British Columbia

Victoria gallery faces tough criticism over Indigenous representation

Open Space's aboriginal curator recently resigned and penned an open letter voicing her frustration with changes to the venue's Indigenous presence.

Open Space's aboriginal curator recently resigned, penned open letter voicing frustration

The Open Space gallery in Victoria has featured indigenous artists in past exhibitions (Liz McArthur)

Victoria's Open Space gallery has been strongly criticized over its representation of Indigenous culture following the resignation of its aboriginal curator France Trépanier on Feb. 20. 

Trépanier penned an open letter to the non-profit's board of directors outlining her concerns with Indigenous representation after what she says are dramatic changes to the "curatorial vision and working environment at Open Space."

Open Space posted a new job opening on Feb. 14, seeking a full-time curator of exhibitions that would replace the part-time position Trépanier held. 

In her letter, she says she advised against removing "aboriginal" or "indigenous" from the job title, but writes "that advice was rejected."

Trépanier also expressed deep concern that the organization was departing from a focus on indigenous representation and inclusion — a focus that she says helped Open Space secure increases to multi-year operating grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the B.C. Arts Council.

Trépanier declined a request for an interview.

Letter prompts changes

Hunter Boucher, spokesperson for the Open Space board of directors, says the board is making changes in response to Trépanier's letter.

They include amending the job title of curator of exhibitions to indigenous curator of exhibitions. Boucher says it was always intended to be a position for an Indigenous person.

Boucher, who would not comment directly on Trépanier's resignation, says other changes include anti-oppression and "cultural agility" training for the board and staff.

"We're also looking at equity within the staff at Open Space," Boucher said.

He says addressing the issues raised by Trépanier are uncomfortable, but necessary.

"We are incredibly grateful that we have a community that is willing to both support us but also help direct us when we have made a mistake," he says.

Open Space executive director Kegan McFadden did not respond to a request for an interview.

Call for boycott

Trépanier's letter prompted the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective-Collectif des Commissaires autochtones to call for a boycott of Open Space's curator of exhibitions position.

ACC-CCA executive director Clayton Windatt says the board of directors has not responded to him directly, but the changes outlined by Boucher are positive as long as the board follows through with them.

Windatt thinks this illustrates why organizations need to carefully consider equality in their hiring practices.

"It's not about finding a way to make a special position for someone or to have them you know, being like a check box," says Windatt.

"[It's] the public you are accountable to. How are they sharing your space? How are they having a say in things?"

Forum planned

Meanwhile, an informal group of artists, both indigenous and people of colour, met on the weekend to discuss the Open Space controversy.

One of them, Charles Campbell, says the space is important because of its long history as a welcoming and inclusive place.  

He says because of that, they want to resolve the conflict through conversation.

Victoria-based artist Charles Campbell says a forum is planned at Open Space to respond to concerns raised by a former curator (Oakar Myint)

"We're taking a position that everyone can listen and learn, everyone can be in the same room. We know each other," says Campbell.

"We don't want to create an antagonistic situation. But, that said, we don't want to be so polite as to not have our voices heard."

A forum is planned for March 10 to discuss how the community should respond to the concerns raised by Trépanier.

Campbell says it will be held in Open Space and the board and staff are welcome to attend and observe.