Home Art The Persistence of Structural Racism in Canadian Cultural Institutions

The Persistence of Structural Racism in Canadian Cultural Institutions


white gallery canada 1460
(graphic Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

“Budgets are moral documents.”
— Rashad Robinson on The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, June 26, 2020

From January 2016 to March 2019 I was co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian Art, a leading Canadian contemporary art magazine, published by a nonprofit foundation. I have seen the culture sector statements of solidarity with racialized communities in light of ongoing police violence against and murder of Black people. Like many, I have found most of these statements to be hollow, insufficient, and untrustworthy.

Here, I want to go beyond critiquing institutional messaging and superficial pledges towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. Instead, I want to use my experience as the former co-leader of a cultural nonprofit — a white, cis-gender queer who attempted, not always successfully, to change that nonprofit’s relationship to colonialism and white supremacy — to explain why such statements were doomed to fail. I want to address a few, key reasons why the leadership of most large cultural institutions in Canada remains white, and why long-term, sustainable change will not happen without a hard look at where revenue comes from and how it is allocated. I want to talk about a particular kind of structural racism, one I have observed firsthand, attempted to resist, and with which I have been complicit.

Institutional antiracism, if genuinely desired, cannot be achieved without resources. Pledges and action plans mean nothing without them. Government funding, the best basis for such resources, is currently insufficient for many organizations’ core operations, which include rent and staff salaries. To supplement this funding, institutions turn to the subject of this essay: the private donor and corporate philanthropy sectors, which tend to exclude BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and/or ask BIPOC to prop up their explicit whiteness. In turn, finance, accounting, advertising, and development departments at cultural organizations do the same. These are the hidden, mystified aspects of culture work. Throughout my career I have observed that those who’ve sought change and asked inconvenient questions have duly been made to feel naïve. Moneymakers are separated from “creatives,” the latter infantilized and expected to express gratitude for any hand that feeds. There is little transparency about finances at all-staff meetings for instance, despite creative staff being pushed front and center at all public-facing events, many of them fundraising related. “We have to name and find the source of the symptom and make sure this doesn’t keep happening,” says the National Gallery of Canada’s white director and CEO Sasha Suda in a recent report on arts leadership’s “crisis of whiteness,” published in Canadian Art. Suda’s words could be actual naiveté if they didn’t seem so disingenuous.

During my tenure at Canadian Art, revenue personnel bristled at language such as “colonialism” and “white supremacy.” So-called diversity, so-called representation, was, for this personnel, and this organization’s board, not even deserving of lip service but rather something to ignore until ignorance became impossible. “Not racist” was the silently declared sentiment of the boardroom, the sponsorship deck, the donor report.

Myopic attention was instead paid to white, liberal money — the champagne socialists. In Canada and elsewhere, much nonprofit labor has been spent trying to court and divine the wishes of this demographic and their corporate affiliates. Content and events — galas, tours, awards, exhibitions, panels, more — are concocted to generate gifts and partnerships, which can take years to come in. (Sometimes donors are great at pledging, not so great at sending in the checks.) Elaborate deliverables, related to branding and a donor’s personal wishes (including minute details such as an event’s lighting, sound, and food) are tied to such gifts and partnerships, with robust resource demands. It is in fact possible for a lot of money to come in to cultural organizations and very little of it to make its way to core operations. Often this money is secured precisely because a cultural organization has either downplayed its progressive vision or, at best, has committed to non-threatening, Benetton-style racialized inclusion.

Why are there are so few BIPOC presidents, directors, and CEOs of major Canadian cultural organizations? The answer is money, and that is not a different answer than racism. If the primary job of presidents, directors, and CEOs is to liaise with and raise money, and this money is perceived to come primarily or exclusively from white liberals, a board will tend to hire a white, liberal candidate who speaks the language of these people, who shares in the same class privilege: everything from elite education to how to spend the perfect weekend in New York City. Of course there are wealthy BIPOC. But the space for cultural philanthropy in Canada — the culture of cultural philanthropy — is a bastion of whiteness. Most boards, which are also majority white, are not interested in changing this but rather in going to where they believe the money is. So the argument goes: It takes a certain talent, panache, to be president, director, or CEO, to open those pocketbooks, and without these skills, culture cannot run. This argument implies that culture cannot run if its backrooms are not white. It implies that the majority of BIPOC cannot do the job of president, director, or CEO as well as a class-privileged white person simply because of who they are, and that it is for the best that whiteness gets the highest-paid leadership jobs because the financial resources required to make culture most often come from whiteness. Antiracism is not possible under such racist meritocracy. If cultural institutions desire real reckoning, right now, this is where they must start.

