Why I can no longer support the Saskatchewan Arts Board

I’ve purged a great deal of what I call the #YXE hypocrites from my news feed, mostly for my own mental health but also due to how with activities and responsibilities in Niagara, there’s little worth in wasting time refuting some of the ignorance suffusing the visual arts community there. Although it is enjoyable to point out that critics of the Remai Modern like Marcus Miller or Jen Budney both are vocal and well funded supporters of perhaps the most institutionally racist university in Canada, we live in a post truth world (a clarification: examples of this can be found online, but I won’t link to them, as proliferation of garbage, even for critical dismissal, still spreads the stink). This is a community, after all, where highlighting that an artist run centre had to be shamed into paying artists (employing forceful language when concerns raised at AGMs and in other spaces were ignored) was dismissed with slander and libel.

However, recently it showed up in my social media feed that the Saskatchewan Arts Board is marking a significant anniversary. Unsurprisingly, I was reminded of the dishonesty, unproffessionalism, ignorance and – perhaps the most unforgivable aspect – how I was made to feel that my questions about the accountability and transparency of the SAB in funding organizations made me akin to a member of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

An aside: Now, I don’t speak for other areas, such as music or literature. But I suspect that if corrupt incompetence is there in the areas I’m familiar with, it’s likely there in areas with which I’ve not concerned myself.

I learned, through emails and other conversations with board members (if one can call a petulant rant by former aka artist run board member Jay Seibel a “conversation”) that they had intentionally lied at an AGM, ignored board governance and even, arguably, contravened it (an email I received from the aka board chair at the time indicated that decisions were made WITHOUT her approval) to facilitate the ending of my employment there. There was also significant evidence that one board member – the aforementioned Miller – was “punishing” me for the many peices I’d written in different publications highlighting the frequent – and one official – complaints regarding institutional racism at his employer, the University of Saskatchewan.

I forwarded all this to SAB Visual Arts Officer Noreen Neu: I also documented and forwarded the email expressing complaints and asking questions regarding my dismissal. Amusingly, when I posted an excerpt from this email on aka’s FB AGM page – with the permission of the person who sent it to me – aka deleted it, claiming “privacy was infringed.” Strange to think that there can be privacy invoked for something that the board and director previously denied even existing.

Neu did nothing. It is also unclear if the SAB was aware – or if they would have acted  – regarding how the “new” position created at aka after my departure was at a significantly smaller salary, while demanding the same hours and more duties.

When I raised the issue in other spaces – with other well paid cowards such as the then SAB CEO (who was instrumental in the travesty of ending the Sask Film Credit and destroying most of the film and television industry in that province), or with other groups, such as CARFAC Sask (whose then director only “talked” to aka about not paying artist fees when it became clear their own sullied reputation was at stake if they continued to do nothing) the hypocrisy of the region became clear.

Now, an organization is only as good as its employeers, as its members: I remember when Video Vérité was in crisis, and then (now long retired) Visual Arts Officer Doug Townsend was in attendance at a crucial and overdue AGM, and very well informed on the malfeasance of the VV board. Contrast that to how Neu was absent, literally and ethically, from any meeting or event where, as a representative of not just the SAB but many who support ethical actions in cultural spheres – and a guardian of the important and often criticised role of public funding for the arts – where she might have called aka’s board and director to account…

Townsend once, much to the Director of TRIBE’s chagrin, commented artist run centres (ARCs) “needed to be policed.” Amusing that this same person was offended, as I’d never been employed by an ARC that bounced cheques as often, nor seemed unable to fulfil basic SAB requirments, such as reports / updates to ensure funding was released. Townsend was present at the VV AGM (which was suffering from similar problems as aka artist run), and brought his significant experience (former Director of TPG, an artist in the community) to the table. This was how it should have been, how it should be, not the lazy ignorance of the aforementioned Neu.

I can remember when she was dismissed from the Dunlop Art Gallery. Bluntly, many of us were surprised she’d been hired, as her previous experience was primarily in Public Programming at the Mendel (the Mendel had a reputation for incompetence among many staff that was ignored and indulged. This was a manifest danger of having a powerful City of Saskatoon Employee union, that also kept many qualified candidates out).

