Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough

Documentation from the 2018 public convening of Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action), a collaborative platform organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art for institutional workers to share strategies and frameworks needed to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices. Photo: Rea McNamara

In Fall 2019, I quit my full-time job overseeing public programming initiatives at a ceramics museum in Toronto. It was my first time working within a cultural institution, and as someone with a background in community arts facilitation and anti-oppression work, I found it challenging. I lasted three years.

In the midst of the consciousness raising happening right now globally in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I hold myself accountable to Black artists, collectives, and organizations in speaking out.

The below June 9, 2020 letter was emailed to Kelvin Brown, Executive Director and CEO; and Sequoia Miller, Chief Curator, at the Gardiner Museum. I am sharing it publicly in the hopes it inspires other museum workers to share their own experiences.

Dear Kelvin and Sequoia:

I am formally writing to you in regards to the Gardiner’s recent public statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. While it is encouraging to see the museum recognize the urgency of this global human rights issue, more needs to be done.

From 2016–2019, I worked as the Programs Manager at the Gardiner Museum. Below is a retelling of my experiences working within the institution, and why I believe the statement lacks transparency and accountability in truly conveying to the public where the Gardiner is in this decolonial work.

Donors

Working within the curatorial, education and programs department, I stewarded public programs like the Community Arts Space — a platform for socially-engaged art projects that led to equitable engagement with its permanent collections — as well as anti-oppression training for staff and stakeholders to improve the internal cultural competency. These efforts qualified the museum for Equity Priority Group-targeted funding; in 2018, the program was awarded $100,000+ from presenting donor TD Bank Group. This investment was specifically earmarked to support the museum’s capacity building with marginalized communities, as well as provide professional opportunity and mentorship for local emerging artists and arts professionals.

While I was at the museum, interactions with leadership revealed a greater concern for the funding potential and optics of the programming, as opposed to the equity and inclusionary practice which it entailed, undermining the mandate of our arts funders.

Personnel

During my time at the Gardiner, its Management was white, and its Board of Directors was predominantly white. There were no Black and Indigenous individuals in decision-making roles that reflected the diversity of Toronto. As a white-passing multi-racial woman of colour of Canadian and Trinidadian descent, I was one of the few persons of colour (POC) on permanent staff. This, alongside a threadbare institutional equity, inclusion and diversity policy, fostered an unhealthy work environment ridden with daily microaggressions in the form of tone policing and gaslighting.

Partnerships & Programming

In early 2019, when Onika Powell, Artistic Director of VIBE Arts, questioned a blackface object in the museum’s harlequin figurine collection in its European porcelain gallery during a walkthrough in preparation for the organization’s Community Arts Space 2019 youth project, I pushed for urgent action.

In alliance with other concerned POC staff, we recommended senior management temporarily remove the objects and for our curatorial department to redraft new didactic material providing more sufficient context on the objects’ racist connotations. We were concerned about the harm of these unaddressed colonial objects, especially as it related to the then-upcoming Hair We Are youth project led by writer, spoken word poet, and community educator Igho Diana in collaboration with youth from Art Starts.

The Gardiner’s handling of this issue violated any remaining trust POC staff had in the effectiveness of its institutional leadership. The response went from denial, to hostility, to then the passive aggressive cc-ing of senior management to reprimand its POC staff. We were disciplined for speaking up.

It goes without saying that this situation caused great secondary trauma for me and the other POC staff who took action. When the museum engaged an anti-oppression educator and consultant to steer a conflict resolution process, we took initiative in formulating a list of demands that could lead the museum toward transformative change. In identifying a clear pathway towards equity and inclusion at the Gardiner, we pinpointed immediate (comprehensive, ongoing anti-oppression training for all staff), mid-term (the formation of a community-led committee to advise on equity initiatives and goals) and long-term goals (investment in an Equity Priority Group-focused curatorial intensive to bring forth new curatorial voices within the museum’s galleries, commitment to diversifying staff at all levels). These demands were never addressed or even acknowledged by museum leadership. Indeed, we received no appropriate response or support.

