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In Canada, the Indigenous Curatorial Collective / Collectif des commissaires autochtones (IC/CA) has done much-needed advocacy for independent curators. For instance, in 2019, the organization’s leadership authored a report for the Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) advocating for better labor standards for self-employed curators. (While many organizations and institutions abide by CARFAC’s fee schedule, it notoriously excludes curators.) 

When COVID-19 hit last March, the organization pivoted with Curating Care, a mutual aid initiative that distributed up to $1,000 CAD [$788 USD] to each applicant. This eventually became Community Cares: Emergency Response Fund for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Individuals Working in the Art, which benefited from additional support from the Canada Council for the Arts and other organizations. In total, the community-based and led funding program ultimately redistributing almost $500,000 CAD [$396,423 USD].

I spoke with IC/CA’s Director Camille Georgeson-Usher and Director of Programs Camille Larivée regarding how this rare, Indigenous curator-focused mutual aid initiative came together, and the ways the Collective advocates for Indigenous sovereignty in the art world.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

* * *

Rea McNamara: It’ll soon be a year since the pandemic first hit. How were your members initially impacted?

Camille Larivée: There were many different situations, but what I heard the most is that people’s contracts and projects were just canceled, completely. Especially if people had exhibition and in-person projects coming up in the next couple months. Some people also just lost their jobs. 

Camille Georgeson-Usher: I saw a bunch of arts centers and arts organizations sending surveys to people [at a time] when people couldn’t afford to go buy toilet paper. 

It was really in a span of a couple of hours that Cami and I saw this, emailed the board, and said we needed to do something. We came up with the structure for Curating Care, and then just did it.

RM: I first heard about the initiative through curator and multi-artist Clayton Windatt, who detailed how they were supported: initially promised $250 CAD [$197 USD], they eventually received $1,000 CAD [$788 USD]. How was IC/CA able to scale its redistribution?

CGU: We don’t have a lot of money. Initially, we said, “send us a two-minute video, and we’ll give you a hundred bucks.” People would send a video, and I would send an e-transfer that hour.

CGU: That was just a way we could be quick during this time [when] people were hoarding grocery store supplies; we can put $100 in somebody’s pocket immediately so that they could go buy food for their family. But then, because it was taking off, and becoming viral in the Indigenous art world, it was getting the attention of a few different organizations. I was accidentally cc’d on an email thread with Toronto-based arts funders, where they were asking: “What have you been doing during this time? How are you affected by the pandemic?” I was like, “I’m just going to jump in here.”

Then we were contacted by the In Spirit Foundation, who gave us an additional $10,000 CAD [$7,876 USD], so we were able to increase the amount from $100 to $250 per person, and give it to more people. That was Curating Care. Then the $1,000 ones was because the Canada Council for the Arts were like, “Wow. Can you do this times 100?” 

That’s where the $1,000 honorariums came in.

RM: In total, how much funding were you able to redistribute?

CGU: In the end, it was about $475,000 CAD [$374,089 USD]. 

Tiohtià:ke Project Celebration, September 19, 2019, Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (Photo by: Jessica Sabogal)

RM: Earlier, you mentioned how it’s been hard for independent Indigenous curators living outside big cities. Why have they been amongst the most vulnerable during the pandemic? 

CL: For many Northern communities, being an artist or a curator is already really hard because there’s not a lot of institutional structures that can support you. Also, if you think about the materials artists need, it’s really expensive to ship artwork and other installation materials. 

CGU: I’d say some of the conversations we were having before the pandemic was that there’s not enough structure put in place for individuals in those small communities to get training, and to be able to curate their own narratives. 

But based on some of the responses that we got for Curating Care, some people were able to present their art in ways that they had never been able to before because of having social anxieties or travel inability. They were able to show their art in a way that was way more accessible. 

It’s something that we need to think about, especially as we try to figure out how that young curator who really wants to work within their community can have the tools to do what they need to do. 

RM: A big part of what IC/CA does is recognize the many intersections of Indigenous knowledge and curatorial methodologies. How have you been able to advocate for land-based education, in the context of the ongoing professionalization of curatorial practice?

CGU: Our Director of Education Quill Christie-Peters is on maternity leave right now, but she’s trying to start new conversations around what education — with a capital “E” — means, and what it looks like. 

There’s so many levels to it, especially for Indigenous folks and the relationship we have to Western education. It is a very tense relationship.

CL: It’s important to remember that curating is something that can mean many things. I’m not coming from a background of academy access. I went to university, but hated it, and stopped. It was not for me, but I learned through that that there’s many ways to be a curator or an artist. 

Roundtable during the IC/CA 2018 Gathering in Halifax, Pjilita’q Mi’kmaki: L’nuite’tmukl tan wejkuwaql naqwe’kl (courtesy IC/CA)

RM: For some years now, many curators and programmers from Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) communities have been invited to have a “seat at the table.” But we’ve seen the problems that are inherent in being the lone “diversity hire.”

How does IC/CA support emerging Indigenous curators as they navigate these mostly white institutional workplace environments?

CGU: The biggest mistake institutions have made during this time is trying to implement quick fixes to systemic issues. Quick fixes like hiring contract workers, or doing a residency for BIPOC curators, are never going to solve it. 

Our Outreach and Membership Coordinator Emma Steen has been doing a lot of accountability work and research with institutions, asking how many Indigenous folks they’ve hired, and how many they retain on an ongoing basis. (Which is, shocker! Quite low.) A lot of institutions have replied that they don’t ask people their backgrounds because it is an “ethical issue,” to which we have said, “but how will you create an HR policy that reflects their very distinct cultural practices?” You won’t be able to meet people if you don’t introduce humanity into the system of an institution. 

CL: Also, there’s some institutions that don’t have any [Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI)] policies or anti-oppression training. So when you have one BIPOC [curator] go into this institution, then the white people that are there are not ready at all to welcome that one person.

These places hold white supremacy in a way that it’s really hard to dismantle. This is why we try to make spaces for Indigenous curators in these places, but make sure that it is safe for them. 

RM: Last fall, IC/CA published an essay outlining your organization’s stance on institutional accountability towards Indigenous art communities. This coincided with the launch of your Institutional Membership program. How did this come together? 

CGU: We noticed that institutions often became members because they wanted us to share their job postings. We said, “no, we’re not going to do that. But if you can prove to us that you have been slowly developing good practices, we might share your job posting in a year.” 

But then one thing that influenced me wanting to start the Institutional Membership program is when I attended the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO-ODMAC) meeting. Many museum directors come together for this event. It was myself and our co-chair, John Hampton. We were with essentially no other BIPOC folks in the room. I began asking some institutional representatives, “what would a membership program look like where you would pay us to ask these questions?” A lot of people expressed that they’d be really interested in it. They wanted training from an organization like us. 

Then some people said that they would really like to ask questions, but they feel uncomfortable figuring out the particular questions to ask. I came to recognize that it is going to be a long, uncomfortable process. There seemed to be no space in the middle to work through awkward questions, to get to the better question that actually makes some change in the institution. 

This fear of making a mistake is preventing any change from happening.

CL: It’s a way for us to, I will say, take some power in these places. This is what we can do as a small organization: deciding if yes or no, we want to work with an institution. If they’re not ready, we’re just saying no. I think we’re at this time now that we need to do this work of saying, “we’re not going to partner with you,” or saying to an Indigenous curator, “you shouldn’t work there.” This is a way to protect our people, and make sure that there’s kinship in this relation.

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Rea McNamara

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...