Bleeding the Memory Membrane

Arts Activism and Cultural Institutions
By Chris Creighton-Kelly
'T.P.'  - Toilet paper, seed beads, photo credit: Fazakas Gallery
Balu Jivya Mashe, The Field, 2013, cowdung and acrylic on canvas. ©, Courtesy of BINDU modern Gallery, Photo credit: Sneha Ganguly”. See review in Rungh, Volume 5, Number 3.

Share Article

Previously published in Questions of Community: Artists Audiences Coalitions. (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for the Arts) (1995). Edited by Diana Augaitis, Lorne Folk, Sylvie Gilbert and Mary Anne Moser, eds.

I don’t think there is a non-institutional environment. I think the institution, whichever institution you are isolating for the moment, does not exist in isolation, so that what you are actually obliged to look at is more and more framing.11Gayatri Spivak, "Criticism, Feminism, and the Institution," in The Post-Colonial Critic, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990). 5.
- Gayatri Spivak

Three Scenarios


I am sitting in a café talking with artists about the various and splendid issues, notions, events and challenges that both enliven and haunt their lives. A painter, lesbian, speaks eloquently about the phallologocentrism of the visual art world. She describes the subtlety of this and that brush stroke in her own work. She sprinkles her speech with words like semiotics, subaltern and misogyny. She boldly declares the invention of new sign systems.

A musician of colour nods. He explains the limited perspective of the European tradition when it attempts to understand the music he plays. Although English is his third language, his utterance carries a particular articulation because it is shaped with the insight of the outsider. He speaks of justice and sonority in the same sentence. Of technique and cultural appropriation in another. Of the colours of sound, of the colours of human skin and of the colour of money.

Another woman, in her late fifties, recalls the feminist art strategies of the 1960s. She says it is all a matter of access. She recounts with relish and detail the time when she and four hundred other women protested against… Nervous laughter from everyone at the table gives way to good-natured teasing about having heard this anecdote before. She smiles along but insists that it is important to remember history.

In time, the talk turns to the tedious and arcane process of getting government art grants. Someone says “phone so-and-so” in Ottawa. No way, comes the quick reply - ever since working for the institution, so-and-so has sold out. She is out of touch. He looks after his friends. She only does what is good for her career. He cannot really be trusted anymore.

And so the conversation goes - institutions do not serve communities; they essentially do not change. Anyone who tries to change them will eventually be co-opted. There is much heady talk of legal action, boycotts, demonstrations.

I am charged with this energy. I think about how social change is inspired by this talk and how important these changes are. Later I will remember how earnest these discussions were - naïve in one sense and cloyingly self-righteous in another. I will recall how we artists often occupy the moral high ground as if the choosing of our profession/lifestyle were virtue enough. Sometimes, especially when the adrenaline surges, artists believe their own propaganda. Eventually my cynicism will set in.

But that happens later. Right now, with these gentle but insistent friends, anything seems possible. I feel lucky to be among them.


I am sitting in a restaurant with arts bureaucrats, talking art politics, arts policy, even a little art history. Anything but art itself. A man across the table speaks authoritatively about Canadian theatre. He seems to be friends with every actor, director and playwright in the country. With each conversational point, he notes his close camaraderie with a certain artist. My dinner companions coo at appropriate intervals. It seems a convoluted way to get to know someone, based upon whom (not what or how) they know.

A woman beside him also trades in this info-business of art world gossip. Her specialty is more insider stuff - who is sleeping with whom, why a certain artistic director was fired, what really happened at the last AGM. She makes these details seem vital, translating arts lore into arts statistics. I wonder if I have enough money for my dinner. In the same instant, I realize the department director will pick up the tab. It seems so lavish - until I remember that we are not paid overtime. It is 10 PM and we are still talking business!

Down at the other end of the table, a man is quiet. He is a lifer, having worked in his section for twenty-one years. He has heard it all before. For him, name dropping lost its thrill long ago. When someone refers to First Peoples artists who are accusing the institution of racism, he goes into a long, nuanced history of Québecois(es) artists and their fight for cultural validation within English Canada. I vaguely remember that he had a serious burnout a couple of years ago. Was off work for five and a half months.

In time, talk turns to the possibility of an artists’ demonstration outside our workplace. Is it a rumour or will it really happen? Someone suggests phoning so-and-so, an artist. Waste of time, comes a quick response. He is not really in the loop. She is more of a community activist type than an artist. He likes the publicity of protesting, but that will only hurt his chances when he tries to screen his films. She self-marginalizes herself instead of working inside the institution where real changes are happening.

