Diversity: Report on the Victoria Session

Diversity: A Rolling National Conversation
Report on the Victoria Session

Sunday, March 26, 2017 | 2:30 PM – 4:30 PM PST
Open Space Arts Society – 2nd floor, 510 Fort St, Victoria, BC
A CNMN project funded by Factor and presented in Victoria with Open Space Arts Society
We would like to thank our partners and sponsors for making this project possible.

Report: Jennifer Waring

Christopher Reiche Boucher, New Music Coordinator, Open Space (Victoria)

Rachel Iwaasa – Director of Development, Pride in Art Society (Vancouver)
Juliet Palmer – composer/collaborator/Artistic Director, Urban Vessel (Toronto)
France Trépanier – Aboriginal Curator, Open Space (Victoria)

The session in Victoria followed six weeks after the opener in Halifax.  It resumed the discussion of diversity, but from the angle of audience engagement.  The two-and-a-half-hour event was divided equally between a live-streamed panel discussion conducted in the round with audience, and an in-camera circle exercise that broke out into smaller discussion groups.  Juliet Palmer provided continuity with the previous session; as with the previous session, she led the circle exercise.

To begin, Christopher Reiche Boucher, New Music Coordinator at Open Space and moderator of the discussion welcomed everyone attending the event. There were 22 people in person and 14 people by live stream. He acknowledged the unceded and traditional territories of the Songhese and Esquimalt nations. He thanked the sponsors for making this event possible, and he invited the panellists to introduce themselves.

In his opening remarks the moderator identified three different groups: creators, audiences and communities, then asked if audience and community are distinct, or one in the same?

I think they are overlapping. I think that it is important not to talk about community but communities – we have poly-identities.  This is much the case with the communities that we belong to.  The communities are forever growing and changing which means that it is not just a community.  When we talk about the new music community, we don’t necessarily talk about all the communities that share this space. 

I agree with Rachel from the perspective of a creator, I am creating in a community setting.  In that context, we make creative work with a community. 

The notion of community is interesting; my work is often relational in that sense. The community that I engage with is not an audience, or an audience in the making. I think there is a way of engaging with community that will in time become an audience. It is engaging the community that we learn where they are, not on our terms, but on their terms.  Defining what an audience needs and wants, changes the conversation quite a bit. It is a long-term endeavor. From an Indigenous perspective, wherever we are working, from wherever you are working from, there is a First Nation community there, we are always working on their land, this is the first community we should acknowledge, engage with, and respect.

Key comments and ideas:

Barriers to participation as audience, as artists

  • By its very nature, new music is exclusionary.
  • In many ways, it is the current expression in the “classical” stream, with all the unspoken classical music protocols that make people feel ashamed, like they can’t participate if they don’t know how to take in the event. Consequently, how you present yourself on stage matters; it can have a huge impact when trying to connect with communities outside the narrow ones already there.
  • France pointed out that infrastructure for art is recent in Canada. It was created in the 50’s at a time when Indigenous cultures were not considered living but rather dying cultures, their practices still banned.  The people who designed the system only had in mind European-based art forms.

We live in a very racist art system, privileging western European traditions…it is very uncomfortable at times. – France

Diversity and inclusion versus giving space

Chris knew that France had an issue with the idea of inclusion and asked her to explain.

First, I am going to tackle diversity. Everyone is diverse.  What is that? It’s like ethnic food — all food is ethnic. So we have to be careful about how we use these words. Every culture is by definition different.  Now to the question of inclusion, let’s think about that for a second. We have a country where, for thousands of years, there was a thriving culture.  Then Europeans come, there’s massive change, systems develop that privilege the Europeans.  And then the Europeans turn around and are now trying to include these ‘diverse’ cultures, poaching their communities.  It’s as detrimental their other practices.  – France

Inclusion maintains the centrality of European culture and an intellectual tradition that has been very oppressive. If we really want to talk about diversity then we have to challenge ourselves, be rigorous, and flexible enough to allow practices and different bodies of knowledge to come in.  – France

And further: “It doesn’t dismiss any classical music or practice, it belongs to the tradition it belongs to, but it needs to share the space.” – France

  • An audience member voiced concern about the effect of mandated diversity. Perhaps it would be better to view all the different kinds of practices as diversity in themselves, rather than making everyone be “diverse.”  Otherwise, everyone’s practices could become a multicultural mishmash.
  • Another audience member commented that arts councils can’t just impose and enforce diversity. The system needs changing.

