Frank Talks

Allison Yearwood – Executive Director of Plug In, Canada’s leading ICA

Allison Yearwood - Executive Director of Plug In, Canada’s leading ICA
Allison Yearwood - Executive Director of Plug In, Canada’s leading ICA

Allison Yearwood is the Executive Director of Plug In, Canada’s leading ICA, located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Allison is an alumni of the University of Winnipeg, with a political science and business administration degree, and brings a fresh focus to the business of arts administration. Previously, Allison was the Program Manager in the Indigenous Arts Department, at the Banff Centre, in Banff, Alberta. Prior to the Banff Centre, Allison served as the Art and Business Manager at Yamaji Art, an Aboriginal art centre in Australia, and she was the General Manager of Collective of Black Artists in Toronto. Allison was the Programming and Events Coordinator at the Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre in Fort Smith, North West Territories, and she was the first non-Indigenous staff member at Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg. Allison advocates for racialized and disenfranchised groups to decolonize institutions of power from the ground up. She is exceptionally skilled on issues of equity and a powerful and transformative voice for anti-racism action. Allison’s institutional critique articulates the creation of safe spaces for underserved communities within the institution.

What was your first job in the Arts? 

It was at Graffiti Art Programming as an Event Coordinator for the inaugural International Mural Festival.

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

How important it is to let other forms of expression be seen and viewed.  How we have to include artists from different practices to best understand how to make organizations welcoming to the folks they purport to want to help.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

I had to realize that I was cultivating a career by following my passion. I was developing relationships with folks I genuinely liked, respected and wanted to learn from — to be able to have those kinds of relationships supported by creativity was a realization of awe for me. 

The moment I took what I did seriously was when I understood the knowledge of transfer that was happening, and being so honored that I was able to be included and educated in an arts perspective with Indigenous people/communities was when I knew this would be my life work.

What do you do now? 

I am so fortunate to be the Executive Director of Plug In ICA and the Board Chair of Aceart Inc. I am also a board member at large for Spiderweb Show.

Where are you from? 

Treaty 1, Metis homeland, otherwise known as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

What is the arts community like there? 

Diverse (in terms of the expressions of work), world-class, and in an extreme state of growth. Redefining.

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Absolutely, growing up in the ‘Peg exposes you to know that you have to be at the top of your game. Hardworking, to an absolute fault. Winnipeggers are dependent on the weather/environment and that causes us to look out for one another, demonstrating care in the work I do is a trait that I deeply honor. I have had a unique career in the arts and I think it stems from all of the qualities that Winnipeg prides itself on, even if it doesn’t know it!

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

Be patient. That is the hardest thing to do in the art world yet most who have had long careers in it would probably also echo it. The best moments/works/events have come out of situations when the time was allowed. It takes time to develop relationships, it takes time to build trusting partnerships, it takes time for good work to grow, and it takes experience to make the right people who can hold all of that.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

It’s a tie between being the first-ever non-Indigenous staff member to work at Urban Shaman Aboriginal Contemporary Gallery and being able to hold my current position on Treaty 1 Plug In ICA’s first-ever Black Executive Director.

What has been a challenge for you?

Trying to galvanize a network of critically minded folks to move the current dialogue out of survival mode and into what will be the better ways of doing safe, compassionate and critical work.

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?

Laugh, and let those who I come into contact with know that I am grateful for sharing with them.

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

Ha! That I can legally divulge…

I will say speaking to a room full of NASA scientists about Aboriginal Australian Sky Stories tops the list. I spoke to them about Illgarijiri, a Wadjarri word, in Washington DC, in defense of the world’s largest telescope, that comes from Australia and New Zealand.

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

A good employee is someone who gives everything they have to their role. A good boss is someone who sits in service of their employees.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Being themselves! Authenticity, people can see through a fake persona. Never be afraid to be yourself, let your freak flag fly! If an employee can’t see the forest through the trees, why would you want to contribute to them? Let your employer be excited about you! Come to the table with that attitude and watch how infectious they will be about you!

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for giving a great interview?

Know your role on the team and shine in it! If you are the quiet wallflower who keeps everyone on task, then own it. If you are a big ideas person, make sure that you offer those great ideas but be sensitive enough to know that no one “loves” an extrovert all the time.

I tell folks the best advice for interviews is to treat it like a conversation. A conversation is relatable and allows you to feel comfortable and in control. It also prevents all of those pesky anxious thoughts in your head and provides you to be present in the interview. I have made the mistake of practicing and rehearsing my answers, it wasn’t allowing my best version to shine — conversation puts you in the best, informal light.

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

Yes, don’t be afraid to not be at the top all the time.

Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?

Don’t be afraid to sidestep and try things that might seem “beneath you”, I have been amazed by how many opportunities have come to me when I have done things with the ‘why not’ approach and enthusiasm. 

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

I am going to be selfish and say the one that is currently up at PIICA. It’s a retrospective of works of the career of Lori Blondeau, “I’m Not Your Kinda Princess.”

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Kent Monkman

Damien Hirst 

Rebecca Belmore

Deana Bowen

Richard Bell

How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?

Yes, we are in the midst of a mental health care crisis and we can use art to be the pathway to have the conversation that leads to the action.

How do you think art should be shared and/or experienced moving forward? 

We are going to want to gather, so we are going to have to have more intimacy in art. I can see artists talk cuddle parties that have been structured in consent.

What is your go-to snack in quarantine? And your go-to soundtrack?

Everything that can be delivered, but I have discovered the filled cronut…remember I live in Winnipeg, trends come 5 years after they have happened elsewhere!

Since we are all at home and exploring more galleries and museums online, perhaps some for the first time, when the quarantine is lifted, what is your first art-filled destination?

Toronto! Caribana!

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

Where it’s safe to do so, yes…

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