And so the conversation goes – artists never know how hard we bureaucrats work on their behalf. They really have to organize themselves better so politicians will sit up and take notice. Somehow, with less money than last year, we will start a new program to deal with their concerns. There is much heady talk about establishing new policy directives, facilitating access, planning objectives and setting priorities.

I feel charged with this energy. I think about the possibilities for change in the Canadian art system and how necessary those changes are. Later I will remember how arrogant this conversation was – a combination of condescension, pity and a hyper-inflated sense of self-importance. Artists are bit players in this bureaucratic movie, artsy looking extras that help to set the mood. I will recall, when push comes to shove, who does the shoving and who gets pushed over. And inevitably, amid frequent compromises, cynicism will set in.

But that comes later. Right now, with these worldly and assertive colleagues, many things seem possible. I feel lucky to be given this opportunity.


I am dreaming. There is a reddish-brown feeling of panic. And a flurry of activity that seems to be swirling white. I am hosting an important dinner which I hope will go well. My friends from the café will be coming, looking trendy, suspicious, surprised to be included. My co-workers at the arts institution will be at the dinner as well, polite, well meaning, filled with largesse. I have made neat little nameplates to put beside everyone’s wine glass. The names, including my own, have been changed to protect the guilty. There are no innocents at this meal.

I wake up. I am sweating from the anxiety of the dream. I realize I have forgotten to change the real-life dinner reservations from nine people to eleven. I hurriedly call the restaurant. Of course, it is not open at 6:30 in the morning. Anxiety ridden, I know thirteen hours from now exactly what I am going to order.

I do not feel cynical. And I do not feel lucky.

Problematics: Probabilities

Within the critical milieux of the Canadian art system there is a propensity to contra-pose, on the one hand, the functioning of cultural institutions insofar as they define, designate and perpetuate power with, on the other hand, the role of activist artists who construct and understand themselves as members of communities that contest that power.

This tendency occurs at the theoretical level. Many cogent analyses of institutional power have been articulated in recent years by historically silenced groups – feminists, artists of colour, lesbian and gay cultural producers, to name a few. Reactionary voices within the institutionalized art world have, in response, called for a return to beauty and truth; denounced political correctness as censorship; or simply ignored these challenges, carrying on with their predictable modernist cant and hoping the barbarians at the gate will eventually give up and go away.

This tendency also pops up in the everyday rhetoric of artists. The individual artist’s right to independence and freedom of expression is assumed to be restricted by institutional agendas. At the level of personal frustration, it is expressed in the popular refrain, “Why should I have to fill out a grant application just to prove I am an artist to some funding agency?” The institution as tyranny, the artist as renegade.

The lived reality for artists is, of course, much different. Unfortunately, it is not very glamourous. They cannot live in a state of highly principled autonomy. Certainly not at the formal level – applying for grants, soliciting publishers, seeking venues for exhibition or performance – nor informally at openings, parties or dinners where friendships among bureaucrats, administrators and artists germinate and flourish. Unlike arts bureaucrats, they do not enjoy the self-satisfaction that comes with having power, none of the preening vanity that comes with believing others will do your bidding, or that still others will envy your social position.

Our lived realities are mediated. For twenty years now, cultural studies aficionados have elaborated Stuart Hall’s salient assertion that we, as individuals and as communities, relate to dominant culture in one of three modes: accepting, negotiating, opposing. Hall suggests that we rarely accept it as given: we are rarely in a position to completely oppose it. Mostly, we negotiate.

In institutions, not much is known about the ways these negotiations work. There are, on the one hand, plenty of art scene documents on How to Fight City Hall and Win and, on the other hand, a plethora of institutional studies, surveys and rarely seen internal memos that dilute pointed, streetwise critiques. Yet little is published about this negotiated terrain – where community and institution meet, where activism confronts bureaucracy – even though in the lived reality, sooner or later, almost every one of us is invited to dinner. How can we conceptualize this relationship? As Cornel West indicates,

The new cultural politics of difference are neither simply oppositional in contesting the mainstream (or male stream) for inclusion, nor transgressive in the avant-gardist sense of shocking conventional bourgeois audiences… This perspective impels these cultural critics and artists to reveal, as an integral component of their production, the very operations of power within their immediate work contexts (i.e., academy, museum, gallery, mass media). This strategy, however, puts them in an inescapable double bind – while linking their activities to the fundamental, structural overhaul of these institutions, they often remain financially dependent on them… For these critics of culture, theirs is a gesture that is simultaneously progressive and co-opted.1Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," October 53 (Summer 1990), 94, italics in original. Another version of this article appears in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West (New York and Cambridge: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 1990).