During the installation of our final Community Arts Space 2019 project, I was told by Gardiner leadership the program would be significantly defunded in 2020. Under a new curatorial strategic plan developed by the Chief Curator, a new Community Arts Space program effectively cancelled the program’s exhibition projects. In its place? Proposed drop-in clay workshops activating an exhibition hall lacking the proper facilities to support this programming. This change in programmatic direction took the re-addressing of the museum’s colonial narratives in its permanent collection off the table.

Strategic Approach Toward Equity And Inclusion

There are many resources around equity and inclusion-based practices, such as La Tanya Autry’s crowdsourced Social Justice and Museums List. In observation of the institution’s work practices and business environment, I have prepared a strategic list of action items to guide the institution toward a comprehensive and impactful approach moving forward.

  1. Donation. A sizable and public donation toward Black Lives Matter Toronto, the Regis Korchinski Paquet Go Fund Me Campaign, and the Black Legal Action Centre.
  2. Roadmap. Develop a roadmap that charts out the Museum’s acquisition strategy, how it will include the presence of Black artists, and what role deaccession plays in diversifying its permanent collection.
  3. Dialogue. Long-term investment in the consultation of Black-led collectives, organizations, and leaders through an established series of public forums to openly discuss how the Museum could leverage itself as a critical and relevant community asset.
  4. Investment. Forthright and clear conversation with donors, funders, and the Board of Directors regarding long-term investment in the paid mentorship and accessible employment pathways for Black arts administrators, curators, and public programmers.
  5. Process. A reassessment of the Museum’s exhibition planning process, allowing for the early and critical input of Education and Public Programming in the decision-making practices that expand the scope of programming to be inclusive of diverse narratives.
  6. Featured Programming. A special exhibition by a Black Canadian contemporary artist or collective within the next five years.

Current Affairs

The events, protests, and groundswell of coalition building these past few weeks have empowered me to address the matter. The Gardiner must be more transparent with the public about what it is doing to forward its own journey towards actively supporting Black-centered political will and liberation.

This lack of accountability and sustainable commitment towards transformative change is why I left the museum in October 2019. I could no longer in good faith communicate to the artists, collectives, organizations, and partners that the museum “cared” about them. My work as a cultural connector and public programmer was being used to distract funders, donors, and constituents from seeing where the real issues lie in the museum: in its overwhelming white permanent collection, in its ongoing harmful colonial narratives, and worst, its tokenistic approach to community partnerships.

So while it may be sincere, the Gardiner’s recent statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement is absent of transparency regarding how it affirms colonial histories and narratives. Detracting from the structural realities of the institution, It feeds into a complicit fiction ensuring white dominant culture remains entrenched in its collection. In this valuing of cultural/art objects over human beings, the Gardiner continues to wreak ongoing exclusionary harm and violence on the city’s most vulnerable and under-resourced: Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (QTBIPOC) communities. To truly reckon with this reality, changes are necessary to fully realize allyship with the Black community and take greater care and consideration in serving its POC staff and Black constituency.

In solidarity with Black Lives Matter,

Rea McNamara

Who am I? I am an artist, writer, curator, and public programmer in Toronto. I have curated multidisciplinary projects for The Gardiner Museum, The Wrong Digital Art Biennale, and the Drake Hotel, and founded the limited-run art party series Sheroes (2011–2012), which engaged with the collaborative process of fandom culture through music, performance, installation and internet-based art. My work has been presented at The Whitney Museum of American Art, the AGO, Nuit Blanche Toronto, and Moogfest. In addition to my art and curatorial practice, I have written on art, culture and the internet for The Remai Modern, The Globe and Mail, frieze, Canadian Art, The FADER, VICE, Art F City, NOW Magazine, The Outline, BLOUIN ARTINFO, and more.

Find me on Twitter: @reeraw.

Writer, curator, and public programmer. My bias is Taehyung.

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