We can do better, or why you shouldn’t support Canadian Art Magazine’s pleas for your cash

I recently had a conversation with local artist Bruce Thompson: we’re both in the downtown of STC often, but this time we were in his studio. This is one of the NAC spaces on St. Paul. We often have intense, and serious conversations about both the local art community and the wider national, or international one. Usually one of us is on their way somewhere else, and we have to cut the discussion (or debate, or argument – meant in the best way) short. So, Bruce told me to come by and we picked up a few conversational threads we’d had to let drop previously.

He made a point the other day, in response to a piece I shared from frieze magazine: a smart and critical article about “clean collections.” When I shared it on social media, I used it as an opportunity to again point out how Canadian Art Magazine is a shoddy screed of ill considered ideologies compared to texts like frieze, or e – texte, or Art In America. (In light of the “correcting” of the Emily Carr painting at the AGO, this is a very Canadian concern. Art is messy business.)

I decline to share anything here from CA- which repeatedly claims to be “Canada’s most widely read art magazine.” Crudely, if this is true (I’ll revisit that in a moment) its like dog faeces being the most widely encountered faeces. You still don’t want to step in it. Speaking to a number of recent BFA grads and emerging artists here, I suggested they avoid reading it at all, like avoiding anyone with a cold you don’t want to catch. This is a radical departure for me, as I’ve always been an advocate of Doris Lessing’s idea that you need to engage with writing you may disagree with, and not just dismiss it. But there’s a difference between contested narratives, and ignorant ones, to paraphrase the recently passed Harlan Ellison. 

This might seem extreme, but after reading a piece by one of their editors, which appears to endorse twitter mob censorship and making challenging artworks into “unart” while misrepresenting the situation in question (which is even more offensive and unprofessional in light of smarter pieces like this) it is time to ignore – and no longer support – such sophistry.

This is one of many reasons why I have contempt for CA. This has been, after all, the same year where they killed off a significant Indigenous artist, while resurrecting a gallery that hasn’t existed for nearly a decade. This was in their issue before last, with their insert advertorial about #YXE beginning with The Red Shift Gallery, which ceased operations quite some time ago…interesting that an Indigenous arts space is treated so shabbily, but we must consider the following: 

“My problem with Liberalism [as often manifest by CA’s board] is that it’s more concerned with policing people’s language and thoughts without requiring them to do anything to fix the problem. White liberal college students speak of “safe spaces”, “trigger words”, “micro aggressions” and “white privilege” while not having to do anything, or more importantly, give up anything.” (Phoebe Maltz Bovy)

Apparently one of the “dirty words” they were exploring, though not naming in the issue devoted to that theme, is “fact”, or “editorial rigour” or “accountability.”

A screen grab (July 3rd) from CA’s FB page.

But returning to the conversation that spurred this post. Thompson’s point was this, and it’s a good one: we, as Canadians – whatever that means and we should be open to that honest contested difference in definition – should not abdicate our critical discourse, our responsibility to be able to speak, write and thus think and question critically our cultural spheres and cultural productions. My response was that there’s many good writers out there: just avoid the horrid umbrellas of mediocrity and incompetence, the hideous spaces that are more concerned with parting you from your money than offering intelligent articles for your cash. Also, be aware that you don’t become a karaoke modernist, as I saw in Saskatoon and Regina, where “conversations” are deformed by regionalism and when your ideas – and artwork – is shown to fall short of the critical rigour demanded in other, sometimes international, spaces, take it as a challenge, not as an excuse to assert regionalist incest under the guise of “nationalism.” 

This is why it is disappointing to anyone who has some knowledge of stories covered by CA, which is happy to run articles and hypocrisy from individuals criticizing the galleries re: inclusiveness, while both are employees and loud advocates for one of the most institutionally racist universities in Western Canada. This isn’t just a problem with CA, but they’ve been getting cosy in groupthink with another online screed space that proclaims a “return to art criticism” while parachuting someone into a space where they know nothing of the history or the importance of what they’re covering, which is a more extensive or expensive version of just wasting your money – and once respected plaform – on paying for a friend’s cross country vacation, where they talk more about the farmer’s market than art. 

At a certain point, a critical reader stops engaging, as the work is shoddy, biased and plays fast and loose with facts. This is not a worthy endeavour to support, either with your intellectual energy or your cash.

I’m revisiting this poverty of thought because this latest plea for financial support from Canadian Art was just forwarded to me. Once my schadenfreude laughter dissipated I had to respond:

A”re you into what Canadian Art has been doing recently? Perhaps you never were before? The best way you can support us is with a print subscription, which is only $20 a year. The changes at the magazine over the last two years have shaken our foundation of legacy subscribers/donors; their voices are loud and influential (despite their opinion otherwise). If you believe in the changes we’ve begun, and are in a position to support us with a subscription, it would go such a long way to helping us to continue doing what we do. Thank you.”

I would advocate NOT subscribing or supporting Canadian Art Magazine in any way or form, or offering any financial support, until a clear and transparent house cleaning – an enema, if you will – occurs there. How can a magazine claim to be significant when it gives voices to some of the worst and most hypocritical institutional racists I interacted with, in the Canadian Art sphere?

Frankly, CA has engaged in some very questionable behaviour that is undeserving of financial support. This suggests instead that its symptoms of financial distress are correctly correlated to their lack of quality, oversight and ethically questionable positioning of themselves as advocates when they give voice to hypocrites.

Saying someone’s voice is important when you’re panhandling for their disposable income is akin to how, years ago, a University I worked at undermined digital media in every decision. But “suddenly” it was time for an external review – with power over financial support – which asked about changes and initiatives promised in digital / new media sphere. Suddenly I went from an exploited sessional who was told to make do with what shoddy equipment was provided by other areas, for digital imaging / video, to being a “valued member of the department.” Then the University of Saskatchewan Art Department got a middling evaluation in the review. Not enough to shake the calcified status quo but easy to ignore and be ignored (“we’re a good painting / school” asserted one tenured doorstop but as with CA’s words in their pleas for subscribers, saying it doesn’t make it so) and everything went back to “normal.”

Several years later, more digital media is taught in high schools there than at the Art Department, and they’ve lost ground to their primary regional competition, the University of Regina, that will never be regained.

A waste of money, a passel of expensive egos in a fetid recipe of incompetence and ignorance. That’s also Canadian Art: years ago I had to argue with a “fact checker” over Starlight Tours in Saskatchewan, for a review of Ruth Cuthand’s work. This is just another point of unprofessionalism and incompetence that is seen in the “death” of Pechawis or granting Marcus Miller, a loud and well paid advocate for one of the most institutionally racist art departments in Canada, a platform.

Unlike the editors at CA, I don’t advocate censoring them, or silencing their idiocy and incompetence. But there is far better art writing out there in unexpected places (the paper to which I contribute regularly, The Sound, devoted major resources and space to covering the issue of Rodman Hall and Brock University. But there are many better spaces out there providing considered and intelligent – and genuinely provocative – content that makes it very easy to eschew the juvenalia of CA.

We live in an time where the promise of more funding for the Canada Council seems to have stuttered, and where cultural workers are paid as poorly – or worse – than they were twenty years ago (another legacy of the Boomers, perhaps).

This is a time where it should be understood that choosing to not support an organization or a group that claims to value all opinions but disproves this quite fervently by their actions is the ethical choice. It is, in the end, no different than how we have to consider, as members of various degrees of activity in cultural communities in Canada, whether to support ARCs or not, gaging actions to intent, ideology to truth. I say this as I have been an active supporter of NAC since my arrival in St. Catharines, and an active supporter with time and money to a number of other cultural spaces. However, I advocate repeatedly for more rigorous oversight, as aka artist run has never acknowledged its abuse of governance, deliberate misleading of members at an AGM in suppressing facts, and having to be shamed into paying emerging artists – the latter should be an offense that results in a loss of funding. Why that didn’t happen is an example of the same institutional calcification and hypocrisy that defines the current version of Canadian Art.

Further, my own involvement with cultural spaces has been significant and varied: but it didn’t preclude that when those spaces become rancid, and boards and staff won’t address it, that I would blindly support them. BlackFlash Magazine was a publication I supported in many ways over a long period (helping to formalize the Editorial Committee, introducing image reproduction fees and guidelines to deal with Board / EC friction and conflict of interest as pertaining to contributors). I am a founding member of PAVED, and saw aka artist run through several bad spells of board incompetence and staff difficulty: ending my support of those groups was difficult, but when the institutions begin to rot and won’t change, washing one’s hands is the best approach (aka is an effective corollory to CA, as the director of said ARC responded to criticisms of how artists were unpaid, or members openly misled at AGMs, by accusing critics of “misogyny”). My contributions – whether in volunteer time or in financial terms – are better spent elsewhere, in spaces that merit them, and put them to good use that serves a larger community, not an exclusive clique.

Culture is important. Canadian art and artists are important. We deserve better, and must demand better, before we continue to support a failed institution that seems to brush off mistakes and decisions that not only invite criticism, but are inherently flawed (and clearly so to anyone outside the CA bubble). This is very possible (there are several examples of boards and directors being ousted by members, or being forced out due to their mismanagement, in the history of ARCs and other collectives, in Canada). It is also necessary, as throwing hard earned and sparse cultural funds at this rubbishy state of affairs will not improve the situation.

Giving money to Canadian Art Magazine is an endorsement of their failure, and that will only lead to worse, and more egregiously shoddy examples of their incompetence.

We need to do better, and we merit better. #DEFUNDCANADIANARTMAGAZINE



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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