'Not so Great White North': Galleries speak out on diversity in art

Aim to get diversity down to a fine art: Galleries acknowledge need to mix it up more.

Visitors look at an exhibition of landscape paintings at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Torstar News service file

Visitors look at an exhibition of landscape paintings at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Everyone has their own idea of what Canadian art is. The landscapes depicted by the Group of Seven painters in the early 20th century, beautiful as they are, don’t fully represent the Canada of the 21st century, particularly its racial diversity.

A report published in Canadian Art magazine this past spring examined demographics of solo exhibitions of living artists at Canadian public institutions had disappointing results: 56 per cent of shows were by white male artists. Just 11 per cent were by non-white male and female artists.

“A lot of change needs to happen,” says Sandra Brewster, a multi-media artist whose work examines race and identity.
“Institutions must engage with these artists.”

Charmaine Lurch agrees. “If we’re not in those power structures, in those areas, then we’re not known, and not invited in,” says the award-winning arts researcher and interdisciplinary artist. “I think our work is seen more as a decoration.”

Engagement is just one of the steps in a larger overall process, says Andrew Hunter, the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about is, what is it visitors expect? What are their preconceptions? If you continue to think of your country and your country’s story through images of an empty landscape, that doesn’t encourage them to think of the cultural diversity of the country.”

Melanie Kjorlien, Vice President of Access, Collections and Exhibitions at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, echoes this. “People have a greater awareness of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr — it’s something they think they should see. We put those things in our mix of programming, but we also try to include other stuff that people might not be familiar with. We are conscious of wanting to add to the collection things that reflect the community, including diverse artists coming to the fore.”

Both Lurch and Brewster say leadership at Canadian arts institutions should more accurately reflect Canada’s multicultural landscape. “If they feel that diversity is important, which is something we all keep hearing about, then they should find strategies to make diversity happen — in offices, in programming, in their collections, and in their audiences,” Brewster says.

Hunter agrees. “The mix of (leadership) has to be reflective, and I think that’s a challenge for many institutions. Many are making strides but everybody also recognizes there’s a long way to go.”

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