West suggests that rather than polarize the articulation of progressive issues and the inclination of an art institution to co-opt them, these processes be coupled. To do so implies there are no actions of political purity or autonomy either by activists or bureaucrats: activist politics within an institution are always negotiated. To do so also implies abandoning the stale debates of being inside versus outside systems and institutions. To describe, as West does, “a gesture that is simultaneously progressive and co-opted” means that this pseudo-polarization is no longer a point of contention, but a point of departure.

Tensions: Types

Art institutions, however circumscribed they appear to be, are not conspiracies. They do change. And within Canadian cultural agencies, the workforce is not homogeneous. Individual workers have different outlooks and understandings about the meaning of their jobs. Their relationships with various artistic communities are not the same. Ultimately their politics differ, albeit they fall within a certain range. Likewise, artists do not always agree on strategies or even on analyses of issues that they jointly dispute. As a consequence, artists' coalitions are frequently difficult to build.

To discuss the juncture where activism meets bureaucracy, four "types" of agency can be identified. Among any sizable group of artists there are those who are essentialist activists and others who are interventionist activists. In the arts bureaucracy, one finds both institutional progressives and institutional reactionaries. This is not to suggest that all individuals divide themselves neatly into these distinct categories. There are many artists not interested in cultural agencies, cultural policies, cultural politics. Similarly, many competent individuals exist within institutions who neither encourage nor resist change but are content to do their jobs as well as they can.

Nevertheless, groups tend to form based on these types. The groups themselves are not internally homogeneous. They are the result of various factions and interests that coincide to cause alliances that are often temporary. A person might shift from one type to another in the course of a career.

Essentialist activists tend to oppose militantly art institutions and their practices. They often see themselves as "outside the system." They sometimes encourage group isolation, sequestering themselves within a close circle of supportive friends. Occasionally dogmatic, they invoke a kind of closure around their analysis of events. They consider institutions to be static, co-opting any change. Adjustments are superficial, masking the status quo. Essentialist activists are grounded in community. In very important ways, they define the specific concerns of particular communities. They set the oppositional frame as clear counterpoint to the institutional frame.

Interventionist activists tend to be pragmatic. They will often be involved in endless micro-changes within institutions hoping that these will have impact on underlying structures. Sometimes they are individuals who have previously worked within the system and quit on a point of principle. Others are based in communities with contacts and friends in art institutions. They see institutions as resisting change but feel motivated to try to change them anyway.

Interventionist activists rely on community as a means to nurture themselves. They are proud of their subcultural identities even as they encounter the mainstream. They bring the oppositional frame directly to an institution, forcing an uncomfortable relationship with it.

Institutional progressives tend to be in a state of tension with the very art institutions in which they work. Sometimes this is because they come with distinct political agendas; they may be former activists. Other individuals may have no specific plan or analysis but see themselves as mavericks within the system and so align themselves with oppositional movements outside. Still others are liberal minded and encourage debate among different opinions, occasionally finding convergence with activist critiques.

Institutional progressives generally see institutional change as healthy and accept the glacial rate at which it happens. They look to community for ideas and innovation. They do not usually see themselves as working inside the institution forever. They challenge the institutional frame from within it and, as a result, their options are frequently limited.

Institutional reactionaries tend to resist change. Sometimes this is because they hold specific political views that deliberately oppose activist ideas and interventions. In other circumstances, it is due to the complacency of “this is how we have always done it." Some may simply fear loss or change in the status of their job. They are rarely practising artists. They are often lifetime arts administrators who see their positions as arts bureaucrats as positive career moves, rewards for time spent paying their dues in arts organizations. Institutional reactionaries generally align their personal ambitions with those of their institution or other art institutions that they hope to work for. They do not usually have an ongoing relationship with artists’ communities but encounter them in superficial and sporadic ways. They set and defend the institutional frame.

Again, it is important to stress that individuals cannot readily be typecast as these four intentionally ironic categories suggest. Social interaction, both in communities and institutions, is elaborate and sometimes enigmatic. Human beings act in different ways, for different reasons, with the hope of different outcomes. And besides, no one would describe themself as an institutional reactionary!

