Full disclosure: I’m the director and curator of a small but mighty art institution dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art. When Vie des arts approached me to talk to equity-deserving1 artists about their experiences in arts institutions, I wanted to make sure that this discussion would be directed to the whole landscape of arts organizations rather than focusing solely on the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, as addressing colonizing forces in a meaningful way is, or should be, a priority for us all.

            It can be argued that more than ever before, art organizations big and small are being held accountable by artists, cultural workers, and audiences for their limitations and practices shaped by centuries of settler colonization that have reinforced conscious and unconscious bias in the form of systemic racism and other forms of discrimination. The London Metropolitan University defines decolonization in this way:

Decolonisation typically refers to the withdrawal of political, military, and governmental rule of a colonised land by its invaders. Decolonising education, however, is often understood as the process in which we rethink, reframe, and reconstruct the curricula and research that preserve the Europe-centred, colonial lens. It should not be mistaken for “diversification”, as diversity can still exist within this western bias. Decolonisation goes further and deeper in challenging the institutional hierarchy and monopoly on knowledge, moving out of a western framework.2

            Although this definition refers to the decolonization of education, it can be helpful to understanding how decolonization applies to museums and other arts organizations. What’s at stake if we do not decolonize? Ask any director of an arts institution about their “success metrics,” and attendance will likely be at the top of the list. As populations in the West consist of more Black, Brown and Indigenous people than ever, decolonization is an imperative if arts institutions wish to be relevant into the future. But attendance on its own will become less significant. As the definition states, decolonization goes “further and deeper,” and it must be underpinned by a core belief that art is for and belongs to everyone.

            As hundreds of years of colonization have resulted in a mindset so deeply entrenched that it is has become normalized and invisible, it is clear that decolonization will take generations to accomplish. With this in mind, how might arts organizations, including museums, foundations, artist-run centres, public galleries, and independent initiatives see a way to meaningfully evolve? In the few last days of 2023, I discussed these questions with Abbas Akhavan, Manuel Mathieu, Skawennati, and Karen Tam – all highly acclaimed artists who have shown their work in a range of organizations both at home and abroad. They have also become my friends – some for decades, some for a few years, but trust has been established with all of them. What follows are their incredibly generous insights, ideas, and jewels of wisdom garnered from their own lived experiences.

Skawennati, Three Sisters: Regeneration (2022). De la série Words Before All Else Machinimagraphie, 16:9

Cheryl Sim (CS) : Is it possible for arts organizations to decolonize?

Manuel Mathieu (MM): [Institutions] need to start where they are. By that I mean, how much are they, or can they be, aware of their participation in the colonized agenda? What are the biases – how is the culture of the institution embedded in a feeling of superiority that shapes the canon through a Western gaze?

Skawennati (S): I asked my Mohawk-language teacher to translate something. He asked, “Does it have the word ‘decolonize’ in it? Because for that one word, the way our language works, it will take a whole page.” There’s no word for “decolonize” in our language. I saw someone write “re-indigenize,” which I thought was very good.

Karen Tam (KT) : What decolonization means for me is being cognizant of personal and institutional bias and working to unlearn and learn about the unconscious bias we have and take conscious steps [to address] the minimal access or barriers that have been placed in front of BIPOC3 artists, art professionals, and the public. Part of decolonization is to negate that one voice of “official” history.

Abbas Akhavan (AA) : One observation I’ve had is that powerful words such as decolonization and patriarchy and feminism and so on have been co-opted, rendered meaningless; they fall mute on defensive ears or at times are a shorthand to gain capital in the art world. 

S: I don’t even think that I can de-Christianize myself. I feel that I’m stained with Christianity. We will never get the stain out, but we can move toward a level playing field.

CS: What has your experience been like working with cultural institutions, big and small? What have you observed?

KT: In museums you have these experts, but I guess since I’ve been thinking a lot about community and doing work about community and history, I’ve been thinking about “who is an expert?” Who is an expert on a community’s stories, and is there a way that we can open it up so that there is more than this one, institutional voice?

MM: The relationship that you have with the curator will dictate the perspective that you have on the institution. I’ve had moments with a curator when we had friction because it was more important for them to tell their story with my work. When you’re building something with the curator, the first question for me is, what story do you want to tell with my soul?

Manuel Mathieu, Framing the Abyss (2022). Techniques mixtes sur toile, 188 x 188 cm. Courtoisie de l’artiste et de la Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, Montréal

S: Mostly when I work with curators, I assume we both want the same thing. We both want the visitor to see the work. I believe my job is to create the work and their job is to put the work into the space and to contextualize the work to their audience. But sometimes you come across a curator who wants to make their statement and they don’t feel they really need to work with you.

AA: When working with curators, my primary concern is that we connect rather than match. I think there’s a lot of beating around the bush – a polite culture that lacks criticism and engagement with Indigenous, or Black, or queer, or what-have-you artists. We have to get really close, get entangled, learn, and be critical.

S: When I was in [a major group exhibition], the curators created artist statements for all the artists, I think so that they would be more standardized. But mine was not like the others. Most of the statements described people’s work, whereas mine just said “Skawennati is from Kahnawake.” It didn’t say anything about my art. And I just felt very tokenized, very much like, hey everyone, we have an Indian. I would have preferred more rigour.

