Deborah Roberts, “Portrait of a girl” (2022) (© Deborah Roberts; courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London)

In April 2021, eunice bélidor made international news when she became the first Black curator in the 161-year history of a major Canadian museum. She is a Canadian curator of contemporary art with a Master’s degree in art history and visual culture, and holds a graduate diploma in Curatorial Studies from York University. bélidor worked at the Power Plant in Toronto before returning to Montreal, where she was born and raised. From 2014-2019, she was the program coordinator at articule, an artist-run center committed to social engagement, experimentation, and interdisciplinary projects. And in 2019, she became director of the FOFA Gallery at Concordia University, where she also is an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Art History.

In an interview with the Montreal Gazette upon her hire in April 2021, bélidor said, “Wherever I have been hired before, it always sends that message (of change), because I’m usually the first Black person holding that position.” But as many Black people have seen, the message of change, and actual change, are two painfully different things. 

In 2020 and 2021, as critiques about the lack of support for Black culture and life in America grew, art institutions around the world responded by inviting unprecedented numbers of Black people to art leadership positions. Since then, however, there’s been a steady drain as people realize these positions are unsustainable. Some have burned out. Others were “let go.” Others willingly, or not, joined the Great Resignation. 

In January of 2023, bélidor joined this wave and resigned from her position. 

As the art industry reckons with how to reconcile best efforts with best practices, this conversation is shared to pull back the layer of idealism and discuss what it means when new hires are not provided with the support they need to thrive in institutions. bélidor’s experience reveals the gap between institutions that say they want change, and the reality of what it takes to support the people who stand to transform the industry. The following interview took place via video call in the days following her resignation and it was edited and condensed for clarity. 

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The Story vs. Reality

eunice bélidor (used with permission)

Lise Ragbir: How quickly did you realize things were off?

eunice bélidor: Less than three months. Way before my probation was done. Even that was strange. I was called to a meeting with Human Resources and they started to talk about insurance and the union. I had to ask, ‘Did I pass my probation?’ They said, ‘Didn’t you know? Usually, the chief from your department informs you.’ But no one had said anything. It was anticlimactic. But this happened often — being in meetings where I had no idea what was expected of me, or what to expect. I felt powerless. It was such an odd time. Even though it was clear things weren’t working, so many external factors prevented me from walking away.

LR: Factors such as…

eb: My nomination was all over the news. In France, other countries in Europe, the States, and all over Canada. People were stopping me in the street with their kids to say they recognized me from the newspapers and they were so proud of me. There was a pressure. If I leave, am I bringing all of those people down with me? That was one of the hardest parts of this. My parents immigrated to this country so that I could have a better life. And then, I get the better life, and it’s not good? That was hard to navigate. I felt like I was giving up instead of working hard to do something that was good for me. But the reality is, I wasn’t the right fit. The Museum is going to find the perfect person for that job. Someone who will stay and give them exactly what they want. I needed to walk away to give that person space.

LR: Did you, at the time, think you were the perfect fit?

eb: Honestly, I didn’t apply. I was not interested in the position. The job I had was great. But someone from the museum called me and asked me to apply. I thought, if they’re this insistent, they must really want me. So, I went through the interview process not as someone who wanted to have the job, but as someone trying to make sure I was making the right decision. When I asked, ‘Why is this position open so frequently? Why is there so much turnover?’ they pointed to a recent scandal. But when I started, and met my colleagues, it became clear that the answers I received in the interview process were not accurate. But I had to be in the position to know that. During the interview process I expressed concern about not having a PhD, about not being as much of an historian as the other curators. I told them, ‘I’m not sure I am the right person for this position.’ And I asked, ‘What is the benefit of having me in this position?’

LR: What did they say?

eb:  They assured me that they wanted a fresh voice, someone on the field. We were all very clear about my lack of museum experience. I’d never worked in a museum. I explained that I would draw from my resources — the artists I had worked with. But I didn’t realize my artist relationships wouldn’t be enough. I needed relationships with galleries, with collectors, with donors. I wish someone had explained that. I didn’t ask about these different relationships because these things weren’t on my radar. I wasn’t equipped to ask the right questions. I thought, if they think I’m the ideal candidate, then I should trust them and believe that my skills were necessary for a specific reason — and someone would help me develop what I lacked. They said they would give me training. But I didn’t receive training. When I was hired, my attention was quickly pulled away from artists and turned to processing files that needed attention because of a donor or making sure a donation went through right away for tax purposes. I never had the time to bring the ideas that I wanted to bring, and what I thought they expected of me, to the institution. I realized they didn’t care about what I was going to bring here. They just needed me as a good news story.

