How BIPOC Artists Fight Canada’s Biased Art Scene

Canadian art has a reputation for being White bland, and that might be because it’s controlled by government grants and the tastes of wealthy White patrons. This is a shame in a richly diverse country full of creative, ingenious, original artists. In 2013 I started an annual Montreal festival to feature queer and transgender artists of color, but stifling funding parameters have since forced me, and many of us, to quit.

To explain what I mean by “stifling”: In March the Canadian government announced that it is pouring millions of dollars into the arts post-COVID. The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) will disburse $116.5 million, and Canadian Heritage $62.8 million. So far, groups that are “Indigenous, culturally diverse, deaf, disabled, or official language minorities,” will share only four percent of these CCA funds. In other words, we aren’t really who the country thinks of as “artists.”

In fact, in her chapter “Arts Funding, the State and Canadian Nation-Making,” Canadian museum scholar Dr. Andrea Fatona, documents how the CCA was originally conceived to protect exclusively White European values. In 1949, the nation-wide Massey-Levesque Commission concluded that Canada needed to distinguish its culture and art in order to fight American and British imperialism and discourage socialism. The CCA was mandated to deselect racialized art, especially Indigenous art, in favor of “the white man with his more advanced civilization and infinitely superior techniques.” The original CCA grants favored European iterations of theatre, music, ballet, painting, sculpture, and literature.

This still feels familiar. Some of the organizations receiving most of the Ontario Ministry of Cultural Heritage COVID-19 recovery grants are Shakespearean theater, ballet, and opera.

I consider three key models in the fight for change. In 2013, Mohawk curator Steve Loft tackled the CCA from the inside. As the new coordinator of the Aboriginal Arts Office, Loft made the point that Indigenous artists are not equity seeking; they are sovereignty seeking. Together with a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues, Loft proposed a grant system for Indigenous people that was radically based on constitutional rights and treaty obligations. Loft and his group established the program “Creating, Knowing and Sharing” with its own foundational documents that finally parted ways with the Massey-Levesque Commission. Its grants and microgrants support holistic definitions of Indigenous cultural production, from house crest tattoos to Nunavut shoemaking.

Before him, Lillian Allen kicked down the doors of the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC) in the ‘90s and demanded financial redress of the exclusive, classist, racist art world. Allen is the iconic godmother of dub poetry, and she was invited to provide the 1992 keynote address for ANNPAC’s annual general meeting. She used her platform to call them out. Where are the people of color? Where are the First Nations people?

Her speech galvanized a national art world reckoning. Six members of the audience approached her afterwards and together formed the infamous Minquon Panchayat collective: Shirley Bear of the Tobique First Nation; Two-Spirited Wikwemikong actor Gloria Eshkibok; Métis performer Marrie Mumford; Franco-Chinese curator Monika Kin Gagnon; Vancouver-based activists Sherazad Jamal and Zool Suleman, and later, Métis artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle. The movement snowballed around the country. ANNPAC refused Minquon Panchayat’s proposal, but it was too late. Gagnon’s book Other Conundrums documents how artist-run centers and arts associations withdrew from ANNPAC in protest, and the association collapsed. It was replaced by a more radical Artist-Run Network, and under pressure, the CCA released a 1995 strategic plan committed to cultural diversity.

But the end, says Allen, was anticlimactic. Grants still demand minorities to align with normative state protocols, and so funding is repeatedly awarded to privileged artists of color who, she laughs wryly, “can afford a publicist and a grant writer.” Moreover, not all poor, racialized artists can advocate on the basis of sovereignty or treaty obligations — Black communities are sometimes denied any recognition as a Canadian constituency at all.

In January William Deresiewicz delighted Canadian radio listeners by suggesting that biased grant systems should be replaced by market demand. Customers will pay for art they love, and so great art will thrive in a social democracy that breaks platform monopolies and evens the playing field. I disagree. Artists need to make art that nobody loves, that caters to none, that fails for a long time before it succeeds. Brilliant poor artists in Canada need support without strings attached — which is why my favorite model for artist support is the bill for basic minimum income reintroduced this spring by Canadian MP Leah Gazan.

Since 1949 a combination of colonial government, the rich, and viral trends have exclusively decided how Canadian art is made. The results are unspectacular. There are many reasons to support MP Gazan’s bill. Having great Canadian art — finally — is one more.

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