The categories are meant to outline political tendencies that come into play when arts activists face an arts institution. The point of this exercise is to open up the can of worms and to "complexify" (as one artist quipster put it) the conflicts between activism and bureaucracy – to work through the terrain between artists and institutions – its contingencies, its deviations, its sporadic impulses for clues to how power is negotiated. For as Michel Foucault puts it,

I don't believe that this question of "who exercises power?" can be resolved unless that other question "how does it happen?" is resolved at the same time. Of course we have to show who those in charge are, we know we have to turn, let us say, to deputies, ministers, principal private secretaries, etc., etc. But this is not the important issue, for we know perfectly well that even if we reach the point of designating exactly all those people, all those "decision makers," we will still not really know how and why the decision was made, how it came to be accepted by everybody, and how it is that it hurts a particular category of person … the strategies, the networks, the mechanisms, all those techniques by which a decision is accepted and by which that decision could not but be taken in the way it was.2Michel Foucault, "On Power," in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: lnterviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988), 103-4.

The types of issues taken up by arts activists over the years – increasing the number of women on arts boards, improving funding for artists' centres, ending cultural appropriation of First Peoples artworks, garnering support for interdisciplinary work, heightening AIDS awareness and action, changing policies and practices that result in systemic racism, to name just a sampling – have fermented within specific arts communities.

The ways in which issues take shape, are conveyed, and eventually addressed in an institution are as varied as the people involved. However, certain patterns may shed light on the question, "How does it happen?" To begin with, activists identify concerns important to them to which a particular arts institution may respond. There is, of course, no one way in which this happens. An artist's comment on a jury, an arts administrator going to a community meeting and getting an earful, an urgent conference, a magazine article making pointed accusations, an outside consultant's report – these are among the many channels.

The Canadian art system has an elaborate network of task forces, advisory panels, curatorial committees, commissions, juries, discipline-specific service organizations, arts consultants and community liaison committees. Through interaction between institutional progressives and interventionist activists certain concerns seep into the bureaucracy. Eventually (usually at least five years later) the institution takes up the issue.

Trajectories: Strategies

For an activist beginning to negotiate with an institution, whether as lobbyist, consultant, contract worker or full-time employee, it is critically important to recognize specific moments that reveal potential allies. It is a strange feeling sitting in a formal, bureaucratic meeting to realize that a colleague across the table attended the same demonstration as you seven years ago.

It is equally important to remember to contact and listen carefully to allies based in communities. Find ways to bring their perspectives into the institution. Ensure equitable fees for their time, research and counsel. An activist who loses the trust of an arts community will very quickly lose their political and ethical compass within the institution.

Even in the best of circumstances, an activist will meet considerable obstacles upon entering the negotiated terrain. Some obstacles are presented here to give examples of how strategies can be diffused by the internal functioning of bureaucratic structures. Though these are characteristic of all cultural institutions, political strategies will differ from one to another, and even from one issue to another within the same institution. They are summarized this way:


The hierarchical nature of institutions is apparent, but its ramifications are often not. Activists often come from organizations – collectives, co-ops, artist-run centres – that are at least somewhat democratic. Cultural institutions, like other institutions, thrive on status, rank and positions of power. Crucial issues can be taken up at one level, then changed at another higher level, then reversed, then cancelled altogether. Generally speaking, the higher up in the chain an activist issue is supported, the more likely a progressive change will occur.

I recall an incident a few years ago within the former Department of Communications. I was coordinating a festival and we had been turned down for a DoC grant on a technicality. Like any determined arts administrator, I appealed through the available avenues – local, then regional. No luck. Eventually, I went to Ottawa, seeking a ministerial aide who had shown a tenuous bit of sympathy for our position over the phone. With her full schedule, she was not glad to see me! Nevertheless, she agreed to one of those it-is-the-only-time-available meetings – 6:30 the next morning. When she saw the schedule for our event, she supported the progressive artistic content. The minister signed a document the next day: we received the money a few days later. Weeks of meetings, phone calls and excuses had been overturned by a forty-five minute breakfast.

In this case, we were lucky. With a different ministerial aide, the outcome could easily have gone the other way. The critical point is that power was exercised unilaterally at a high level in the chain. There was no pretence that it had been a democratic decision. For community activists there is often a desire to work in a cooperative way, to seek consensus before acting. Even when this breaks down, there remains a concern for process – how and why the decision is made – in addition to what is decided.

Within an institution, this way of working is unlikely. Therefore, an activist faces tough political moments, even when the outcome is in their favour. Since the real struggle is to make structural changes that enable more democratic, just and inclusive decision-making, then winning in this way can be a hollow victory.