Change

LR: Has your time at the Museum changed how you work? Has it impacted your curatorial practice?

eb: It certainly did. In my position at the Museum, I thought I’d get to build relationships with artists, but that didn’t really happen. I also felt like I’d lost my creativity. But it’s back — and I want to work more intimately with the artists and other curators. Art institutions want the artist’s final product, or the curator’s final project. But I’ve realized how interested I was with the process of making art, writing and making an exhibition and I want to keep working on that. I want to celebrate the artistic and curatorial process more than the final result. I’ve always been loosely interested in this aspect, but my time at the museum has cemented this direction. Now that I am stepping back from institutional work, I would love to focus more on my writing, to have more opportunities to become an art critic. Writing and curating have always gone hand in hand for me. I have dedicated the last 10 years to strengthen my curatorial practice, but I’m ready to give the same energy to my writing. I would love to write critically and creatively about art for journals, fashion magazines, and various publications. I want to look at curating without having to look at it through an exhibition, or through an institution. And I want to make sure that the curator has a voice — I’m not exactly sure how. But I’m going to do it.

LR: How would you describe your curatorial practice?

eb: My practice asks questions as a way to further and expand curatorial ideas. It is also based in care — in part because I want to make sure artists and curators are valued. And I want the same for myself. And I would not have had that if I stayed at the museum. It would make no sense to try to give that to other people if I couldn’t give it to myself. I want my voice to be as valuable as the opportunities that I give to artists. Leaving the museum wasn’t just a matter of I don’t like my job, or I’m not paid well. This was about what certain conditions can do to your mental and physical health, how the devaluation of my professional experience has done to how I care for myself. At the end of the day, you’re just an employee to them. I think curators are like mothers — how they have to care for everyone, and no one cares for them. So, I’m going to take care of my own damn self. I treat people the way I want to be treated, and at some point, I realized there was no value in giving what I could give to an institution that just wanted to receive.

LR: You talked about how you’ll change the way you curate. Can you speak about changes you’d like to see in a predominantly white art landscape? In terms of curatorial practices, or more generally?

eb: My time at the Museum has strengthened my understanding of powerful barriers, and why it is that marginalized, or racialized, culture workers are quiet. The barriers are very calculated, and historical, making it difficult to rise through the ranks. The opportunities are few — so even some of the select artists who ‘make it’ are inclined to gate-keep to protect their position in a very small field. But if we look at curating differently — beyond having the work housed in an institution, or in a white cube, it opens us to the types of practices that could move us forward, to invite different artists, and voices, into the conversation. In my practice, I ask myself: What am I not seeing when I look at this work of art? What are the influences; what are the relationships that shaped this piece? Since I strongly believe that writing is a valuable source of knowledge-gathering, I think critical answers can be found in correspondence. Letters that reveal the missing links. Is there a way to celebrate the hidden influences as much as the piece itself, or the artist, or the curator? Who have we not written about? Who has been left out of art criticism? The museum helped me understand that the historical barriers are not there to be dismantled. The people inside the institutions don’t want them dismantled. So we have to go about it another way.

LR: The foundations of those barriers run so deep. And you’re saying you guys — other curators, or institutions —can gate-keep whatever you want. But we’re going to do this thing over here, next door.

eb: Absolutely. I can describe my experience at the museum like this: Imagine a Black family moving into an all-white suburb. And the new neighbors are sweet. They bring you pie, and they tour you around the neighborhood, and they want to make sure that you feel welcome. But while you’re building a garden on your front lawn, a neighbor passes and says, ‘Usually the gardens go in the back.’ And you feel bad because your garden is not where it’s supposed to be. But you have a choice: Do I keep my garden in the front or do I move it in the back like everyone else? And maybe you move it to the back believing there’s a good reason to avoid the front. But the longer you’re there, you see that they just wanted you to be like them. They’re happy you brought color and fun to the neighborhood but they don’t care about you. When your door is closed, nobody even knows that there is someone ‘different’ in there. 

