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In Your Face


In 2006, the Art Gallery of Ontario opened its doors to the public for a collaborative community project. Interpretive planner David Wistow and I had collaborated previously on two experimental interventions in the Degas (2003) and Modigliani (2004) exhibitions, where the public was invited to create art in the exhibition space. We used these prior experiences to design In Your Face, an exhibition created entirely by and for the public.

- Gillian McIntyre

When or where do you see representations that reflect your sense of identity?
As you scroll through the self-portraits, think about how you would represent your own image on a 4" x 6" card. What materials would you choose? What kind of artistic style would you use?
How would your representation be different from other representations you see used in visual culture?

Use the links to the right to browse this presentation.


Gillian McIntyre is the Adult Program Coordinator at the AGO. She organizes various formal and informal programs. She was also the provincial liaison for ArtsAccess. One of her favourite projects is In Your Face: the people's portrait project. In 2006, Gillian and colleague David Wistow asked people to send in their portraits for a public exhibition. The response was extraordinary. The range of submissions was vast - from all ages, levels of ability and communities. The images reflected an enormous amount of effort and thought and the humour, honesty and ingenuity were moving.

Open Call for Portraits

A call for submissions went out in January 2006 in newspapers, via email, and on the AGO web site. Members of the public were asked to submit postcard-size drawn, painted, or written portraits. The only criteria were that the art be original and 4"x6", and that a signed consent form accompany it. The portraits were not judged, and there was no limit on how many could be submitted.

Public Response

The response was extraordinary. By the time the exhibition opened in July, people had sent over 10,000 portraits from across Canada and beyond in various media, including drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, encaustic, papier mâché, digitally based work, acrylic, silk screen, relief print, and photo-based imagery. Packages arrived containing protraits from individuals, whole communities, classes, and families. In an age when most mail is computer generated, these very handmade parcels were exciting to receive.

Around the Globe

Public imagination was captured. Word continued to spread and more submissions arrived, not only from Canada, but also Italy, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, Holland, Switzerland, France, and Australia. By December, we had received 17,000 portraits. The range of responses was vast - from all ages, levels of ability, and types of communities. The images reflected an enormous amount of effort and thought, and the humour, honesty, and ingenuity were moving.

Community Invitation

As the exhibition grew, it received significant media attention, not only to report on the project but also to use it as a location. This use of the gallery as a real community centre brought life to the institution and transmitted the life of the gallery out into the community. The AGO's director, Matthew Teitelbaum said, "I think the challenge with a big institution is it seems elitist. This project says, 'You belong here. This is your place.'"

A Hub of Activity

Visitors to the exhibition were able to make portraits at stations in the exhibition and leave them to be installed. Many photographed one another in the space, often holding up their portraits by those mounted on the wall. The exhibition was extensively used as a social space. One man sat at the drawing station for 45 minutes creating a drawing then came back for cards for his wife and co-workers. He said, "I think this exhibition is a great idea because it breaks into the social realm."


Internally, at the AGO, In Your Face gave cause for reflection at a time when the gallery was under construction and in transition. The transformation was not only physical, but conceptual as well, as we revisited our mandate and vision. In a sense, construction metaphorically removed the corsets from a fairly traditional institution and made room for change.

Who's in Control?

What happens when an institution like the AGO relinquishes control? What if, instead of positioning ourselves as arbiters of taste, we challenge the gatekeepers who think they maintain the canons of excellence and provide an inclusive framework, honouring the creativity in all?

A Creative Community

That this exhibtion was relevant was made obvious by the overwhelming response. It grew into something bigger than we had even imagined, drawing on the strength of the whole, doing together with the public what would have been impossible for us to do alone, capturing public and institutional imagination. The strength came from the collective act of creativity and the community contributions. Perhaps we should grey the boundaries, and as Mark O'Neill, head of Museums and Galleries in Glasgow, has said, "go beyond the sterile conflict between 'elitism' and 'dumbing down'." Surely, fostering and honouring the creativity of the general public and thinking of their art as part of a continuum with professional art will be more fruitful.


As the exhibition evolved, we had to improvise to accomodate new work and respond to the many public inquiries, requiring the AGO to be more flexible than it is accustomed to being. Somehow, the open-endedness of the project kept it alive and in play in response to visitors. The portraits noticeably reflected far more diversity of all sorts than is usually seen on AGO walls or among gallery visitors. Since Toronto is a very multicultural city, this deficiency must be addressed.

On several occasions, children visiting enthusiastically pointed out people who looked like them on the walls, literally saying, "That looks like me" or "That's me with dreadlocks." Being able to identify oneself and having something to relate to is essential for inclusion. Museums have an implicit role in forging identity and can start by honouring individualism.

Social inclusion means actively seeking out and removing barriers. Programming open-ended projects like In Your Face allows the institution to go a long way towards being relevant and inclusive. People enjoy being creative and want to explore the creativity of others in an accessible, attainable, and engaging way. If the museum can act as a catalyst for creativity - and 17,000 people have shown us that it can - the only direction our standard can go is up. Let us allow the walls to become more permeable and see what will happen.

On The Move

In a first time partnership between the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Portrait Gallery of Canada, the AGO sent its In Your Face exhibition to Ottawa for a special installation at the Library and Archives Building from October 29, 2007 to March 2, 2008.

In Your Face is the AGO’s largest ever exhibition of art generated entirely by the public. Since opening with 8,000 submissions in July of 2006, the show has grown to nearly 20,000 works with portraits submitted from every province in Canada and countries around the world. With the AGO having recently closed to complete its Frank Gehry designed transformation and install nearly 5,000 works in 110 galleries, the National Portrait Gallery is continuing this important exhibition. Since the exhibition opened in 2006 we have been surprised, amazed, intrigued and moved beyond our wildest imaginations by what we have seen. The Portrait Gallery of Canada’s installation of In Your Face featured some 15,000 portraits, including the recently added works by three Toronto area community groups Adelaide Women’s Art Studio, ArtHeart Community Art Centre and Sketch.

Last modified on April 15, 2013