Artist withdraws work, calls for changes to Art Gallery of Alberta to address systemic racism

Emilee Geist

A Calgary artist who withdrew from an Art Gallery of Alberta exhibition this summer prompted the organization to take a closer look at its history and commit to take more steps toward dismantling systemic racism. Justin Waddell, a visual artist and associate professor at the Alberta University of the Arts […]

A Calgary artist who withdrew from an Art Gallery of Alberta exhibition this summer prompted the organization to take a closer look at its history and commit to take more steps toward dismantling systemic racism.

Justin Waddell, a visual artist and associate professor at the Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, has participated in the AGA’s Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art — which celebrates Alberta artists — twice in the past decade.

Having researched and experienced previous Biennial exhibitions, he knew there was a lack of Black artists and asked the gallery to determine whether it had ever included any.

Curators discovered no Black artists have ever been included in the exhibition.

Waddell said he asked the gallery to reckon with that history by apologizing and taking steps to address systemic racism.

Not satisfied with the institution’s response, he wrote in a email to an AGA curator that he was withdrawing his work from the exhibition.

“As a BIPOC artist and educator, I have a shared responsibility to meet that work and to stand accountable for its absence,” he wrote in the July email.

The AGA has since issued a statement acknowledging the lack of Black artists included in the Biennial. The gallery has postponed the 2022 exhibition and committed to holding discussions with BIPOC artists and community members.

After Waddell withdrew his work from the exhibition, the show’s four curators held two discussions with participating artists.

Other artists told the gallery to address the issue publicly, Waddell said.

“I don’t think the AGA ever would have come clean about the history of the Biennial had these artists not pushed the institution,” he told CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active on Friday.

“The AGA recognized that it was an important first step for us to be transparent about this part of the Biennial’s history and to make a public statement,” social and digital media coordinator Jordan LaRiviere said in an emailed statement.

She said the gallery has created an equity committee, which is meeting early next week. The committee will plan community discussions over the next few months.

As much as he appreciates the efforts of individual curators, Waddell said he is suspect of the organization’s public statements and commitments so far. 

Systemic, institutional change involving leadership and fundraising changes is needed, he said. 

As a person of colour who has held leadership positions in Alberta’s visual arts community, Waddell said he knows he also has a role to play in eliminating anti-Black racism.

“I take up a lot of space and I participate in systems that have excluded Black people,” he said.

“I can’t do that anymore. I need to work to make things better.”

Though there are no Black artists included in this year’s Biennial exhibition, this lack of representation does not extend to the rest of the AGA’s exhibitions.

Black artists are included in all of the gallery’s upcoming (2020–2021) group exhibitions of contemporary art.

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