'Better than a black square': Toronto galleries were called out on Instagram, but what comes next?
After the shock wears off, these Instagrammers are committed to keeping the art world accountable
To break through the noise, sometimes a little basic Googling is all it takes.
The week of Blackout Tuesday, a chart compiled by Toronto artist Ibrahim Abusitta began making the rounds on Instagram among locals in the arts community. Labelled "a small sample of Toronto contemporary art galleries," Abusitta describes it as a nod to the Guerrilla Girls in the caption. And like that feminist collective's damning surveys of art-world inequality, the infographic is a diversity report card for 18 commercial galleries. The basic takeaway: Toronto dealers represent white male artists, and not much else besides.
"It's kind of not surprising, but when you see it, when you list it, it starts to become really shocking," says Abusitta. And shortly after he published it online, the chart began to spread.
A painter and freelance photographer, Abusitta says he's never engaged in any sort of data journalism-cum-activism before. But the day after Blackout Tuesday, he was thinking about how he could take action — how he could do something "better than posting a black square," to quote the caption.
"Social media was buzzing with many people showing solidarity," he says, and a comment from a friend, the artist Esmaa Mohamoud, got him paying attention to how systemic anti-Black racism operates in his own circles. "What's happening in our own communities? What about the Toronto galleries?"
"I didn't have to do much digging around," he says. "I pulled up a lot of the galleries that I'm just very familiar with."
"These numbers represent what is happening in our scene. It's something that everyone is seemingly aware of already — we just don't really say it out loud."
Or, rather, we weren't really saying it out loud. The world, or at least Instagram, seems more primed for social action than it was a month ago. Outrage over the death of George Floyd, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted statements of solidarity from individuals, institutions and brands in the first week of June. To use an example from the Canadian arts ecosystem, one recently created Instagram account, @artsaccountability, is tracking the promises made by institutions around the country. Per one of their posts: "As many activists and Black artists and cultural workers have noted, these shallow, performative statements are not enough." Using a shared Google sheet, they're keeping tabs on institutions, watching whether they'll follow through on pledges to create "space for marginalized stories and voices" (National Arts Centre), for example, or cultivate "collections, exhibitions and programs [that] reflect our diverse communities" (Art Gallery of Ontario).
It's something that everyone is seemingly aware of already — we just don't really say it out loud.- Ibrahim Abusitta, artist
Abusitta's Toronto galleries chart is just one voice in the re-grammable chorus, but it's an example of what he calls "a sort of weird, grassroots activism." And it's potentially proving effective.
The artist says he focused on commercial galleries for a few reasons. Easy access to information was, he says, a contributing factor. "They are like any other brand out there," he says, "so it didn't seem out of the ordinary to call them out." And as an artist still in the early stage of his career (Abusitta graduated from OCAD U in 2013), he says he looks to them as gatekeepers.
"Climbing up the ladder, you often start with the commercial galleries and then they build you up." He says that some might argue their decisions are guided by market demand — "collectors want certain things, so they give them a certain thing."
"But they're tastemakers in the city," he says. "I just feel there should be more of a conscious effort to really address the difference that they could be making."
A gallery's roster, however, doesn't tell the full story. There's programming to consider (exhibitions, fairs, talks) that reveal their point of view, as well as their connections within the larger community. And representation isn't for everyone. Instead of paying a bigger cut to a dealer, an artist might opt to collaborate with a gallery as a free agent.
"I know it can also tap into this sort of callout culture," Abusitta says of Instagram activism, "which could be problematic, in a sense, if you just want to cancel people, you don't even want to talk. And that's definitely not what I wanted to do."
Dialogue is the point, he says, and a handful of the tagged galleries have publicly responded through posts or comments on Instagram, including Angell Gallery, Susan Hobbs Galery, Christopher Cutts Gallery, Zalucky Contemporary and Patel Brown. Abusitta says he's received private messages as well. "I don't know if certain actions will be genuine, because there's a public eye looking at them, but it's a start."
Obviously, the numbers aren't news to the dealers themselves. "To be honest, I wasn't surprised," says Juliana Zalucky, who founded Zalucky Contemporary four years ago. "I've been thinking about this for a while now and the numbers did not surprise me. Neither did the fact that someone would put the time in to making these numbers kind of explicitly known."
"I know personally that there are amazing Black, Indigenous and POC curators that have been rattling the bell for years, decades even. And that's part of my process of learning. I have to start also acknowledging their work and how they've directly contributed to my own education of Black and Indigenous art."
In response to the chart, Zalucky named a few actions she's taking, including a pledge to "reach out to Black artists, curators and writers (if they will have me) to discuss actions that can be taken on my part to make the gallery more inclusive." On Instagram, Christopher Cutts Gallery states that they "will be prioritizing submissions by BIPOC artists and we will be proactively seeking BIPOC talent to fill any available spaces in our roster." In an email to CBC Arts, Cutts says that Abusitta's chart "was a wake-up call." He writes: "I realize now that it is not enough to wait for artists of colour to seek representation in the same way I have sourced artists in the past. The privileged networks of artists, patrons, dealers, and gallerists across the city are not always accessible to underrepresented groups, and for that reason, I am pledging to make a concerted effort to actively seek out talented artists of colour."
Angell Gallery, as another example, listed three focal points in their statement. Noah Gano, the gallery's director, says, "The roster will certainly look different in a very short period of time to reflect the programming and the artists that we're working with." They've also announced plans to launch a bursary for "BIPOC-identifying arts students" as well as Platform, a new digital programming format devoted to BIPOC artists and curators. Its first exhibition, Platform: Pride, will be accepting submissions this month.
"I hope that there's a lot of genuine reactions," says Abusitta, stressing the importance of greater diversity. "I am Palestinian, and I didn't find one Arabic-speaking artist in my research. It's kind of saddening when you see the places you want to move up to don't necessarily see you."
That observation has hit a nerve. Shocked by the stats, Melanie Keay — a Toronto-based artist and furniture designer — drafted a form letter that anyone can use to email the galleries listed on Abusitta's infographic. (It's shared in the comment thread as a Google doc.) "I've never been much of an activist-type person," says Keay. "Ibrahim putting the numbers together, it inspired me to do something. I was hoping that a small gesture could inspire someone else to do something, or spark a new idea of how we can make a change."
The post's also spawned similar infographics about other Canadian cities. Instagrammer @lougi3n broke down Black artist representation at Ottawa galleries. Abusitta says he's heard from people in Vancouver and Montreal who are pulling the numbers on their hometowns, too. And the post has also inspired critiques of other cultural sectors. Toronto filmmaker Lindsay Blair Goeldner, for example, is compiling data on directors employed by Toronto's commercial production companies. Like the galleries chart, the stats are overwhelmingly white and male. Says Goeldner: "It's absolutely a systemic problem across the industry, and in putting it up I really hoped that it would begin a conversation behind closed doors about what people can do to start working toward meaningful change and long-term solutions. It's 2020. [These numbers] really need to change across the board." With the help of a few collaborators, Goeldner says she'd like to track developments by revisiting the chart throughout the year.
Follow-up research, ongoing discussion: work that goes beyond what you see on Instagram is what separates a post from a little black square. "Down the line, maybe a year from now, I'll do an anniversary repost," says Abusitta, who wonders if the actions being discussed today will have an effect. In a year, he says, maybe they'll "bring up those numbers."
"I hope this is not a fad. Sometimes you're worried that in another week or so this will be forgotten about. And I think that's why everyone was really championing this — to keep messaging, keep re-posting, keep sharing stories. And stop putting out content that's not relevant to the now."