Theatres, galleries and other arts institutions work to reverse their racist colonial legacies

National Indigenous Peoples Day | Gregory Beatty | June 10, 2021

Persephone Theatre

Because of Covid restrictions, Regina and Saskatoon arts organizations have had a lot of downtime over the last 15 months. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy. One priority for some has been to do a critical rethink of their operations in response to Saskatchewan’s changing demographics.

It didn’t start with the pandemic, as for several years now cultural organizations such as the Regina Symphony Orchestra, Saskatoon’s Remai Modern, SaskMusic, the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina and others have been working in different ways to promote inclusion and diversity.  

But the pandemic did provide a window of opportunity, says Persephone Theatre general manager Kristen Dion.

“With the pandemic shutdown, I would say we were given a gift because it gave us the opportunity to take the time we needed to learn more about the things that had happened in the past.”

Persephone undertook its review after receiving strong criticism from the Saskatoon theatre community. The initial spark was a social media post the theatre did in June 2020 meant to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

“We did not accompany the black square with any appropriate text, so it was a very performative action on our part,” says Dion.

“Folks started to comment ‘Hey Persephone, the black square is all good’,” says Dion. “But what are you doing to combat racism and colonialism, knowing that there have been acts of racial violence in your building? People have been discriminated against, there’s been bullying, and an overall toxic organizational culture.”

Stung by the criticism, Persephone held a series of one-on-one meetings and town halls to gather more feedback.

“It was very eye-opening,” says Dion. “One of our critics said during a town hall that in the truth and reconciliation process, you can’t just skip over the truth part and go straight to reconciliation. They were right. We needed to let what had happened really sink in so we could start taking steps to effect positive and long-lasting change.”

At the same time as that was happening, Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery made international headlines when it appointed John Hampton as executive director. Hampton, who is of Chickasaw descent, became the first Indigenous person to head a public art gallery in Canada.

Hampton was raised in Regina, so he knows the MacKenzie well. For over 25 years, the gallery has had a dedicated Indigenous curator position. It’s also worked hard to be inclusive with its outreach and education programs.

Hampton acknowledges previous efforts the gallery has made to be inclusive but says more needs to be done.

“The history of the museum is intimately tied to colonialism,” he says. “In an institution that’s designed to share the spoils of empire with the masses, there needs to be a lot of change and growth to rethink how we relate to diverse communities — but specifically to Indigenous people who have suffered under colonialism.”

Top To Bottom

In the work they’ve been doing, both the Persephone and MacKenzie have been looking at their organizations top to bottom.

“The first thing we did is revise Persephone’s human resources policies, and put in place a fairly robust anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy,” says Dion.

“There was a multi-phase feedback process where we sent it to staff first, then to the community with the message ‘This is a draft, and we’re really looking forward to your feedback’,” she says. “Once that was done, we approved the policies, but with the knowledge we will continue to review them.”

As part of the MacKenzie’s reorganization effort, it established an equity task force.

“Our main goal is still to program and provide art and culture,” says Hampton. “But we want our work to be relevant to the community, to speak to the cultural moment, to engage in difficult and urgent dialogues, and be self-reflexive in what our responsibilities are as cultural stewards and identify ways to improve. The task force statement is a roadmap of where we have to go.”

Staff training, hiring practices, accessibility, appointing an Elder-in-residence, and diversity in the permanent collection, are some of the areas the MacKenzie equity statement covers.

Other steps taken by Persephone include establishing an IBPoC* new play commission and giving Saskatoon’s performing arts community greater access to its BackStage Stage for workshops, rehearsals and performances.

Persephone took the idea for the new play commission from Nightswimming Theatre in Toronto, says Dion.

“We put out a call for submissions, with the idea we would help an IBPoC artist write a play that would first be workshopped with the full support of our team, then when it’s ready it will get a mainstage production.”

Persephone received 30 submissions, and the first project selected was Wake by Rachel Mutombo.

The theatre has also committed to make the new play commission an annual event.

The biggest step is still to come, though. When I spoke with Dion, Persephone was about to start interviewing candidates to be the new artistic director.

The search process was guided by an artist working group co-chaired by Yvette Nolan and Cynthia Dyck. The group gathered feedback from the community then reported back to the Persephone board and search committee.

