Diversity in Arts and Arts Spaces

By Katie Wilde

 

I'm not the best person to talk about diversity. I'm white, and I grew up in a predominantly white near-northern Ontario town. But when it comes to art, I can tell you that most of what I've learned about cultural diversity, the human history and present which make up our local and global communities, I learned through art. Artistic and direct cultural experiences open new channels of understanding, develop emotional connections across social barriers, and foster mutual respect.

In the fall, a panel discussion called Redefinition: Art Space, and the Telling of Our Stories was co-presented by C.J. Munford Centre, CFRU 93.3 FM ThePeak Mag, Student Help and Advocacy Centre, and featured panelists Aiyanna Maracle, Emannuel Ruta, Kahsenniyo Tahnee Williams, Marva Wisdom, Nic Murr, and Nadijah Robinson. The purpose of this panel was "to bring music and art community organizers and the general public together to think of ways to further diversify programming in Guelph. We feel that event planning in the city of Guelph can change to actually accommodate the growing racialized community."

I attended, along with several other representatives of GAC, as well as other local arts organizations and individuals from the community. Some of the main points I took away were things I had heard before, and others were completely new to me. As an artist and arts administrator, I'm eager to share a very brief summary of what I've heard and learned. Any misrepresentations are entirely my own.


DO

Go out and listen. No matter your background, there is always something to learn from those with a different history, experience, stories and artforms.

Know when to step back. Conversations are important, but remember to ask yourself, "Am I consistently meeting difficulties having my voice heard? Do I fail to see my history, experience, and people acknowledged and reflected in my community?" If not, try to keep listening more than you talk - it's extremely rewarding.

Question your own expectations of art and artists. We are individuals and artists first. Let the artist have the first and final say on how their identity plays a role in their work. There was a comment about black artists' work being rejected on the basis of it not being 'black' enough. That is a ridiculous way to look at things and it harms everyone.

Take risks and incorporate different viewpoints into your life, or organization.



DON'T

Feel at a complete loss when you're not attracting a diverse audience. There is hope!
Everyone's welcome at your art space - you know this. Yet a pretty narrow range of people are actually coming. What could be the problem? Are you consulting and employing people with diverse perspectives when you plan and deliver your programming? Do you have strong relationships with community groups that could help you genuinely attract and serve new audiences? Does your institution seem to come with an unwritten set of rules for behaviour that only a limited section of society is readily comfortable navigating? Have you said outright, on your website or in other communications, that this is an open, harassment-free zone welcoming people of all backgrounds? The message we heard from the panel was that addressing any and all of these questions can contribute to making a difference.

Put the burden on an individual of speaking for their entire community, whether it's racial, socioeconomic, gender, sexuality, etc. It can be exhausting, impractical, and insensitive. There are lots of people and organizations choosing to talk about issues of diversity. Actively seek out available information and never stop listening.

Forget to make room for diverse voices. Resist the temptation to define someone else's work or perspective on their behalf or speak for them, even with the best intentions.

Diversity contributes to the health of our arts institutions, grassroots endeavours, and society at large. Enjoy your explorations of diverse art, people, and experiences. Challenge yourself to connect with local programs, organizations and events to see what you might be missing out on.

Some links:

Anishnaabeg Outreach
Musagetes
Postcommodity
OPIRG
Guelph Spoken Word
Guelph Multicultural Festival
Student Help and Advocacy
Out on the Shelf/Guelph Pride
Guelph Black Heritage Society
Immigrant Services

Special thanks to the Redefiniton: Art Space, and the Telling of Our Stories Panelists, and J.L. Joiner for inspiration and impetus.

Thank you for joining us for our diversity month. Next up - Health and the Arts. Stay tuned for info and resources on developing physical and mental health through artistic exploration, and a workshop for artists on maintaining mental health in a difficult profession.

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