Challenging racism and exclusion in Montreal's arts scene

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Image: Marc-Olivier Jodoin/Good Free Photos

Burcu Emeç is a performance artist and the outreach and communications coordinator at articule, an artist-run centre in Montreal. Scott Neigh interviews her about articule's efforts to challenge oppressive systemic disparities through organizational change work within the centre and interventions into the larger arts scene.

Articule is an artist-run centre in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Artist-run centres are arts spaces and galleries that are run by and for artists. In the Canadian context, they are generally structured as not-for-profit organizations, though the details of their organizational form and their governance can vary considerably, and they often receive government funding. For the most part, they do not charge admission for exhibitions, performances, workshops, and the like, and they prioritize paying artists for their labour. Artists started to create such centres in Canada in the 1960s, and articule has been around since 1979.

The mandate of articule prioritizes multi-disciplinary work focused on research and artistic experimentation. It is particularly meant as a space for emerging artists, though established artists who continue to be experimental are welcome too. The centre has a heavy emphasis on visual arts, but also hosts plenty of work that involves performance, screenings, and other kinds of discursive and interactive work.

The centre has always had an open access and highly participatory approach to governance. It is very easy for anyone who supports the mandate of the centre, artist or not, to become a member. And members comprise the majority on the centre's committees, where the bulk of the decisions and governance work happen.

While staying true to many of the values that had guided it from the beginning, starting in about 2010 or 2011, articule began a process of significant organizational change. The context was a growing recognition in Montreal of the underrepresentation of and barriers faced by racialized artists and organizations in the city's arts scene. And the spark was a series of conversations between a newly hired staff person at articule and a board member, both racialized, and both with a strong interest in doing equity work in the organization.

The work really kicked off in 2011 with the formation of the delightfully named fabulous committee. Its mandate is to develop anti-oppression policies, procedures, and programming to make the centre more inclusive and more culturally diverse.

In 2013, the fabulous committee organized an event called "Montreal Monochrome?", a panel discussion exploring questions of equitable representation in the arts and challenging the barriers faced by racialized artists. That initial event was very well received in the community, and since then it has been annual -- no longer just a panel, it is now a larger event that explores related themes not only through public talks and roundtables but through performance, workshops and various innovative arts-based interventions.

A key element of the work of the fabulous committee has been the production of a "basis of unity" for articule, which sets out values and broad strategies to guide the work of the centre in anti-oppressive directions. After an extensive process, it was approved by the membership in early 2018. The document lives alongside the centre's mandate, and is made prominently present in a variety of ways to make it clear to those who enter the space and participate in the centre's activities that these values are core to what the centre is setting out to do.

Since that was approved, the fabulous committee has been working with an external consultant to do a comprehensive review of all of the centre's policies, in order to make changes so that they better reflect the values in the basis of unity. And they are also hard at work developing procedures for conflict resolution and for dealing with complaints.

Anti-racist and anti-oppressive organizational change is slow, difficult work, and it is certainly an ongoing process at articule. Nonetheless, as a result of what has been done over the last eight years, there is a much greater organizational basis for challenging barriers faced by people who are racialized or marginalized in other ways. And the people involved in articule and the artistic work featured in its space and its programming have come to better reflect the people who actually live in Montreal.

Image: Marc-Olivier Jodoin/Good Free Photos

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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