Yes, white leadership can play Robin Hood, taking from the wealthy to fund progressive content. But this tactic isn’t always successful, and it certainly isn’t antiracist. At Canadian Art, it felt triumphant to have convinced donors and corporations to fund programming or content that was already planned, or tightly aligned with the organization’s vision and mission. Occasionally I could work with development and finance to create budget lines and reporting documents that satisfied corporate or donor demands while, at least in part, materially funding core operations. But this is tricky business, and increasingly impossible. More and more, corporations such as banks want ROI (return on investment): tangible results from philanthropy that can include anything from cultural engagement for high-net-worth clients to quantifiable brand recognition. Reporting is scrutinized even in partnership decks, which now must account, preemptively, for every last dime spent. The songs and dances are endless. It is absurd to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion with a corporation that has no interest in helping you fairly compensate your BIPOC staff.

Some corporations manage their support of culture through an associated philanthropic foundation tasked with corporate social responsibility (CSR), whose deliverables include public-facing, feel-good events and programming where art and culture must compete with golf and marathons as visible vehicles for charitable commitment. Ideally the support is photographable — literally optic. (If you are an artist and a bank wants to support you they will most definitely want to take your picture.) I have been in meetings with corporate personnel in which they have pointed to the magazine I edited and said, “I don’t see the value in this.” When editorial got the funds, it was supported or sponsored content that was constantly scrutinized for ROI. (Incidentally, most corporate philanthropic initiatives are based on limited-year contracts, and some are one-offs, which is not a picture of sustainable philanthropy.)

Programming departments, while tending to win the lion’s share of corporate funds, often get pointless busywork. In a blog post, Seattle-based nonprofit worker Vu Le identifies the obvious problems with CSRs in relation to progressive nonprofits and their programming initiatives. CSRs can be more trouble than they’re worth, Le says, with drains on staffing and significant event execution costs. They can force non-profits to compete against each other, and are often dissonant with actual progress, privileging non-threatening, pro-corporate messaging.

Many corporate partners make possible the lavish, yearly fundraising galas that cultural organizations host: ostentatious displays of whiteness and wealth that are the public-facing versions of the aforementioned work done by white presidents, directors and CEOs. Galas often include auctions, which ask artists to donate works that risk going for below estimate (thus threatening to lower an artist’s market value) because they are bid on by gala attendees who come for the party and a bargain on the art, not to support the organization. Now that even auction lots are curated for diversity, the problem compounds. The whole experience is an internal drain for the nonprofit, which can spend a good part of operational resources, and more than half their fiscal year, preparing for a white, wealth-facing event in order to break even.

Between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s institutional contemporary art in Canada was less concerned with topics of colonialism and white supremacy and more with reflecting a globalized art world. This was a time of corporate-sponsored art awards, with cultural organizations acting as partners in varying capacities. Corporations stressed “engagement” in contemporary art and boosted their contemporary collections, with generalized, international-cosmopolitan appreciation for the purported power of art to unite and enlighten. Offerings of cultural nonprofits could include flying in an artist from London or Berlin to give a talk, to screen a film, to hobnob with a high-capacity patron’s circle, to participate in a symposium with local artists on themes like “borders” and “rhizomes.” This sort of Euro-American, white liberalism may feel dated, but it is still assumed by leadership to be the best way to make high culture, because it has proven to be the best for business.

Connect the dots to antiracist restructuring and you get the anticipated static. TD Bank’s “Ready Commitment” — a billion-dollar initiative to “support change, nurture progress and contribute to making the world a better, more inclusive place” — underwrites diversity content, and occasionally operations, usually in the guise of project facilitation. But initiatives such as this take a certain kind of performance from largely white leadership, with deliverables that compel BIPOC to act as de facto, underpaid consultants. (This is to say nothing of TD’s and other major banks’ investments in extractive industries.) The alternative is that corporations are more openly hostile to diversity, and white leadership at a cultural nonprofit is compelled to emphasize their whiteness and downplay their antiracist commitments, if they ever had any. Most corporate partnerships thus contribute in some way to fostering racism between white and BIPOC staff, with BIPOC seen either as costing the organization money or as tools to leverage value, ultimately benefitting the organization’s brand and its white leadership — while exhausting and compromising everyone else. This white relationship to non-white labor is of course centuries old.

Private white donors can be very generous, even radical in their own ways, open to listening to progressive organizations about where and how to invest. One white philanthropist once said to me: “I’m learning from what you and your staff do.” But I have found this attitude to be rare. In Canada, the white-liberal model for making culture follows colonial patterns: donors and patrons are more likely to support a talk by a blue chip, white or white friendly, Euro-American artist; they want cultural institutions to be internationalist because internationalism makes Canada and its culture more relevant; they are used to crossing borders for art fairs, even to buy a work by a Canadian artist; they are drawn to curatorial and directorial hires from abroad because they share matching itineraries. Culture is an import-export affair.

