Mary MacDonald: Re-imagining Place and Opening Community Dialogue

By Michael McCormack

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“A group of artists are sitting around a kitchen table. A bottle of wine cracked. They start talking. They imagine a place of their own, a place to show the kind of work that they want to make, without rules, without the need to satisfy trends, collectors, museums. A place where they get to call the shots, a place about now, right now, all the time now.”


Mary MacDonald was deeply committed to overcoming the barriers between art professionals and all surrounding communities, seeing them as interlocking rather than separate. She valued all levels of partnerships, especially day-to-day, unexpected interactions with people and places that she encountered, which always resulted in stronger and long-lasting bonds between all people involved. Mary was incredibly receptive to all immediate happenings, yet solidly thoughtful and steadfast in her morals, supporting all her friends, community members, artists and partners. She was brilliantly funny, witty, kind-hearted, fearless and spontaneous. She had a rare ability to bridge people together from completely separate walks of life, without judgement or incentives, purely through a genuine interest and belief that through collaboration and respect, communities can bond and strengthen. Both her curatorial practice and her life were dedicated to this.

I am extremely lucky to have worked with Mary, and I continue to learn from my experiences with her, extending her influence to the many communities that we collectively serve as artists, writers, curators, practitioners, and friends. Mary’s dedication, brilliance, and foresight lead us through some essential milestones during the planning stages of Flotilla.

The impact of Mary’s passing was felt across many artistic communities who worked with her directly as visiting artists or collaborators. Many people who attended and contributed to Flotilla knew her well. It was particularly touching to have such a large group of participants from Newfoundland and Labrador who worked closely with Mary, and hosted a series titled SHED Talks at the Carriage House in Beaconsfield next to Charlottetown’s Victoria Park waterfront. The SHED Talks series allowed friends and colleagues to reunite after such a difficult loss, a reminder of the tremendous importance of creating space for grief, healing, and support both inside and outside within the scheduled Flotilla events and more intimately. In any situation, her presence was felt both in the programming itself that she helped design, and through her memory and influence on others.

Eastern Edge Gallery Anna Kate Newman, Candace Fulford, Melanie Colosimo, and Philippa Jones created the Mary MacDonald Foundation in the months following Mary’s passing, in order to support independent curatorial projects in Newfoundland & Labrador. In this crucial time, mere weeks before Flotilla, the Foundation partnered with VANL-CARFAC to relaunch the ART=WORK campaign in memory of Mary.  In April 2013, Eastern Edge (under Mary's direction) hosted the first ART=WORK forum in partnership with VANL-CARFAC, to advocate for arts workers’ rights in response to significant staff layoffs at the Rooms. The forum culminated in an extensive 25-page report, created by Mary, which offers a glimpse into first-person accounts of austerity measures in the Newfoundland arts sector. The crowd at Flotilla was dotted with small ART=WORK pins, a reminder of Mary’s ongoing committment to labour equity in the arts. Acknowledging artists as workers, Mary drew attention to the ways that labour shortages in Newfoundland effect artists. In 2016 she publishing a list of artists who left Newfoundland and Labrador due to the limited professional opportunities. Mary wrote, “Next time the province touts the cultural industry as alive and well, think about this list of 236 names who have taken their ideas, vision, and creativity with them.”

Her expertise as a community leader, director, editor, writer, and mentor brought out the best qualities in everyone around her. She propelled cutting-edge programming initiatives as director of Eastern Edge Gallery, Board member of Atlantis, and founder of Girls Rock NL, and her many independent projects continue to support artists in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She contributed a great deal to the writing of our major grants, the creative visioning, curatorial framework, and most of all, the core mindset of the Flotilla concept. Her own curatorial work was acutely in tune with Flotilla’s programming. Henry Adam Svec describes her curatorial strategy as a “kitchen party praxis.” Rather than a gatekeeper of art objects, Mary was a cultural connector who initiated unexpected conversations between community members who were soon to become fast friends. In Svec’s words, she “looked to assemble aesthetic energy that would continue to gestate long after she herself headed on to other scenes and projects.” She approached her curatorial work with humility, seeing herself as one of many key players in an artist’s artistic practice. In the curatorial essay for the 2012 Pictou County W(here) Festival, she wrote:


“As curator of W(here), it is my hope to animate possibilities for connections ..., however I am also a traveler, a listener, a partner and a moderator amongst many individuals whose perspectives about this place overlap and undertow.”

Mary was a cultural initiator who launched initiatives that continue to resonate long after passing. In her Master’s thesis, which focused on rural and community-engaged art practices, she used nautical metaphor the describe constant evolution of “here.”


“Like incoming waves upon a beach each narrative builds upon the last. But is it possible or even necessary to know all of the waves that have come before and will come in the future? No. For when we watch the waves come in, it is the movement, the making, the telling of the beach’s story right before our eyes that we are drawn to. The beach is constantly evolving just like ‘here’.”

This aquatic imagery extended into Flotilla’s curatorial framework, in a way that was unabashed, honest, and unafraid of cliché. Mary contributed to the conceptual framework of Flotilla in a way that captured the importance of coastal imagery in the everyday life of  ocean-bound regions. She wrote about the Atlantic provinces in a way that acknowledged the impact and constant, undulating presence of shifting tides.

In Mary’s 2014 article “Artist-Run Life,” she envisioned an arts venue which artists could claim as their own, “a place where they get to call the shots, a place about now, right now, all the time now.” In many ways FLOTILLA aimed to actualize a temporary version of her vision for artist-run organizing which is only concerned with the now. Thriving on spontaneity and surprise, Flotilla actualized a seemingly impossible dream born out of Mary’s visionary imagination.

Read the full transcript of the first public ART=WORK forum hosted by Eastern Edge, under the direction of Mary MacDonald on April 9, 2013.

Printed matter distributed at Flotilla included a dedication to Mary’s legacy. Photo: Amanda Shore

Printed matter distributed at Flotilla included a dedication to Mary’s legacy. Photo: Amanda Shore

Flotilla delegate at opening reception, wearing an ART=WORK pin. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Flotilla delegate at opening reception, wearing an ART=WORK pin. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

"Mary was and will continue to be a bright light in the contemporary artist-led scene on the East Coast. Her positivity, dedication and thoughtful work were an inspiration to me. She will be deeply missed, and I look forward to bringing Flotilla to life in September, as her vision helped to craft this game changing event. I am so very honoured to have had the privilege of working with Mary."
— Becka Viau, Project Manager, Flotilla, 2017.

“Mary's dedication to the region, joyful approach, commitment to artistic rigour, and generous care for the greater community, are to be admired, and remembered. My deepest condolences go to Mary's family, friends, and colleagues. This is a loss keenly felt by all who were lucky to know her."
— Katie Belcher, Artistic Director, Eyelevel and Co-President of the Board of Atlantis, 2017

“Mary shaped the gallery with a heart that included everyone, reinforced the arts community, and extended our reach far beyond”
— Philippa Jones, Director, Eastern Edge, 2017.