Systems and the perpetuation of the status quo  

  • It was observed that Indigenous communities don’t create silos of their art forms; they have a different approach to the process than western traditions.
  • Ghettoization was identified by Juliet as a problem in the new music of the classical stream, where it’s relegated to festivals, or specific concerts rather than being integrated.
  • An audience member called the economic class system the elephant in the room: traditional arts are supported by a class system that denigrates folk arts – folk, in general. While there is a place for elite art, there is little impetus to include those who are systemically disadvantaged.
  • Rachel suggested that we need to identify systems before knowing how to dismantle them. Targeted interventions may help.  Example: the queer arts festival encompasses a range of identities, but in 2017 they mounted a two-spirited festival, which ended up being the least diverse festival they had had.  It was a necessary measure, though, as they wanted to spotlight that group – and it was a decision of the curators and not the result of any underlying system.
  • In education there is the question of who is teaching, and what they are teaching. That system perpetuates the status quo.
  • Also perpetuating the status quo: most people who are white don’t recognize themselves as white. Like thinking you don’t have an accent.

Community engagement

  • Art should be for every day. We fall into the trap of thinking of it as a profession, which leads to the trap of marketing and diversifying funding streams.

Reflecting on her childhood in New Zealand: In the 70’s when there was a revival of Indigenous identity and children were taught dances and language. It had a huge impact on me – understanding culture as a ceremonial practice. It was not about an event or selling tickets, but a part of life. I manifest this in my own work. It’s about making work together, not selling tickets, and taking things out of the usual venues and concert halls. – Juliet

The idea of bums in seats is very Eurocentric. When I was on the council, we had a theater company from the north that was trying to follow marketing guidelines… I gave them permission to market how they wanted, and they went to the grocery store and bought food for a feast. The concert hall was full. When we treat art as a commodity, it is very Eurocentric. – France

Identity and assumption: how things look / how they actually are and  also how things look influences how they are

The comment coming in on live feed that all the panelists looked white, elicited these responses:

I am Mohawk and French, I come from the province of Quebec, and I live on Coast Salish territory. – France

I am a woman and make up 20% of the composing community. I came as an immigrant to Canada. – Juliet

My background is Danish and Japanese. I get labeled as white and straight all the time.  The ways in which I am minority are not visible. What I find interesting is that we often don’t see the diversity around us because we base our judgment on what we see. – Rachel

The moderator noted that there is a great deal of importance placed on the visible, with the response from Rachel:

yes, it is our first impression. If people read my name, they see me as Japanese sooner. I think the look we present does matter, especially in organizations — we are trying to create an environment that appeals to a wider variety of people.– Rachel

Which led to the observation that it matters who you put on your board, who you hire, who makes decisions.  Power is the issue.

It’s a white system – without pointing fingers, how do we address the imbalances of power and access to resources?  I walk with some privileges because I come across as white. – France

An audience member commented that if you’re Métis, then you’re not accepted as Indigenous. The issue is not “who represents our organization’, but “who do you have to be true to”?

Because of systematic erasure (Indigenous children removed from their families, the Japanese wartime experience), we are now seeing efforts to reclaim identity.


Authorship and mentorship / inclusion of people who are unable to break in

  • Audience member – the new music community seems to claim that there are no composers of colour. This is not deliberate individual racism but systematic racism.  How can we help inform these organizations?
  • There are many composers who aren’t white men, just looking for opportunities. You have to go out and find them.
  • When it comes to helping artists from diverse communities engage in these “white” art forms, its necessary to find someone who can support someone else’s voice – mentoring, seeing and nurturing the talent. The traditional model doesn’t work, where the composer is unable to relinquish authorship.

I was the only indigenous person available to take part in a project where a composer wanted to work with Indigenous people.  I had to fight to get the point across that this was inappropriate.  If you don’t understand the tradition and the protocols or the aesthetics, then you can’t accept the merit or excellence. Different traditions is key here. – France

Artists of colour and Indigenous artists are more sophisticated because they come first from their own tradition first and then they have to straddle the western world. – France

Concluding thoughts

It comes back to a question of intent.

Why? My first question is always why? Why do we need more diversification? Why do we need bigger audiences? Why do you want to do that? – France

Smaller group discussion

For the second part of the session, participants broke into smaller groups to discuss cards containing shortly phrased thoughts written by fellow participants and redistributed anonymously. The full group reconvened to share summarized ideas.

Community Cards from Halifax, Victoria and Montreal