As a neo-Marxist semiotician might say, power belongs to those who own the means of (re)production. In 1991, a group called Local Colour was formed. Originating in the Vancouver South Asian cultural community, Local Colour was a coalition of First Peoples and other artists of colour plus white artists who supported its actions. It was initiated to protest the Vancouver Art Gallery's continued exclusion of artists from the varied racial communities that make up the Vancouver population. Rather than exhibit these artists, it chose to fulfill its ethnic obligations with shows imported from England and Hong Kong.

Many artists, including myself, were involved with Local Colour over a period of five months. We organized protests, presented alternative showings of artists' works, held public meetings, carried on correspondences, and published surveys and articles. The Vancouver Art Gallery had a large, well equipped building: Local Colour worked out of people's living rooms. They had a paid staff: we worked exclusively with volunteer labour. They had the means and machines to communicate and gain access to the press: we xeroxed at our day jobs, passed the hat for long distance calls and prepared press releases at night.

This imbalance of resources is typical of most community-versus-arts institution skirmishes. For activists entering the bureaucracy the challenge is to reallocate, in however limited a way, this cultural capital. An established Vancouver arts administrator who was a member of an internal Vancouver Art Gallery committee was also an active participant in Local Colour. The gallery cited her presence as a woman of colour as evidence of their interest in communities of colour, in a sense, attempting to co-opt her ethnicity. However, her visible commitment to Local Colour throughout the campaign completely negated that claim. In fact, her stance counter-co-opted a small portion of the VAG power. She expressed publicly that this arts institution did not speak with a unified voice, that within it there was dissension and fragmentation of opinion.

Certainly, in the competition for resources, activists will rarely have what they need. The Vancouver Art Gallery stands strong today: Local Colour is, like most transitory coalitions, dormant. Realistically, arts institutions are not in the habit of funding protests against their own policies. Reallocation of resources will, in any event, be temporary.

However, when artfully facilitated from within an institution, this action blurs the centre/other positioning, which is so necessary for the maintenance of power. It catches the "avant off garde," forcing the institutionalized intelligentsia to forfeit their surveillance and quasi-authority over emergent, community-based art issues. Such activist strategies demonstrate that sites of resistance can be both multiple and divergent.


Any senior arts bureaucrat who has been around for a few years will tell a story or two about changed priorities. Months, sometimes years of work, can go on the back burner (or in the burner!) at the minister’s whim. Of course, the hurried cleaning out of desks and changing of locks is welcome, if, as a result, progressive political shifts seem possible. In Canada, this is rare.

In 1990 and 1991, I worked for the Canada Council to help the institution deal with its systemic racism. An advisory committee was struck and one of its many recommendations was the hiring of a full-time racial equality staff person. The committee hoped at the time that this would continue the anti-racist work even after its own disbandment. The Council created this position and hired Koko Amarteifio.

Shortly thereafter, the director who had initiated my hiring left the Council when her term expired. A new director, Paule Leduc, was appointed. The important work that Koko Amarteifio had begun was increasingly sidelined until she finally resigned in frustration and protest. Susan Crean described the change:

With senior Canada Council officials shunted aside or demoted, with no protection for the arts budget, and a management attitude which was already questioning the tradition of Council accountability to the community in the development of arts policy, it looked more like an unfriendly takeover. The most ominous sign of the change was the resignation in June of Koko Amarteifio, Council's cultural equity officer, who left citing "a continuous lack of recognition and sensitivity to cultural diversity issues" and a situation where she was no longer allowed to report directly to the board. (When Amarteifio raised the demotion with the director, Mme. Leduc accused her of being a "spoiled brat.")3Susan Crean, "Culture in the Crunch," The Canadian Forum 72 :821 (July/August 1993), 14.

So much for long-range planning. Because of constantly changing management in bureaucracies, the challenge for activists entering an institution is to devise ways to make changes that endure. A handy rule is try to make yourself dispensable, but make discussion of the issues irrevocable. Of course, this runs counter to the inclination of bureaucrats to maintain and defend their indispensability. An activist can work against this prevailing tendency to associate issues and actions with specific, and sometimes solitary, individuals. It is important to motivate allies and build as wide a support network as possible (both within and outside) to ensure continued pressure after your departure.

Instead of quietly resigning, Koko Amarteifio conveyed her concerns directly to the various communities of colour with whom she had been working. With their help, despite her leaving, Amarteifio was able to insist that her cultural equity position be filled for another term.