LR: Sadly, I think we can all identify a situation where we’ve been made to feel like that. But it carries a different weight when it happens at work — when you have the responsibilities of a job and have to pay the bills. Other people have used words like trauma and grief when describing situations like yours. It’s terrible to think these people, who never had your interest in mind, could push you to the point where you would question your own value.

eb: Yes. And their generosity makes it even more complicated. I had a good salary but it was a golden jail. The benefits, the salary, and lifestyle were good. But at work I was miserable and devalued. This conflict can make the experience traumatic. You think, ‘I don’t deserve this. I should leave.’ But you have a good salary, and they seem proud of you — you feel a lot of love being the fresh face of the museum — and you think, why am I suffering? This is supposed to be a good thing. The trauma comes from the confusion. You think you’ve been hired because you’re the right person. But once you’re inside, you realize you’re not the right fit. I recently spoke with a friend who went through something similar. And it was great to speak with someone who got it — because it often felt like I was losing my mind. I remember wondering: Is this normal? Me forgetting stuff, or reacting in a certain way to specific things. But it was normal. It was part of the trauma.

Lonely Only

LR: As we now know, there are so many people in positions like yours. Black people invited into predominantly White art institutions, with promises of success. It seems that many of these people end up suffering silently. Why have you chosen to talk about your experience?

eb: When I left the museum, I told my colleagues, please share what I told you, the way I told you.

Because if we keep our stories to ourselves, they can be manipulated. When we’re in the minority, we can feel little. And alone. And when the majority tells our story, and they use their own language, the story can change.

LR: Do you think your former colleagues heard you?

eb: I think so. When I was hired, the other curators were excited about the change I was going to bring. So, I hope they talk about what happened. Because even if I didn’t bring the change that everyone was excited about while I was there, I can bring it because I’m gone.

LR: You mention feeling ‘alone.’ I’ve heard, from different people, ‘I’m a lonely only’ at [insert name of predominantly White art institution], and that can feel disempowering.

eb: Absolutely. About five years ago, I worked at another art institution where I had to navigate issues of racism and harassment. But I was able to fight back with [the support of] a colleague who was also a person of color. At the museum though, it was just me. I’m speaking out because I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did. I want other people to be prepared. Before I was hired, I might have thought that warnings were a way of dissuading me from getting such a big position. Ulterior motives type of thing. But in hindsight I wish I was better informed. That I was aware of the different options. That there would always be opportunities on my path. University students often ask me about career paths, and I think it’s important to give it to them straight, so they know what they’re getting into. It’s not all roses, honey. I want people to have information — to ask for things I didn’t have.

LR: What are some of the things you didn’t have?

eb: One of the hardest things was the lack of onboarding, or any transition with the person I was replacing. At other jobs, I’ve always been able to spend at least a week with the previous person. These conversations are so helpful — you get an overview of the job, learn about your colleagues, where the bathroom is, where you eat your lunch, who the different stakeholders are, who are you supposed to go to if you need help. In any job interview now, I ask if I’ll be able to speak to the person I’m replacing. During my interview with the museum, I asked for access to information about situations that occurred prior to my hiring. The museum said that I would have this opportunity, but it didn’t happen.

LR: Did you also ask for onboarding?

eb: Yes. And they told me it was not part of the culture. It is not something they’d ever done before.

LR: Could you ask for the help that you needed?

eb: Yes. My colleagues were always super helpful. But often I just didn’t know what I needed to ask. Or who to ask. Do I ask one person all of the questions? Or can I just ask anybody? I would ask whoever was available. Or if there was a specific issue, I would ask the person I was working with on that specific matter. But the information I was gathering was piecemeal. I knew some things thoroughly. And other things I didn’t know at all. For example, the first time I was asked to write an acquisition report, one of my colleagues sent the template and said, ‘This is how we do it.’ It was great. I didn’t have to ask, and it all made sense. But at the first acquisition committee meeting … I tried to follow my colleagues’ lead, but I was told I didn’t present correctly. I had not asked my colleague, the one who gave me the template, about the meeting because I didn’t know about the next thing I needed to know. There were many instances like that — where I felt like I was walking in the dark and my colleagues were opening a few doors for me so I could see a light in front of me. But I was never sure of where I was going. 

