A particular feeling arises when a news headline confirms what you have felt but did not have the hard data to confirm. A few months ago marked this moment for me. I remember reading the article A Crisis of Whiteness in Canada’s Art Museums, which surveyed the nation’s four largest public art museums—Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Vancouver Art Gallery—to ascertain that their top leadership is predominantly white and lacking in racial diversity. For BIPOC artists, curators and art workers operating within this industry, this is hardly news.
In fact, a number of prominent figures (such as Syrus Marcus Ware, Zainab Verjee, Devyani Saltzman, Lou-ann Neel, Amanda Parris, Paulina Johnson, Rea McNamara, Nataleah Hunter-Young, Sarah Mason-Case, Armando Perla, to name a few) have recently spoken about the representation, equity and systemic racism present within the arts landscape and its intrinsic connections to larger systems of oppression. This article is not an attempt to restate what has already been brought forth regarding the Canadian cultural sector’s lack of immunity to the deeply intertwined systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. Instead, it is an exploration of thinking through my own position in the Canadian arts industry.
As someone who began their first full-time art-related job in 2017, how do I voice my concerns which critique a system that I largely rely on through references and employment? As the adage goes, do you bite the hand that feeds you?
As a Pakistani settler of colour, this catch-22 has played out in an inner dialogue:
You saw what happened last time you brought something up. What is the point then? Nothing will change-why risk the uncertainty of a good reference or another uphill battle with bureaucracy? You can’t change the system. Is silence not compliance? Are you upholding, contributing and benefiting to keep things the way they are?
I admit that I am still learning (i.e. unlearning), including confronting the realities within my own community of anti-Black racism, discrimination of 2SLGBTQIA+ people, ableism, and classism. I am certain that my experience working in the arts field is not unique and that harnessing the strength of collective voices through public forums can bring about unprecedented change.
This image is a detail of the installation view of Duane Linklater's, 'What Then Remainz' from 2016 at Mercer Union in Toronto. Materials include: disassembled walls, powder coated steel, steel screws, dimensions variable. The site-specific piece intervenes and displaces the clean facade of the art institution and brings our attention to the structure behind the structure. It boldly highlights the lands upon which every cultural institution in this country is founded on. Lands by peoples who continue to be sidelined and marginalized not just in cultural institutions but in every aspect of life. It is on their backs that these museums and cultural gatekeeping spaces create value and capital, legitimizes certain narratives and suppresses others and all the while, fostering white supremacy. 'What Then Remainz' is a poetic gesture and a necessary call to arms on the continual diminishing sovereignty of Indigenous lives. It is a question and statement that reverberates long after the run of exhibition.
Strategies used to pressure institutions into structural change through social media, have culminated in a number of resignations of leadership.The hashtag #cmhrstoplying, for example, publicly exposed longstanding systemic racism within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) by present and former employees sharing their experiences of racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and ultimately resulted in the departure of the then CEO, John Young.1 In another instance, a post shared on @ChangeTheMuseum described a senior curator’s dismissive attitude to diversifying acquisitions, this post alongside the curator’s defense of reverse discrimination led to a petition and the resignation of the said staffer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
I have closely followed the social media account of @ChangeTheMuseum, which shares posts submitted by individuals recounting their stories of unchecked racism. An aggregate reading reveals just how systematic inequality manifests into the day-to-day experiences of BIPOC art workers, and how it connects to larger institutional operating systems.
Sharing one’s story even through an anonymous or tagged submission is not without risk and backlash. As the presence of ChangetheMuseum has grown, a methodology for submissions through a Google form has been realized which outlines the framework used to ensure that stories are vetted, consent is given, and the aftereffects are considered.
Although @ChangetheMuseum is focused on first-hand accounts from the United States, it remains relevant to the Canadian context because inequity present within an institution does not occur in isolation. Rather it is reflective of a larger culture which sustains systemic racism. Interlinked is the belief that the great mosaic, of Canada, is better off in terms of racial equity, than its southern neighbour.
Screenshot from @changethemuseum Instagram story
It has been frustrating, and despairing, to read countless posts across social media of first-hand accounts which share similarities to my own experiences. For example, I was partaking in a workshop for first aid certification when I heard the trainer promoting racial prejudice against Muslims as fact. He explained that the Moslems can’t swim so when they come to this country we have to save them. As an employee, I brought this incident forward through the designated channels to human resources. The organization response that followed was a process of shifting the burden of responsibility on my personal sensitivity. This signaled to me that perhaps the defining ethos I had ascribed to arts organizations are not as propagated as I would have hoped for.
In 2019, the International Council on Museums presented a call for proposals in trying to arrive at an updated definition of a museum. A year later through the process of reaching consensus, existing fault lines are evident between industry leaders who view museums as “neutral” spaces and those who contest that institutions can not be devoid of the very politics which shape them.3
It has been comforting to hear stories which I have related to but it has also left me feeling uneasy to find solace in these awful accounts. They are symptoms of a larger problem that extend beyond individual experiences.
I keep wondering what it would be like to have a social forum on a national level something along the lines of @ChangeTheCanadianMuseum? How best can the anonymity of those sharing first-hand accounts be maintained if the very scale of the Canadian arts industry makes it easier to identify and decipher institutions and individuals? If Canadian niceties have only brought us this far, do we need a large scale callout for things to change?
Aliya Mazari is a photography preservationist by training and has worked in various capacities in the Museum and Arts sector since 2012. Editorial Support by Viola Chen. Cover image by Mercer Union
1 Thank you to Thiané Diop and Armando Perla for discussing your work further with me. Human Rights Museum CEO John Young resigns - Winnipeg
2 Its Top Curator Gone, SFMOMA Reviews Its Record on Race.
3 What we hold museums accountable to is related to how we define them and the very definition appears to be contentious.