Lately there’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the arts in Canada. There’s been a lot of questions about who has the right to write or paint or depict in some way another culture, particularly the Indigenous cultures that have undergone systematic erasure in Canadian society. While much of this discussion has to take place at the artist level, during creation, it doesn’t go away at the administrative level.
Arts administrators need to be aware of these issues. We need to pay attention to the discussions raging around us, even if they make us distinctly uncomfortable. We need to ask ourselves, and our artists, tough questions. Have we done our homework? If someone is presenting art that draws heavily on Indigenous cultures, are they doing it respectfully? Do they have a good reason to do this? Who have they studied with, what communities have helped them and do they recognize that help?
Let me tell you a story. A literary publisher I know was thinking of reprinting some early twentieth century stories that dealt with Indigenous themes. It was a piece of history that had been lost, and they felt the writing was pretty good. But, of course, it needed to be put in context. So they went asking among literary scholars for someone to write an introduction. Everyone politely declined. Finally the publisher asked why, and discovered that the text was now considered completely wrong, had the thinnest understanding of First Nations culture and was close to being racist. With this information, the publisher decided against reprinting it. They did their homework.
When the Toronto gallery chose to not show the work of a young artist who painted in the Woodlands style, I believe they made the right choice, but they made it belatedly. They had not done their homework, they had not put this young artist into context and as a result, the community educated them the hard way.
As arts administrators we are always working to put our artists in front of the public. Some of these artists are controversial, and that’s fine. Controversy can be a good thing, but we should always know what controversy we’re courting. If we can’t defend our choices to the public, if we hadn’t even realized we were making a statement with the art we’re programming, we’ve done things poorly. Everyone should know what to say if the reporters come calling.