[bélidor paused here to compose herself.]

LR: Are you okay? Do you want to take a break? 

eb: I’m fine. But the memories are hard. Now that I’m gone, I’m sharing some of what happened with former colleagues and they say things like, ‘I can’t believe this happened to you. Why didn’t you tell us?’ But I didn’t want to casually talk about things that traumatized me. This wasn’t gossip. This was my livelihood. They’ve said, ‘You could have said things to us.’ And I know that now. But when you’re new in your job, you don’t know who you can trust.

LR: So much of what you have to process gets internalized because there’s no clear way to speak about it, or to know who to speak to, or even know how to formulate the vocabulary. And add the pandemic into the mix.

eb: Yes, that didn’t help. When I resigned, I kept hearing, ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t feel welcome — but maybe if it wasn’t during the pandemic.” But I want to be clear: Everyone was welcoming. I just don’t think the institution was equipped to have me — you know, as the first Black curator. They should have been more prepared. I didn’t leave because people weren’t welcoming.

LR: There is a distinction between being ‘welcomed,’ and being able to do your job well.

eb: Yes. And I kept having words put in my mouth, “We’re sorry you didn’t feel welcome.” I had to say. “I’m repeating, I felt really welcomed by everyone. But the institution —’ [she sighs]. This is not an apology.

LR: Through this time at the museum, unfortunately, or fortunately, you’ve developed a vocabulary to describe the complex layers of the situation. Because a lot of it can feel nuanced, right? Like the distinction between being welcomed, and being seen. Finding ways to talk about this can be hard. But you seem to navigate it with an ease.

eb: I’m so proud of myself that I found the strength to leave. It wasn’t easy. I had to grieve the museum curator part of myself. Some other Black curators, who are way more experienced than me, encouraged me to stay a little longer. But a job is not just what you bring to it. There’s also what it brings to you. I mean I could tough it out and bring a lot of things to the institution. But if no one cares and no one pays attention then, what’s the point?

Going Forward

LR: How will you conduct your next job search differently?

eb: I’ll definitely ask more questions. I would ask to see an organization chart to see where I am situated in the order of things. And I’d ask questions to get a better sense of the culture of racialized employees. If I see that 15 Black employees were all hired the same year, I might ask, why? And I’d ask more questions of the people in my network, professionally and otherwise. Since I left, I heard from another person of color who worked at the same institution years ago. She told me that her experience was similar. I wish I had known before. Bottom line, I should’ve asked more questions. And, in the interview process, if they thought I was asking too many questions, then I would’ve known that I was not going to be happy in this place.

LR: Did you feel like you were asking too many questions? Or were you afraid to ask questions?

eb: Once I was hired, I always felt like I was asking too many questions. And never the right ones. 

LR: Do you have advice for people who are in a position similar to yours? 

eb: Ask questions. [she laughs]. And find allies in the institution. If you have to leave, tell people why you left. Make sure that the reason why you’re leaving is known, or be a part of the message that surrounds your departure. Before I left, I told a board member and an acquisition committee member — two people that I admired very much — that I was leaving. I told them I need to be in a job that values me, cares for me and my ideas. I wanted to make sure that my reason for leaving was not silenced.

LR: In all of this, what was the hardest lesson?

eb: Institutions don’t care about Black employees’ well-being. I was the Black Lives Matter hire, but Black Lives do not matter at institutions. The only thing that matters is money and power. Institutions don’t want to make changes. They just want it to look like they’re making changes. I’m waiting for someone to prove me otherwise. I would love to be wrong. Until then, I’m just waiting.

Lise Ragbir is a writer and curator. Her essays about immigration, race, and culture have appeared in the Guardian, Time Magazine, and USA Today, among others. She was born and raised in Montreal, and...

One reply on “I Was a Museum’s Black Lives Matter Hire”

  1. Yes, onboarding is critical, but not to the big fish in a small pond. Then there’s the nursery rhyme: ” Mother, mother may I go swimming? Yes, my darling daughter, hang your clothes on a hickory branch, and don’t go near the water”….

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