AA: It’s changing, but a lot of museums allocated a place for certain artists because they reflected a certain race or gender or sexuality that made the museums look better. So these artists were being used: they were being represented not for the integrity of their work but as a defence mechanism to protect the museum’s reputation.

MM: What is the culture of the institution? It’s not the mission, the text you read. It’s everything you don’t see, what you don’t tell your staff to do, and what they do “naturally.” So you can go to any institution right now, and they can tell you what their culture is, but you can observe and understand what the culture really is by who comes in, who stays, and who feels welcome.

CS: If you were to imagine an arts institution that corresponds with the values and imperatives that equity-deserving artists have been calling for, for decades, what would you say about its ways of being and doing – for artists, cultural workers, and the public?

AA: People want trust without offering it – I mean in a more dynamic way. Trust is built when everyone risks losing. You have to be vulnerable to merit trust.

KT: It’s not just about hiring just one BIPOC person. It’s having BIPOC art professionals at every level – and more than just one.

Karen Tam, Dragons Chasing the Moon / Les dragons à la poursuite de la Lune (2022-2023). Œuvre d’art publique temporaire installée dans le quartier chinois de Montréal. Photo : Kim Soon Tam

AA: How do you deal with the complexities of race when your relationship with race is not a simple one? I think that diversity in positions of power creates a more intelligent art world, a more critical discourse, and more nuanced relationships amongst us.

S: I still stand behind what I wrote in my article, “Five Suggestions for Better Living”:4 non-Indigenous curators should include Indigenous artists in their exhibitions and Indigenous curators should include non-Indigenous artists in their exhibitions.

AA: Stop expanding and start growing. Stop building more glass cubes that you can’t afford and start making good shows that bring people back as an act of loyalty.

MM: If you’re adopting a hierarchical perspective, then you are not creating knowledge for everybody. You’re just preserving a particular kind of knowledge for a particular kind of people. And I’m not in that business.

AA: I think a lot of institutions lack courage in relation to their audience. It’s important to know the capacity and the audacity of your audience, not as people who are here to find out what they already know but those who are here to be challenged and bring complex interpretations to the work. 

MM: Art is a terrain where people can grow, change, think, and rethink the world, so there have to be activations through conversations, and the younger the better! As we’re preparing the show, [I ask,] how are we including the community in the exhibition context?

KT: In my most recent residency and exhibition, the community felt a sense of ownership, and that also made me think – how can communities feel a connection with an exhibition? How can they be involved in exhibition making?

MM: An institution needs to know that people go to galleries and museums with the same open heart that they [have when they] go to church. You go to church to open yourself, so if you go with that approach, then the institution has a great responsibility to nurture everything that you are. You’re catering to something spiritual, to our humanity as a whole.

AA: It’s still a supply-and-demand relationship. It seems to be more about range than depth, quantity over quality, crowd over herd. There are curators who still want Instagram culture in the museums and that’s their priority in some way. They want numbers, they want popularity. Don’t chase the crowd, find the herd. 

MM: My success is measured by the people I touch, and the depth of it.

Clearly, this discussion is one that is ongoing and constantly evolving. From this first set of conversations comes a wealth of thought for starting or continuing our self-examination as arts organizations. We are being asked to check our biases and blind spots. We are being asked to be vulnerable in order to establish trust with equity-deserving artists, which may contribute to the development of more audacious and challenging exhibitions. We are being asked to respect rather than infantilize our audiences and to find real ways to include the community so that people might be more deeply empowered by and through art. We are being asked to think beyond our own tenures, toward the long game, so that our actions leave the organization more equitable and truly inclusive than when we started. We are being cautioned not to operate from fear but, instead, to serve with humility, presence, and authenticity. And certainly, we are being asked to share power.

            It will take all of us in the cultural landscape to work together and to hold each other accountable for upholding a true sense of purpose toward meaningful evolution, so that art may inspire thinking, reflection, and transformation for generations to come. For all the wonder and awe that art offers to us, we owe it that much.

The french translation of this article is also published in the 274 issue of Vie des arts – Printemps 2024 and can be consulted here.

1 Although this article refers primarily to BIPOC artists, the term “equity-deserving” also includes women, persons with disabilities, and persons of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. See Red River College Polytech, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion on Campus: Language Changes as We Change: Equity-Deserving, https://www.rrc.ca/diversity/2022/11/08/language-changes-as-we-change-equity-deserving/.

2 I thank Manuel Mathieu for directing to me this definition of “decolonizing.” In Sofia Akel, What does decolonising mean?, London Metropolitan University, https://www.londonmet.ac.uk/about/equity/centre-for-equity-and-inclusion/race/decolonising-academia/what-does-decolonising-mean/.

3 BIPOC/PANDC: An acronym for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour/Personnes autochtones, noires et de couleur. See Freddy Mata, “Que signifient les acronymes BIPOC et PANDC?,’’ Radio-Canada, June 5, 2021, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1798414/bipoc-pandc-lutte-contre-le-racisme.

4 Skawennati, “Five Suggestions for Better Living,” in On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery, ed. Lynda Jessup and Shannon Bagg(Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2002), 229–37.