One day an artist might get one explanation over the phone, the next day, the same institution, a different person, a totally different story. "Well, the person you talked to yesterday was probably not aware of the new directive which comes into effect on the fifteenth." "The information you have is correct, but it does not apply in our department." "We have already dealt with that issue.”

Such inconsistencies, though common, do not occur in a calculated way. They happen because individuals within institutions make choices (political and otherwise) about the manner in which they interpret internal policies and practices. They may emphasize a particular top-down directive because it is congruent with their own understanding of their job. Often simply creating the policy and translating it into a directive is enough to make managers feel they have dealt with a certain issue. Whether or not it is being implemented is left to an imprecise combination of employee morale and casual, over-a-cup-of-coffee chats.

As well, a certain individual or section may embark upon a progressive direction that is not supported institution-wide. In 1992, I was the summer head of the Art Studio at the Banff Centre. I was specifically asked to design a program that would deal with the exclusion of artists of colour from art institutions. The result was Race and the Body Politic, a ten-week residency with twenty persons, eighteen of whom were artists of colour.

My intention was threefold. First, to simply provide access to significant resources for artists who might otherwise not be given such an opportunity. Second, to encourage the resident First Peoples artists and artists of colour to initiate a constructive dialogue about their work apart from the white, mainstream critical apparatus which commonly misunderstands, dismisses or simply ignores their work. Third, with their guidance and company, to engage the entire Banff Centre for the Arts in addressing its institutional racism.

From most accounts, the first two intentions were achieved. The third was considerably less successful. Despite a number of flash points throughout the summer – some intrinsic to the everyday functioning of racist assumptions in the arts, others deliberate interventions by some of the participating artists – the institution responded, for the most part, with a shrug of the shoulders.

Most people on campus seemed to be aware of the program: we were after all "visible'' minorities in an almost completely white milieu. But whether I was getting a massage in the sports complex, meeting a board member in a formal context, or simply encountering colleagues in other departments, I met a prevalent attitude of interest and support, but detachment. "How is it going over in your program? It is great that these artists have been invited and that you are dealing with this issue." Somehow the interests of these artists of colour was not seen to be relevant to those in other departments. And it seemed simply because of the presence of the artists in Race and the Body Politic, the institution felt itself to be dealing with race.

Therein lies the problem for activists when faced with this piecemeal type of alteration. The challenge is to make your small piece of the pie a lobby, not a ghetto, to make structural not just tokenistic changes. Of course, that is hard work. Not to mention distracting. Some of the artists in the residency chose not to engage in this draining, internal politic, concentrating instead on using the institutional resources to produce their own work and strengthening their personal and aesthetic relationships with their colleagues.

As the summer was ending, analyses, complaints and proposals from the artists in Race and the Body Politic were heard by the management of the Centre for the Arts in a formal meeting. Policy changes were seriously discussed. However, as the artists left, the issues they raised became less immediate. Their physical presence had been the pressure.


The culture of art institutions has its own syntax, protocol and ritual. Progressive struggles become "initiatives" and "directives." Sexism becomes "a perceived lack of access.” Heterosexism and racism can be dealt with by "being responsive to the multicultural diversity of Canada." Memos are shunted, opinions are blunted, innovation is stunted. Activists can find that they do not recognize their own issues anymore.

Bureaucratic culture and its codes help to explain why people in arts institutions act as they do. There is a constant need to justify by survey and statistic, to cover all arrangements with paper trails that sanitize the implicit politic that was present at the moment of decision. It does make a difference that people are motivated to join this paper shuffle, at least in part, by making a living and, especially in these times of fiscal restraint, holding onto their jobs. This results in a culture of caution, expedience and procedural delay.

I recall a conference a few years ago that was initially funded by a section of the former Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship. Its purpose was to bring together artists, arts administrators and academics from across Canada to evaluate the various institutional attempts to address the racism and ethnocentrism of the art system. Of course, several communities had been proposing such an event for years. Aboriginal, African and Asian artists were painfully aware that their practices, aesthetics and cultural forms were ignored. M. Nourbese Philip articulated this exclusion.

Fundamentally, however, the core of racism in the arts remains constant: the refusal to treat as valid the cultural experience, knowledge or expertise of the artist coming from a non-European culture, wedded to the belief that Eurocentric values are in and of themselves better.4M. Nourbese Philip, "Gut Issues in Babylon, Racism and Anti-racism in the Arts," Fuse 12:5 (April/May 1989), 20.

