On this page we share information and resources that speak to our organizational principles and values. This is not a static page, but one that is continually revisited, updated, and expanded as we learn by doing, thinking, and discussing among team, board, advisory committees, and collaborators. See below for our first entry, a collective response to recent calls for accountability in the arts.


August 2020

On recent and ongoing impacts of systemic racism and injustice in the arts and beyond

Introduction

Founded seven years ago, Critical Distance is a not-for-profit project space, publisher, and professional network devoted to supporting and advancing curatorial inquiry in Toronto, Ontario, and beyond. With a focus on critically-engaged, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary practices, underrepresented artists and art forms, and community outreach and education in art and exhibition-making, Critical Distance is an open platform for diverse curatorial perspectives, and a forum for the exchange of ideas on curating as a way to connect, engage, and inform people and publics across cultures, disciplines, geographies, and generations. 

Our organization operates on land that has been the home of Indigenous people and nations on the epochal scale of at least 11,000 years, including the Wendat, Mississaugas of the Credit, Anishinaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples who continue to live and work here in what is currently known as Toronto. Since before the 18th century, this territory has been under the Dish With One Spoon treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabeg peoples, an agreement for peaceful sharing of land and resources based on principles that date back to the 12th century. As relative newcomers we hold great respect for those who have come before us, and are thankful for the opportunity to live and work in this community. It is in this spirit of generosity and reciprocity that we wish to share our space and resources as well, and to seek always to be a welcoming place for people to find common ground within the dynamic and generative context of art and exhibitions.

In response

Acknowledging that our society is founded upon centuries of genocide, enslavement, segregation, and incarceration of Black and Indigenous peoples; and that our society continues to operate within inherently racist socio-political and economic systems that prop up entrenched power and those who disproportionately benefit from them:

1
Critical Distance unequivocally affirms that All Black Lives Matter and we are committed to supporting and advancing the global Movement for Black Lives on all fronts against colonialist, capitalist, and white supremacist systems that privilege profit over people and the inevitable and direct outcomes of such logics, including structural racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia, nationalism, fascism, oppression, ecological destruction, and dehumanization in all its forms.

2
We do so as an organization that was founded in direct response to increasing precarity, inequity, and inaccessibility within, and to, the arts. Operating on principles rooted in collaboration across disciplines, cultures, generations, and geographies, our mission and mandate have always foregrounded underrepresented practices and perspectives, community outreach, and education in critical curating and exhibition-making, with equal regard for curators, artists, our partners, and our multiple publics.

3
Working within transformative justice frameworks, through which we understand accountability as the never-ending process of taking responsibility for oneself in thoughtful and consensual relation with others, we recognize there is always room for improvement on measures to refute the racist and oppressive paradigms of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy, and we will continue to work actively and collectively to provide increased opportunity for marginalized, racialized, and other underrepresented and intersecting communities, particularly Black and Indigenous curators and arts workers, to be mentored, supported, employed, advanced, commissioned, compensated, credited, and celebrated as esteemed colleagues, collaborators, and participants in our programs.

4
Because this work requires thoughtful consideration, open discussion, collective decision-making, fully integrated frameworks, and adequate funding to ensure true systemic support and sustainability, our initiatives have been, and will continue to be, works-in-progress as part of a foundational commitment to changing the status quo in deeply transformative (and therefore often less visible) ways. We will publish our organizational frameworks to advance these objectives when our new website goes live (soon), and over the coming months we will announce a number of long-term initiatives designed to address systemic inequity in the arts in community-led, multi-pronged, and practice-based programs. Participant feedback and qualitative reviews of all programs will be gathered and compiled on an annual basis in order to gain a better understanding of our impact and to proactively identify opportunities for improvement.

5
We believe everyone has a part to play in advancing this larger movement, for which we are deeply indebted to the many Black and Indigenous activists and organizations who have been doing this work across generations and from around the world. As part of a long-term commitment to both amplifying their efforts and advancing these objectives, we will highlight the work of Black and Indigenous-led organizations, including ways to provide material support, in an ongoing series of posts and news features that will be made permanently available and accessible to everyone in our gallery and online through our various channels. Look for our first post highlighting Black Lives Matter Toronto/Canada coming soon. We would also like to take this opportunity to highlight a recent generous offering, by curators John G Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis (both from MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina), of a compilation of resources for further context. Presented as a toolkit comprising research-in-progress for an upcoming exhibition titled Conceptions of White, the materials they have gathered provide a critical and in-depth look into “the origins and meanings of white identity”, and how ‘whiteness’ as a concept was “invented to classify degrees of humanity and justify inhumane actions and social structures”. This example of curatorial activism demonstrates how arts workers can make crucial space for reflection and action on society’s most intractable issues. As a curatorially-focused organization, we look forward to participating in and amplifying the discussion and actions such projects make possible.

In reflection

Finally, we wish to acknowledge the time we took in responding to the recent wider call for statements. This is not because our core positions were ever in question, but because the mode of its communication and display within the current context has raised critical questions for us on what it truly means and does to make statements and to be accountable. We do not wish our pause for reflection to be perceived as the pernicious silence of complicity or the smug reticence of complacency, both stances to be resisted and refused in all their forms. 

As an organization that has always positioned itself as an open platform and forum for diverse perspectives and critical discourse on what the act of curating is and does—including the politics of communication, representation, and display within the arts that are now under scrutiny within the wider social sphere—we are not interested in trying to provide quick, simple, or definitive answers to any issue, especially systemic ones. We are interested in engaging with deep and cogent questions such as how to sensitively address the urgent, complex, and intertwined issues of our time, and their root causes in genocide, slavery, and ecological destruction that have taken place over centuries and generations of human history. 

How can we as individuals and organizations make meaningful and lasting change in the face of structural inequity, and the entrenched power that wishes to remain?

More specifically to our sector, how can we in the arts work together in true, intersectional solidarity to transform this pivotal moment of statement-saying (i.e., our collective response) into the crucial and transformative work of movement-making (i.e., our shared responsibility) toward a better world for all?

We are grateful for the sustaining interest, generosity, and energy of all who have read this and who will join us in discussing, sharing, and doing this important work in grappling with these questions and finding workable, sustainable solutions together. Because no one person or organization can have all the answers, but collectively we do. 

Signed,
The CDCC Team, Board, and Programming/Advisory, including:

Shani K Parsons (founder/director)
Emily Cook (education/accessibility)
Beau Gomez (gallery coordinator)
Cheryl Huber (office/accounts)
Daniella Sanader (editorial/publications)

Simon M. Benedict (board secretary)
Ingrid Jones (board member)
Tara Smith (board chair)
Ting Xu (board treasurer)

Liz Ikiriko (programming/advisory)
Toleen Touq (programming/advisory)