Nolan and Dyck are also on the search committee, and one recommendation the working group made was for Persephone be open to different leadership models beyond the traditional “Artistic Director” with a capital “A” and “D”.   

“We’re really excited about that,” says Dion. “We didn’t want to prescribe anything, and we hope to have a number of different ideas put forward. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the national community about the posting, and the artist working group could not have been more key, so we are grateful we had Yvette and Cynthia to lead that for us.”

Dion expects to have the new leadership in place by September, although the theatre’s 2021–2022 season is already set. So the person(s) will have some time to settle into their role(s) and start planning for future seasons.

“No one is going to emerge from the pandemic the same,” says Dion. “That goes twice as hard for Persephone. We are going to come out of this hopefully a fresher theatre, a better neighbour and community member, leader and educator.

“The community demanded more from us, and they deserve more,” says Dion. “Much of our work so far has been behind the scenes. It will be when we have artists and audiences back in the building again that we can actually demonstrate our commitment to change. And hopefully that will be soon.”

When I spoke with Hampton, he was looking forward to the MacKenzie reopening on June 12. All new exhibitions are up, and the gallery is debuting a new public artwork on its front windows by Joi T. Arcand with abstract Cree syllabics printed on a special film so the images morph as the viewer’s position and light conditions change.

“I want the MacKenzie to be a place where no matter who you are coming through the door, you will see something that speaks to you and you relate to, as well as something that opens you up to a new way of looking at the world,” says Hampton, summing up his philosophy as executive director.

“We want to ensure people feel represented, but also challenged, because that’s where we can find growth and expansion in understanding who we are and what a Saskatchewan identity is,” says Hampton.

“Some aspects of that identity have been here since time immemorial, others for a few centuries, and there are also aspects that are only just emerging,” he says. “Our cultural institutions should be places where all of us can come together to have a shared understanding of who we are as a people.” 


Whose Stories Get Told?

When Taiwo Afolabi moved from Victoria to Regina last fall to join the University of Regina Theatre faculty, he brought more than his household belongings with him — he also brought an idea for an innovative art leadership mentoring program for BIPoC* artists interested in arts administration. 

The idea goes back to 2019 when he became the manager for community and artistic connection at Victoria, BC’s Belfry Theatre. “In early 2020, artistic director Michael Shamata and I started to think about ways to engage artists of diverse communities within the art and culture ecosystem in Victoria,” Afolabi recalls.

 “I did have some BIPoC artists reach out to say, ‘Hey, we’re happy you’re at the Belfry’ and ‘We want to be part of different projects’,” he says. “Michael and I decided it was an opportunity to bring BIPoC artists together.” 

Belfry Theatre organized a community forum for artists and managers who identify as BIPoC. One issue that came up during the discussion, says Afolabi, was a lack of mentoring.

Tokenism was another subject.

“A lot of BIPoC artists said they felt tokenized because they don’t get to make decisions around questions such as representation, and whose stories are being told,” he says.

After gathering that feedback, Shamata and Afolabi met with Victoria arts organizations to discuss their findings. That led to a formal partnership with Dance Victoria, the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the University of Victoria to develop a two-part pilot program. The program starts in mid-July with six weeks of online learning with nationally known arts leaders as mentors, followed by a paid four-month internship with a partner organization in January 2022.

When Afolabi moved to Regina, he was able to recruit Globe Theatre, Common Weal Community Arts and University of Regina Faculty of Media, Art and Performance to participate in the program, too. 

The pilot program is limited to 10 participants. Already, says Afolabi, they’ve been contacted by other arts organizations across Canada interested in participating in possible future programs. 

It’s a smart investment for the organizations to make, says Afolabi.

“If a theatre company or a gallery isn’t attracting a diverse audience, I ask ‘Well, what stories are you presenting, whose work are you featuring? Who is making decisions, and what is your relationship with and commitment to the community?’

“If people don’t see themselves in what you’re doing, then I’m sorry, they’re not going to come,” he adds. “The organizations are missing out on an opportunity to engage with diverse communities and build healthy relationships with them.”

*  IBPoC (or BIPoC) is shorthand for Indigenous, Black, People of Colour