In Canada and elsewhere, organizational boards are traditionally meant to court private donors to become volunteers at these organizations. The members of my former board were resistant to make any donation asks of high-capacity peers that pertained to politics they deemed radical. (I remember hearing of a board co-chair telling our development team not to mention anti-oppression training in any donor-facing literature.) Sometimes a donor’s demand for high-profile recognition and/or for content shaping felt impossible to implement, so the money didn’t come through. There were the personal admonitions from the board and its peers: an air kiss from a Zionist donor with a whisper in my ear that I was never to publish a thing about Palestine again; a phone call from board co-chairs reprimanding me for “dog-whistling rich white people” after I posted a call on Facebook for new subscribers that suggested legacy subscribers had dropped off. There was the expensive strategic review the board commissioned halfway through my tenure, obviously meant to demonstrate that the publication’s new content was alienating “key stakeholders” — despite our readership uptick and award wins. (“Key stakeholders,” did not, for my board, typically comprise diverse readers and audiences; we could sell out an event, but if it did not attract high-capacity donors, it was deemed a failure.) And there were the lunches with board members trying gently to scale back my supposed radicalism — delicious, overpriced, uncomfortable lunches.

I see two kinds of dysfunctional boards for cultural nonprofits. The first, of which my former board is an example, is predominantly white, wealthy, corporate style, typical of larger organizations, reflective of a legacy institution that may have seen recent financial trouble. Some board members are checking off community-engagement boxes. Some are there for their corporate-style skills in finance, PR and publishing, meaning to advise, pro-bono, maxed-out staff with corresponding roles. The second board I see comprises the cultural elite: artists, curators, academics. They’ve read the books, know the discourse, and may include BIPOC who may also lend expertise to staff. Neither board supports an organization sufficiently. The first board doesn’t really like culture. They don’t bring in enough money for what they cost the organization in ignoring what it could do and be. (Get rid of all the Warren Kanders you want and this will still be your problem.) The second board talks the talk but ignores the role of resource acquisition in turning its theory into praxis. Among the underpaid and overworked skeleton staffs both boards oversee exists pettiness and bullying, an optimal climate for racism. How do you dismantle a board? This is something I have not yet figured out.

One of Canada’s many WASPy code rules seems to be that, as a manager of a cultural organization, one mustn’t complain, especially not about lack of resources. Complaining communicates instability, ingratitude, and incompetence to existing and potential donors and partners. If the manager cares about culture, they find a way to make that proverbial silk purse. Besides, the manager should be grateful for a job in something so frivolous and fun as culture.

I left my former job in large part because I felt I simply could not do it properly under the circumstances. Indeed doing it “properly” was a grim, bewildering proposition. In retrospect I wonder whether I complained enough. When I resigned, my board made it clear they were not interested in having me participate in a constructive transition. Still, I urge managers: If revenue is not going, and can’t go, where it should, if salaries are too low, especially for BIPOC, the budgets too tiny, the professional-development allocations nil, it doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job. It means your job is causing you to do harm. Some organizations are resorting to optics because they can’t be bothered to do anything else, some because they can’t afford to do anything else, some because managers are shielding deadbeat boards from what’s really going on.

Antiracist restructuring, if possible, means more money for basic operations, and more money still for gradual, ongoing overhaul. The bittersweet news is that resources are now scarcer than they had been. We (should) know what to avoid: unsupported, underpaid, junior-level and contract-based diversity hires; a flood of BIPOC-generated programming that is similarly under-resourced, fleeting, optic. Can institutions afford to close or significantly de-scale for, say, a year, to assess their capacity for antiracist renovation? Can such renovation eliminate six-figure-salaried, white presidents, directors, and CEOs in favor of community-facing, non-white leadership models? Will white leaders of cultural organizations actually resign? Will their largely white boards support implicating dialogue? Will these boards be willing to take on the cost of severance packages and legal fees to address a problem they have perpetuated? Will boards be open to dismantling leadership hierarchies and to training incoming BIPOC with, say, yearlong, full-salary apprenticeships? Can this new leadership possibly find money not tied to white supremacy and colonialism?

Without desperately needed, large-scale government support for antiracism, would donors, sponsors and partners step in, no questions asked, to fund core operations that would have to include antiracist restructuring? To wit, should neoliberalism ever fund antiracism? One thing is clear. Culture workers, white and BIPOC alike, are about to butt up against what some have long known to be true: Cultural philanthropy and white supremacy are absolute bedfellows.

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