I was hired, while an MFA student, to assist two artists doing a project there, which she was supposed to oversee. Her incompetence and disinterest were an issue with both artists, and both frequently commented to me that they weren’t unhappy working with me, but found Neu more of a road block than a facilitator. (I’m still in contact with one of these artists, a very affable and soft spoken person who lost his temper – something I still find hard to believe, but speaks to the ineptness at play – with Neu, at that time).

Her departure from the Dunlop was swift: allegations from the city (the Dunlop is a city affiliated gallery, more closely entwined with city administration than the Mendel was to its city civil servants, at that time, and the Regina Mayor at the time was very “hands on” with many organisations) of incompetent chicanery, as regards financial concerns, were levied. The city of Regina seemed to be intent to use the situation to eliminate the Dunlop, and we – arts groups and concerned individuals across the province and  further – organizsed to prevent this, successfully.

Yet, I remember, in conversation with then then Saskatoon based ARC administrator Winnie Fung, asking why no one was talking about how Neu was unqualified, and arguably could have been very inadequate to the job, as I wasn’t alone in my previously cited experience of her “abilities”. She didn’t have director level experience, and many had expressed surprise at her hire. Other stories had leaked up to Saskatoon about financial mismanagement at artist dinners and such: things an experienced director would be able to prevent. Fung commented that “we” were all ignoring that, for the “good of the Dunlop.”

There is a special place in hell, if I believed such a place existed, for the hypocrites in cultural spaces who demand their opponents behave ethically, and yet don’t themselves. It is quite disgusting, we can all agree, no matter our political stripe, that when a group that makes ethics a large part of their (perhaps only superficial) being is so openly willing to abandon those ethics that corrupt is too weak a word.

And attitudes like that are how, years later, when dealing with serious issues about an artist run centre that chooses to ignore governance, ethics and transparency, it seems obvious that aka would get a free pass on what are actions that should bring the centre’s funding into question. My long history with ARCs in three provinces has shown that this is sadly common. I don’t expect integrity of the board, or of the director, a careerist whom cancelled several shows immediately (several artists contacted me to ask what had happened) and whom plagiarised an emerging artist program pioneered by another centre in the city, excluding paying the artists. (There is also a special place in hell for those whom exploit emerging artists as a means to salvage their decreased funding, as aka was doing at the time).

The role of the Visual Arts Officer with the SAB is not just to hand out money indiscriminately, but to foster and support a community. But when undermining is the practice and hypocrisy is the rule, the Saskatchewan Arts Board becomes a travesty. Again, what I hate the most about this situation is that a natural ally like myself has been made an enemy: as I said to someone recently who opposes arts funding from a very uninformed, right wing perspective (yet whom I have good arguments with, both of us coming away less “sure”), you oppose arts funding because of what you don’t know, and I oppose much of it because of what I do know, and have seen.

But this was the beginning of my disappointment, that became distaste, that became dismissal and now, at best, indifference, to the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

It was also the beginning of the end of my time in Saskatoon, and also when I went from someone who had supported that community in many ways to someone that now feels required to highlight the dishonesty and self serving sanctimony of that fetid place.

That is a chapter in why I have purged most #YXEArts from my social feed, and have little good to say about that place.

That is why, on the anniversary of the Saskatchewan Arts Board founding, I wonder if they’ll survive the change in government that’s coming. Saskatchewan has a history of letting right wing parties make a financial mess, then the NDP comes in and cleans it up. Amusing that the NDP have more of a factual reputation for austerity in that place than right wing media shills would have you believe. Brad Wall’s departure to officially – as opposed to implicitly – work for an Alberta corporation, means the NDP will – despite their innate ability to mess things up they’ve demonstrated in the last few Saskatchewan elections – form the next Provincial Government. And they will do what they did last time: cut culture and cultural spending, as they feel, perhaps not incorrectly, that those groups are politically beholden to them, and have no other real option.

That is why if the SAB does get hit very hard, I will try to suppress my schaedenfreude, but might only be able to muster apathy.

That is why – unlike my nearly two decades in the gulag archipelago of Saskatchewan – I don’t wish the Saskatchewan Arts Board congratulatios on this anniversary. I don’t wish them well, at all. It’s been suggested that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but apathy. That seems appropriate here, and perhaps it’s worth considering that I was brought to this point by the Saskatchewan Arts Board itself.

 

 

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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