitude of the destination and the long-term effect in my personal and professional life.

At ENTER Live Art Program “An Endless Present” you are invited to participate in a conversation that reflects on how institutions have the agency to give voice to marginalized, hidden and silenced art histories developing narratives on the research supporting exhibition making. What is the major concern of your curatorial ethics?

Having a mandate, which clearly stipulates that we are to be dedicated to contemporary visual art from Canada and the world, we seriously use it to guide all of our decisions and actions. We do not shy away from difficult questions, or from the many criticisms that we are continually faced with. Within our artistic community, there are critiques as well as allies. Some feel that our program is too culturally diverse… Some feel that by presenting the work of artists from the diasporas of the world that we too often import histories of trauma and exclusion; some feel that we do not present enough artists from certain specific parts of the world; some find that we do not present enough local artists. Some are only interested in our ability to present international artists to our local public. As thoughtful individuals, they strive to keep in mind that not everyone has the means to travel and attend biennales and art fairs around the globe and want to support our ability to present the world in Toronto at The Power Plant. 

Many many more, believe in our vision and our programs and support the gallery with eagerness, trust and a deep sense of altruism. In all our decisions we never stray away from our responsibility of being distinct and engaging with everyone who crosses the threshold of our gallery regardless of their color, origin, religion or sexual orientation. We seek to have a program that will take our visitors on a journey enabling them to discover works from different areas of the world while providing them the unique opportunity of having a direct contact with the artists with whom we work.  Hearing the artists’ voices during talks and In Conversations, benefiting from their knowledge during our master classes programs and engaging with their work through exhibitions, editions, publications and adjunct film program and multi-disciplinary and multi generational initiatives of all sorts. Artists are history makers who continuously translate and transpose a variety of perspectives. We feel the need to be a bridge that foster and mediates all these human histories.

Power Plant Toronto
Franz Erhard Walther, Call to Action, 2016. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2016. Collection of The Franz Erhard Walther Foundation. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

As the director of a public art gallery, what is your main concern when you decide the artistic program? What is your agenda?

We live in a period of political chicanery, populist ideals, hostility that can give way to a profound feeling of hopelessness. Henceforth, I am concerned in presenting and developing a diverse multidisciplinary exhibition program that constantly surprises visitors while repeatedly transforming the architecture of our gallery space. I also keep in mind the fact that many of our visitors will come and see exhibitions and encounter artist’s works for the very first time in most cases. It becomes essential that we create an environment of open dialogue giving everyone the ability to ask questions and find answers that might challenge our certitudes. The role of our artistic program is to strike a balance of different forces at play simultaneously.

How can a non-collecting contemporary institution promote, value and strengthen diversity as a crucial feature to live in a collectivity?

TPP is based in Toronto, Canada. Our city is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Close to 52% of our population is composed of what are too often wrongly defined as visible minorities — I call it the world!  As our city’s census reports 200 ethnic groups with over 140 languages spoken, we fully acknowledge that we live in a highly diverse community which is an undeniably stimulating and thought-provoking fact. With this in mind our role is to actively engage and embrace this condition and continuously foster an environment that celebrates and confront the many facets of our evolving city and our country. Within our program we present artists who often question history, challenge injustice and inequities while producing works that transcend the materials being used as well as the subject matter, works that are poetic, lyrical and contemplative and in the end profoundly moving.

"Artists are history makers who continuously translate and transpose a variety of perspectives."

What role is TPP playing in Canada and in the international art scene? How does the institution collaborate with sister institutions in the country and abroad?

In the last seven years we have pursued the mandate of the gallery by presenting the work of Canadian artists along side their international peers. We have further engaged in co-production projects enabling the commission of larger scale projects and more in depth production of publications that become milestones for the artists that we work with. Our collaborative efforts focus on the benefits to the artists and we are open to working with different types of museums, artist run centres, university galleries and kunsthalle model organizations in Canada and abroad. We have made a concerted effort to present the work of artists from all parts of the world without shying away from challenging questions and showcasing the works of artists from regions of the world rarely presented in our vast country. Some now believe that we are too diverse… I do not quite know what they entail but at all level of the organization we promote open dialogue and diversity in programs and in our teams. Within our vision we are interested in all voices and we give them a seat at the table in order to ensure that we are never complacent and forgetful of the ever-changing landscape in which we operate.

How do you envision the future of TPP in ten years?

Since 1987 our gallery has had the good fortune of being led by singular individuals that have all left their mark on the exhibition programs while reflecting the urgent topics of their time. I cannot tell the future, but I would hope that we would continue to present works that are challenging and coherent with our society and its lived experiences. I hope that we will be able to do so aided at all levels of the organization by a team of curators, staffs and board members that share the same mission and culture. We often refer to the TPP team as a like-minded group of individuals believing in a profound vision for our organisation whether one is a Gallery Attendant or a Curator of Exhibition for instance. We are like a choir where we all have different voices but we strive to sing in harmony.

Power Plant Toronto
Pedro Reyes: Sanatorium. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2014. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Gaëtane Verna Bio

Gaëtane Verna is the Director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada’s leading public gallery devoted exclusively to contemporary visual art since March 2012.

Before taking up the post at The Power Plant, she was Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Musée d’art de Joliette in Lanaudière, Quebec for six years. Prior to this appointment, from 1998 to 2006, she was the curator of the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University, while also teaching in the Art History department of both Bishop’s University and the Université du Québec à Montréal.

She has many years of experience in curating, publishing catalogues and organizing exhibitions by emerging, mid-career and established Canadian and international artists alike. Verna was presented with the insignia as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the Cultural Service of the Embassy of France in Canada in 2018.