5 Calgary galleries end partnerships with Arts Commons after censorship accusation

Five Calgary art galleries have chosen to end their partnership with Arts Commons after the organization was accused of censoring a transgender artist's work last month.

Facility says it has always had final say on suitability of exhibits in all-ages public walkway

Five galleries, including The New Gallery, have ended their partnership with Arts Commons after the multi-arts venue was accused of censoring artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne. (CBC)

Five Calgary art galleries have chosen to end their partnership with Arts Commons after the organization was accused of censoring a transgender artist's work last month.

The decision will leave empty the majority of the nine window art galleries in the facility's Plus-15 walkway.

The galleries — Marion Nicoll Gallery, Stride Gallery, The New Gallery, Truck Contemporary Art and Untitled Art Society — each wrote letters to Arts Commons over the past two weeks outlining their specific reasons for severing ties.

"Our organizations believe that we cannot in good conscience continue to invite artists into a space within which their safety, rights, and artistic integrity cannot be guaranteed," read a release from the galleries.

Su Ying Strang, the director of the New Gallery, said that while the recent act of censorship was the catalyst for the move, it's not the first time that smaller galleries have been frustrated with what they say is a lack of support for artists on the part of Arts Commons.

"It comes in a long line of this kind of action becoming the norm from Arts Commons," Strang said. "Another big part of this is the unwillingness to come to the table and have a conversation with the broader community."

Complaints about nudity, profanity

In September, Arts Commons took down a public art installation displayed in a window space curated by The New Gallery after the organization said it received complaints about nudity and coarse language.

The art piece was a video that was meant to draw attention to the issues faced by transgender people. The Montreal-based artist, Beck Gilmer-Osborne, said there were about seven to eight profane words displayed in the piece, as well as a three-second, grainy clip of a nude woman wearing a prosthetic penis.

Artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne said they were given a choice of editing their video art installation or the piece would be turned off, after Arts Commons said it received complaints about nudity and profanity. Now, five galleries have cut ties with Arts Commons following the incident. (Beck Gilmer-Osborne)

The piece was in a window gallery that's one of nine that Arts Commons has provided for free to local artist-run groups to use. While Arts Commons owns the spaces, each gallery curates its own content.

Arts Commons said the piece would have to be edited to remove the objectionable content or it would be taken down. The facility also offered Gilmer-Osborne one night in a private venue to showcase the work. 

Gilmer-Osborne declined the offer for a single night in a private venue. The artist also criticized the venue for "censoring" work that was meant to have a public impact. 

'Trust has to be rebuilt,' New Gallery says

The New Gallery said it held a forum with local artists and invited Arts Commons to discuss the incident but no representatives from the organization showed up.

Strang described the situation as David versus Goliath, with her tiny gallery that has just two full-time staff trying to work with the large, multi-venue facility that hosts theatre groups, the philharmonic orchestra and art shows.

She's hoping that Arts Commons will hear the message now that the five galleries have banded together — but she's not holding her breath.

"I'm hopeful there's more equitable opportunities for us to work together in the future but I also feel very strongly that those changes can't happen overnight and trust has to be rebuilt before that work can take place," Strang said.

She said Wednesday that she had yet to hear from Arts Commons in response to the letter from the galleries, which was sent last week.

Galleries agreed to exhibit in all-ages space

However, in a email to CBC News on Thursday, Arts Commons countered by saying it had invited all the galleries to a meeting to "discuss their expectations and re-examine future partnerships together."

"These exiting organizations chose to vacate our facility without a face-to-face meeting," the email read in part.​

Arts Commons pointed out that, since 1992, it has been providing free space to local artist-run centres in its Plus-15  galleries, where they can be seen by an estimated 600,000 pedestrians per season. It said the galleries had showcased more than 1,056 exhibits of emerging artists, most of them local.

"We strive to ensure the safety, rights and artistic integrity of every artist programmed in our space, along with the visitors to the building who interact with these thought-provoking pieces," Jennifer Johnson, director of programming for Arts Commons, said in a statement provided to CBC News on Thursday.

"A recent exhibit, which included profanity and explicit nudity in a video clip from a rated R film, was programmed into an all-ages public space by one of our former partners. Both parties suggested alternatives but could not come to a compromise."

Arts Commons says all of the centres exhibiting in the Plus-15 galleries have an agreement that states "the visual arts organization will be sensitive to the fact that the +15 is a public pathway open to all ages and that viewers will experience work without having made the choice to participate as they would upon entering a gallery."

The agreement also says that Arts Commons would make the final decision in a dispute over the public suitability of an exhibit.

'Misalignment of expectations'

Arts Commons said it regretted that a "​misalignment of expectations" had led to the exit of some Plus-15 gallery partners.

Meanwhile, Strang said the New Gallery was working to find venues for artists who were scheduled to have shows at the Arts Commons.