After being asked to coordinate this conference, I sought and received support from different sections of Multiculturalism and Citizenship, and three other major Canadian arts agencies. A conference site was selected, dates were set and artists were invited with help from an internal advisory committee at Multiculturalism and Citizenship. A poster was designed, ready to be printed. The conference was supported by as many as twenty different arts administrators. I was repeatedly assured that the minister personally wanted this conference to go ahead.

One person within this bureaucracy opposed the conference. Through a series of tactical delays – postponing crucial deadlines, calling meetings to revisit decisions already made, questioning the appropriateness of certain invitees and proposed sessions at the conference, holding back approvals for releasing funds – she was able to derail the event. Although considerable resources and money had been spent, the conference was never held. Using the conventions of bureaucratic culture and following "procedure," she was actually able to make her decisions immune to the hierarchy, becoming an exception to the rule. The conference was consistently supported by her colleagues both below and above her in rank.

It is critically important for activists to recognize these kinds of tactics when they are deliberately used to hinder issues and events. The strategies for working around these kinds of obstacles are not well developed. Bureaucratic culture and its habits are mostly foreign to activist ways of working which stress manifesto, timeliness and alacrity.


This frame setting is the epistemological function of institutions. For activists, it is the most difficult obstacle to challenge. This frame is not expressly ideological. It can shift and shadow box with its critics, bobbing and weaving, always confident that it has the knock out punch.

Even when the institutional frame appears to change its shape, its structural assumptions remain in place. M. Nourbese Philip cautions that small changes can mask the lack of real shifts in power or practice.

We must, however, question whether these changes are fundamental and lasting, or whether the systems are merely changing to remain the same. By their very nature, organizations function so as to perpetuate themselves as they are.5M. Nourbese Philip, "The New Jerusalem in Two and a Half Minutes," Fuse 14:4 (Spring 1991), 20, italics in original.

One of the recommendations made by the Canada Council's racial equality advisory committee attempted to challenge the institutional frame – its taken-for-granted assumptions about itself. In this case, the Council did not perceive itself as a racist institution. The preamble to this recommendation began with,

Whereas systemic racism is a result of the everyday functioning of all Canadian institutions, we recommend …6Recommendations of the Advisory Committee to the Canada Council for Racial Equality in the Arts and The Response of the Canada Council, January 1992, 7. This is a public policy document available from the Canada Council.

to which the Council responded,

The Council, while sensitive to the issue raised by the committee, cannot endorse this general statement regarding Canadian institutions.7Ibid.

The denial of systemic or institutional racism is characteristic of the institutional position. But a critic might insist, why then do we have a Multiculturalism act of parliament designed to stop discrimination? An elaborate, official institutionalized Multiculturalism? With its own Race Relations section? With a Multiculturalism Secretariat devoted to institutional change? An annual, government endorsed "day for the elimination of racism?" Apparently, racism exists in Canada. It is recognized as a social and institutional problem. Yet, somehow, it is not to be found in Canadian art institutions. Cameron Bailey discusses the contrast between the two frames – institutional and oppositional:

This is straight stonewalling, and for me, the crux of the report. By refusing to admit the existence of systemic racism, the Council refutes the reason for the committee, its recommendations, the whole enterprise. It is easy, however, to see how much an admission of systemic racism might threaten an institution, given the psychic damage the mere mention of the word does to unthinking white people. The committee’s wording of this central recommendation is clearly deliberate – “everyday functioning of all Canadian institutions" leaves no room for institutions to adopt a not-me pose.8Cameron Bailey, "Fright the Power: Arts Councils and the Spectre of Racial Equality," Fuse 15:6 (1992), 25, italics in original.

Yet institutions do adopt this "not-me pose" merely by using the liberal tactic of "agreeing to disagree" when the institutional frame is challenged.

Conclusions: Inclusions

What, then, can be said of these complex mappings and the problems they engender? Clearly part of the problem is the lack of experiential information and history that would form the basis for an expanded critique. As one colleague lamented, there is nowhere to go to learn the negotiating skills required once inside. Of course, some of the secrecy about information is necessary to protect confidentiality and human rights. But we ought to get over our Canadian "niceness" and bring more of the details and everyday oral accounts of institutional functioning under the microscope. I am aware too, that individuals within arts institutions fear reprisals. Even though I have used generalized examples that are already public knowledge, my commentary will be seen as disloyalty in some quarters.

