by Robin Mathews.
The Canary In The Coal Mine: Culture.
We often think of ‘Culture’ as out there. But it’s here. And it has to be here because it’s us.
Economics makes possible the culture we know and live and create… and is part of culture. And culture is, normally, the voice and character of the people (visibly expressed in the arts). As “speaking of what we are” culture is very important … and so (in a colony) it’s controlled in a hundred ways (we don’t see). “Speaking of what we are” can be dangerous. So, for instance, appointments to major cultural management positions show who is really in charge in a country.
In a colony culture is the voice of the foreign-owned and sold-out economy. The two link inextricably – culture and economy. In Canada formal “Culture” doesn’t explain, doesn’t resist the colonial condition. In Canada it sells out. Cultural organizations which – in a colony – should be leaders towards independence are, in Canada, guardians of on-going colonization.
By definition “voices” of and for the culture – freest to speak, existing to speak (we say), artists, arts organizations and all those others who speak to us (universities, presses, Media, magazines, etc. etc. “Culture”) in Canada deny their critical role; they urge colonial passivity. And they do so, often, by denying the colonial condition exists.
Norway (no one’s colony), with fewer fossil energy resources than Canada, has built itself a safety reserve fund from its fossil energy development approaching, now, one trillion dollars. (It has that reserve – to say nothing of generous social benefits like free education available for all, which Canada doesn’t have.) Canada (the colony) has no fossil energy safety reserve fund. Alberta (the colony) is struggling to stay out of the red as oil prices crash.
Norway’s is a culture of sharing. Canada’s is a culture (when we face it honestly) of inequality and denial, of gigantic (often foreign) riches and abject poverty, of stringent censorship – side-lining any critical voice and denying genuine debate (especially about who owns Canada). The much more than a trillion dollars Canadians could have stored for a healthier, happier community has found its way into the hands of private (mostly foreign) hands, which stash much of it away in ‘offshore’ tax havens so that no sharing will ever happen.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
Canada has about 35 million people. It has a sophisticated and advanced educational system, Art and Management training, Art schools, and Arts Councils. Nonetheless …
Ontario. Ontario is in the process of hiring a U.S. citizen from outside Canada to head one of the largest Art Galleries in North America: the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Ontario has just hired a U.S. citizen from outside Canada to head “the largest museum in Canada” which “attracts over a million visitors a year”. “The ROM” (the Royal Ontario Museum) already has, I am told, a second-in- command brought in from the U.S.A.
Ontario has recently hired to head the large and important Festival Organization Luminato a person from Britain.
British Columbia. Vancouver Art Gallery hired a U.S. person as head. No Canadian – we must assume – was good enough for the job. Kathleen Bartels has pushed and pushed (an Empire builder?) for a new Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). To urge on the “need”, I believe the present attractive gallery was purposefully made to look shabby.
When the ‘okay’ for a new building was given, rumour has it that Ms. Bartels went directly to the U.S. to discuss plans. No Canadian architectural competition has been held for a new building. Architects chosen (how?) are Herzog & de Meuron of Basle, Switzerland, proposing the highest “wooden” (??) building in the world.
Their design is controversial. (Many materials, it seems, will have to be imported from Europe because of the design. Just one of the problems.) Maryse de la Giroday, tasked to write about it for B.C.’s “Guide to Galleries and Museums” (PREVIEW, Nov.Dec.Jan 1015/16), was refused an interview by Ms. Bartels. Like the recent Stephen Harper Operation, the VAG “prepares” (apparently “unauthored”) statements of policy and replies to questions in written form.
Current estimate for the proposed building is $350 million – and history shows that such projects almost always go far over budget.
Most interestingly, an expert Vancouver pair, fronted by Bob Rennie – who has rich artistic credentials – have been resisting from the beginning. Rennie says: “It should be all about the viewing spaces, art, sustainability, philanthropy, and the common good. Big buildings are beside the point.” (Preview, p.33) He and David Baxter propose a Vancouver solution using the (centrally located and attractive) present gallery and mixed related galleries, developed as time and need call for them.
Gossip has it that the difference between Bartels and Rennie is so pointed that when Bartels arrived to a dinner party at his home, Rennie (out of town and informed of her arrival) telephoned long distance to make sure Bartels was asked to leave. He cannot, it would seem, ask her to leave the VAG.
We see from the picture drawn here why culture is the canary in the coal mine of colonialism. No one in the world would suggest that a prosperous country of 35 million can’t find among its own people the brilliant and capable talent needed to run its Arts institutions and organizations – and to design excellent containers for them. But those people aren’t found. And the reason is that the people in power don’t want them to be found.
Colonial managers always fear strong and capable fellow colonials. Given power, those ones might question the way things are run, might, from high-profile positions, work for significant change: (decolonization?). Colonies can’t have that! Use foreign people with no attachment to the local population – preferably from the Imperial Centre – uncluttered by an understanding of local history, culture, taste, or knowledge of the community. Foreigners are always superior in every way to use…. They make no trouble, and they believe in colonies.