What do our museums’ BLM statements mean for an anti-racist future?

In the month since George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police, art museums and galleries across Vancouver, from the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) to UBC’s own student-run Hatch Gallery, have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement in various ways.

Some museums, including the VAG, Hatch, the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) and the Bill Reid Gallery, used social media to boost Black-led organizations in Vancouver many also participated in #BlackoutTuesday, a social media event in which organizations posted Black squares in solidarity of Black Lives Matter. This act while commonplace has been criticized as “virtue signalling” and has been similarly panned in news outlets for potentially drowning out organizing efforts.

Others went a little further. In North Vancouver, the Polygon cancelled its weekly posting of The Polygon Podcast, while, closer to home, the Belkin delayed the opening of Everything This Changes, its latest virtual exhibition, by a week.

Most notable, however, were the official statements of solidarity released by several art institutions, including the VAG, the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA), Centre A, the Belkin, the Polygon, CAG, and the Hatch Gallery.

While most of these statements emphasized the privilege of institutions such as art museums and galleries, and the necessity of listening and institutional accountability, they also lacked clarity — specifically around what actions institutions will take to combat systemic racism in either the short or long term. For example, the VAG’s statement had links to Black-led Vancouver-based organizations including BLM Vancouver and Afro Van Connect, but the statement itself did not mention a commitment by the VAG to donate to any of those places.

The VAG is not the only one to have done so. Of the museums and galleries whose statements encouraged donations, only the CAG pledged — and then matched — up to $2,500 dollars in donations. As of now, the CAG is the only gallery so far in Vancouver to commit to donations supporting Black lives, at least publicly.

The Ubyssey contacted the Belkin, the Hatch and the VAG to see if they would provide more clarity around what their statements would mean for anti-racist changes within their galleries. Neither the Hatch nor the Vancouver Art Gallery responded in time for publication.

According to Scott Watson ... director and curator of the Belkin, there are four main means by which museums can combat systemic racism: collections, exhibition programs, event programs and hiring. But the first step to enacting change within those four areas is to conduct a policy review.

“One thing that’s being discussed is a five-year plan around the collection. [Suppose] we [say], ‘For five years, we will place a priority that all purchases will be made in order to diversify the collection.’ Will [our collection] policy allow us to do that?

“If yes, great. Full steam ahead.” If not, “we’ll have to change the policy,” said Watson.

Along with policy review, Watson mentioned a need for internal workshops ensuring that everyone who works at the Belkin is literate about issues such as systemic racism and microaggressions — in particular, training to actively recognize microaggressions.

Watson also pointed out that some art museums have an additional tool to combat systemic racism: publication. “We have never done an inventory of the collection based on racialized artists,” he said.

Policy review, a five-year plan for diversifying the collection and anti-racism training for gallery employees — these are all well and good provided the gallery follows through on their promises as they will do some measure of work to combat racism within the Belkin as an institution.

The fact remains that actions such as diversifying exhibition programs and collections are, in a crucial way, treating symptoms rather than the disease.

Sean O’Neill explained it rather succinctly in Canadian Art’s June 23 feature “A Crisis of Whiteness in Canada’s Art Museums.”

Borrowing his example, while art museums such as the Art Gallery of Ontario have actively diversified their exhibition programs over the past four years, integral power structures within many museum institutions are yet to reflect these changes. The boards of trustees, senior executive teams, and CEOs — remain primarily white. In the case of the VAG, one of the four museums O’Neill surveyed, both the director and board president are white, and there is no Black representation at all on its board.

As for the Belkin, beyond a five-year plan for the collection, publications, and employee workshops, Watson declined to provide specifics. “We might go further than that. I don’t know.”