Sustained and more comprehensive critiques, however, are precisely what is required at this historical moment. They will provide a bedrock, perhaps even yield guidelines, for more activist activity in Canada's art institutions. Equally important, such a progressive, constructive, radical rethinking would counter the dangerous, prevailing, reactionary frameworks expressed in the body politic as, "Let's get government off our backs; let's cut the civil service; it’s mostly excess fat anyway; they're just wasting our money." This is a potential, mostly unexploited, point of alliance between bureaucrats, unions and their progressive critics.

In the current, fetid crisis of fear and cutbacks, it is time for cultural institutions to open the door and let in some fresh air. Here are some suggestions overheard in arts communities:

  • Hire fresh blood. Communities seeking access need professional experience inside institutions. Arts bureaucrats who have been around for years could use a little time spent on the street;
  • Limit most cultural bureaucrat positions to five years (there could be exceptions when necessary). This will generate more risk, innovation and community accountability;
  • Use artists more often, not less, as advisors, consultants, decision makers;
  • Encourage job sharing. Artists, especially those who are parents, will definitely benefit and the institution will gain frequent grassroots input and improved productivity; and
  • Eliminate systemic racism of all kinds. It is so tiring to constantly repeat this need for legitimate access. It is an area where cultural institutions could be leading the way, not lagging behind banks and the military.

If this is not done structurally and quickly, we will see the development of more and more "parallel structures" at a time when resources and funds are diminishing. Speaking of art racism against First Peoples, Joane Cardinal-Shubert asserts:

Why should we be exclusively relegated to Native exhibitions because we have been excluded from the mainstream apparatus? Will we set up our own foundation for every discipline? I believe it is time for this art racism to stop. It is up to the curators and administrators in this country to remain informed. Let them be the innovators. We have been the innovators all through historic time. I submit that the needed innovation in Native arts is for artists of Native heritage to demand their rights as citizens of this country and to expect those with influence to cut out their racist policies and attitudes.9Joane Cardinal-Shubert, "In the Red," Fuse 13:1,2 (Fall 1989), 26, italics mine.

Finally, it is certain that no institution can develop its own oppositional frame. It is both epistemologically and politically impossible. Too much privilege and power is at stake. Such analyses and frameworks will always come from outside groups. Cornel West continues his point about progressive and co-opted to reinforce this point:

Yet, without social movement or political pressure from outside these institutions (extra-parliamentary and extra-curricular actions like the social movements of the recent past), transformation degenerates into mere accommodation or sheer stagnation, and the role of the “co-opted progressive" – no matter how fervent one's subversive rhetoric – is rendered more difficult.10Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," 94

Simply replacing one system of authority and control with another “more ideologically correct" institution is no solution. This is the tragic lesson of this century that must be learned before we leave it, ethnic cleansing and all.

Activist engagement in institutions must take into account democratic, participatory processes, even when they are tedious. It is messy, fiddling work, like constantly tinkering with a machine that has been designed by nine different people, knowing you will never quite get it in tune. It is work that has none of the grandeur of totalizing theories, none of the romance of "revolutionary" action, none of the comfort of institutional embrace. It is hard to imagine someone doing it for their entire career without burning out or eventually dulling their critique.

And yet, in these times of neo-conservatism and fiscal restraint in arts institutions, it is work that remains not only possible, but necessary.


  1. Gayatri Spivak, "Criticism, Feminism, and the Institution," in The Post-Colonial Critic, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990). 5.
  2. Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," October 53 (Summer 1990), 94, italics in original. Another version of this article appears in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West (New York and Cambridge: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 1990).
  3. Michel Foucault, "On Power," in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: lnterviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988), 103-4.
  4. Susan Crean, "Culture in the Crunch," The Canadian Forum 72 :821 (July/August 1993), 14.
  5. M. Nourbese Philip, "Gut Issues in Babylon, Racism and Anti-racism in the Arts," Fuse 12:5 (April/May 1989), 20.
  6. M. Nourbese Philip, "The New Jerusalem in Two and a Half Minutes," Fuse 14:4 (Spring 1991), 20, italics in original.
  7. Recommendations of the Advisory Committee to the Canada Council for Racial Equality in the Arts and The Response of the Canada Council, January 1992, 7. This is a public policy document available from the Canada Council.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Cameron Bailey, "Fright the Power: Arts Councils and the Spectre of Racial Equality," Fuse 15:6 (1992), 25, italics in original.
  10. Joane Cardinal-Shubert, " In the Red," Fuse 13:1,2 (Fall 1989), 26, italics mine.
  11. Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," 94.
Chris Creighton-Kelly
Chris Creighton-Kelly is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and cultural critic born in the UK with South Asian/British roots. His artworks have been presented across Canada and in India, Europe & the USA.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre