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.

 

 

Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 / Dave Gordon @ NAC

Dave Gordon’s exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre is the kind of show with different meaning(s) to different groups: some of these are ideas that directly relate to what’s presented, and some of these are about what his art – or more broadly, his aesthetic – is implying.

That’s not an unusual consideration for a show that chronicles 4 decades of an artist’s practice – and life – especially when that artist is someone whose own artistic origins coincide with the advent of artist run centers in Ontario. Arguably, artist run culture is still one of the strongest definers of the Canadian art world, though it’s a bit frayed (the need to remind an artist run centre in Saskatoon that its not  “exposure / experience” but exploitation to NOT pay artist’s fees more disgusts than angers me. Further nausea is induced by outgoing Sask Arts Board “CEO” Ranjan Thakre – who helped end SCN under a Sask Party agenda that also destroyed the Sask Film Tax Credit – dismissing allegations of fraud in the same space….have these groups become as bad as that which they oppose(d) with their neo liberal selfish incompetence?)

Forgive my nostalgia: this is also a side effect of Gordon’s aesthetic, I fear…

It was interesting to hear Gordon speak, at the opening of Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 in the Showroom Gallery, about people like John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, both of whom I discovered at the Art Gallery of Windsor while helping Bob McKaskell research his exhibition Making It New: Canadian Art in the 1960’s. The fight regarding artist fees, and the establishment of “alternate spaces” is a history we too often forget[1].

I was also in attendance at what might have been Curnoe’s last artist talk before his untimely death, and heard him hold forth regarding a project that took his ideas of London Regionalism (“place is as important as subject” Gordon said at NAC, when invoking Curnoe’s ideology) to an almost absurd length, as he read the history of the tract of land he lived on to the audience, favouring his own fascination over the disinterest of the crowd (another aspect, perhaps, of his “regionalism”…)

Gordon’s work (some large, some smaller) fills the back gallery space, with works from variant series including Woodpiles, Clouds and Chicken à la King. There’s primarily paintings, but also drawing: a series of “text” or “scrawled” works are among my favourite, with them sharing the title of Don’t Carp London ON 1975. Gordon invokes names from that era that aren’t too “regionalist” – like the Rabinovitch twins – but are wider, like Roald Nasgaard, that acolyte of karaoke modernism on the prairies. There’s at least one found object incorporated as part of the painting Excelsior! though the duck (goose? I may have lived on the Prairies but I’m a city boy) acts as a “period” if you “read” the works from the portrait of Jean Genet moving clockwise from the left entrance and loop the room back to where you came in.

The portrait of Jean Genet (from the HeadLands Series) seems to make more sense than the bird in encapsulating Gordon’s aesthetic, but in an inverse manner. The accompanying cursive quote (It is not up to the artist or the poet to find potential solutions to the problem of evil) is the opposite of the ideal that art can, and must, change the world. This remote cynicism seems in defiance of the caustic portraits of former Ontario premier Mike Harris as Prince of Waters, whose “Common Sense Revolution” invariably led to Walkerton and waterborne fatalities…

 

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Further, Genet’s dalliances with “evil”, and his own “outsider” existential disregard for social norms, flies completely in the face (sorry, no pun intended) of the image of Bashar Al Assad: the skulls painted into his eyes offer an indictment of him that embraces the idea that the artist does have a moral role to play. This is among the later works that act as Gordon’s works from his trip to Syria (the directness of his impressions of his trip there expand the idea of regionalism, as we’re seeing it through his eyes).

In a more immediate (and contemporary, in light of Election 2015) manner, the work that entertained me the most were the portraits of our current Canadian Ruler and several of his court – sorry, I mean the current PM and various cabinet ministers – present and past, some departed by choice, others not.

Dean Del Mastro looks like he’d blend with The Godfather, looking solid of jaw and dismayed of expression. Bev Oda, with sunglasses and cigarette is channeling Lou Reed, easily the “cool” one of the group. Jason Kenny’s was perhaps the most unsettling: the night following seeing this unflattering rendering, I was watching the news and saw Kenney maligning some opponent with the same waddle of chins, camera angle from below (Remember how reporters would wait until later in the day to photograph Richard Nixon, as his five o’clock shadow was excessive and…well…criminalizing, to be honest?). Peter McKay seems a bit stunned with his tiny, dot eyes and pouched mouth, and the man himself, Stephen Harper, looks out at us askance, suspicious perhaps, painted in a manner that makes him appear to have a dirty face and a dismissive manner. John Baird’s face fills the frame, aggressively making eye contact with all. Vic Toews looks harsh and rough, like an Old Testament judge, eager to punish: his head breaks the picture frame, like Big Brother Watching Us. Tony Clement looks taken by surprise, and Rona Ambrose looks unimpressed, while Jim Flaherty seems to have a touch of indigestion…

I was once told that I’m the “most subjective art critic ever”: judge that freely in the previous passage, but I think some of you may agree with my assessment here…

There are also smaller portraits of artists (I use that term interchangeably for Arthur Rimbaud or Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston or Al Purdy) and some are granted larger spaces of note. There’s a portrait of Margaret Laurence, but also a quote from her excellent book The Diviners. Frida Kahlo will always have my love not just for herself and her work but also her declaration of her contempt for the “art bitches” of Paris, a term I’ve applied to many a place and person. The Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas) shares a wall with an amusing take on The Group of 7 (the seven dwarfs appear, and the same humour we saw applied to the Conservative Cabinet is here, but less acerbic).

The performance by SOUND SOUND followed after the talk and reception, upstairs: I’d not experienced this space before, and it was lovely, as a potential projection / event space, and the atmosphere was engaging even before the visuals and audio began (I was both amused and vaguely uneasy when I looked up at some point and saw the massive upper stretch of Silver Spire United Church, lit with a greenish light, seeming to look down upon us, perhaps with sternness…)

Ever since I became acquainted with Gary James Joynes or Rutger Zuyderveldt, I’ve found that its best to come to audio installations with an openness, as the best I’ve experienced (such as the aforementioned artists’ works in Sounds Like Audio Art Festival III) can overwhelm your senses and be alternately evocative and almost excessive in pushing their physicality.

There was (perhaps) a narrative to the variant projections on the massive screens at the far end of the rooftop. Apocalyptic scenes specific and iconic (images of 9/11) or more poetic and less recognizable mixed with quiet moments, all drone and ambience. These were punctuated by an almost minimalist dance of flames and smoke that was broken by the performers’ shadows, a clean delineated black among the frothing oranges. Another projection reformatted a more three dimensional version of Picasso’s Guernica: how can’t you think that Death rides the pale horse that dominates those tableaux of misery?

This was an unusual pairing, of Sound Sound and Excelsior!, but my long sentence in academia has not made me demand that all fits within boxes like a television dinner tray.

Perhaps it wasn’t such an odd evening of diverse works, if you see them as images of our world, and who defines it, whether the history (including the people and places that form it) of forty years ago, or the history of the 21st century as we’ve constructed it, so far…

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[1] A friend of mine whose history as a cultural worker is significant once commented to me that the foundation of ARCs and their “activist” mandate was intrinsically linked to the influx of conscientious objectors to Viet Nam, implying both a more “American” energy and activism but also cast ARCs as part of that larger social justice milieu. I also like to think of ARCs as having a link in this manner to groups like the SDS with their rough push for change, and perhaps this is why when places like the aforementioned ARC or Thakre betray their responsibilities they remind me of corrupt regimes.