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Curators Demand Changes to Culturally Diverse Grant

Toronto-based curator Su-Ying Lee is known for unconventional approaches to art.

Alongside architectural practitioner Jennifer Davis (in a curatorial collective known as Rear View Projects), Lee has initiated projects with migrant workers in Hong Kong, and also staged talks in a Toronto laneway.

In many ways, Lee’s practice reflects the growth of curatorial work beyond the white cube over the past decade.

But there’s a problem: Lee is not seeing that kind of increasingly prevalent practice supported by the Ontario Arts Council’s grants for Culturally Diverse Curatorial Projects and Aboriginal Curatorial Projects.

“Under the Ontario Arts Council’s Culturally Diverse Curatorial Projects and Aboriginal Curatorial Projects programs, eligible activities are restricted to exhibitions (and related publications). Other types of intellectual and creative curatorial presentations (discourse and activities generated by contemporary art) are not recognized,” Lee writes in a petition posted this month to Change.org.

Lee is quite familiar with the current guidelines for the OAC’s Cultural Diverse Curatorial Projects funding—she was a juror for these grants in 2015.

“The OAC’s definition of curatorial projects is outdated,” Lee’s petition continues. “Further, it precludes meaningful contributions by preventing Indigenous and culturally diverse curators from self-defining their practices.”

So far, roughly 200 artists, curators and critics have signed the petition, “urge[ing] the Ontario Arts Council to reflect current curatorial practices in their programs for Indigenous and culturally diverse curators.”

“Curation has moved beyond the gallery/exhibition structure,” writes artist Shellie Zhang, in support of the petition. “The OAC must reflect this shift and allow for more creative programming to reflect the needs and voices of those it wishes to reach through grants such as the Indigenous and culturally diverse curatorial projects grant.”

Artist’s advocacy group CARFAC Ontario has also thrown its support behind Lee’s petition.

“CARFAC Ontario stands in solidarity with curators from ‘culturally diverse’ and aboriginal communities and supports this effort to expand the parameters of this important OAC program,” its petition comment states.

In the last few days, the Ontario Arts Council has provided an official response to the petition. The response, authored by Carolyn Vesely, director of granting, emphasizes that “all of the activities described in the petition are currently eligible for OAC support, although not all in any one program.”

The Ontario Arts Council’s response also emphasizes that its Culturally Diverse Curatorial Projects and Aboriginal Curatorial Projects programs were specifically designed to meet a specific need: namely, “the lack of diversity among those making curatorial choices within gallery spaces and visual arts organizations.”

In short, “it is impossible for one program to address all needs of all grant applicants,” says the OAC statement. But it also says “We will take this and all ongoing feedback into consideration as we examine both our programs and how we as an organization are keeping pace with the changing needs of Ontario artists and arts workers.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the OAC’s response.

“The response by the OAC shows that they lack understanding of the issue,” writes independent curator and petition supporter Allison Collins. “From the perspective of a producer, it makes little sense to hive off eligible activities into several separate funding programs when a more inclusive approach could allow for those who identify as culturally diverse curators to compete in a single existing program.”

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