Tilling — Governance, Ungovernance, and Other Possibilities
by Tarin Dehod
A year ago, I was preparing for an AGM, reading through the CRA’s basic guidelines for charities searching for a way to make quorum. We had recently lost half of our board. When I read that a non-profit was only required to maintain a minimum of three directors I realized that we could do something radical that I had been mulling over for some time: turn Saskatoon’s AKA Artist-Run back into a collective without losing our charitable status and our funding. We realized that the outdated policies, the meeting structures based on Robert’s Rules of Order (the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure in the US), and other inherited ways of conducting governance were things we could overthrow. We needed only to meet a bare minimum of regulations, and could get rid of the rest. Staff and board members all became members of the collective, the latter given an annual honorarium and—at the suggestion of artist and former board member Ruth Cuthand—each BIPOC member would join with a mentor. We dispensed with the procedural vocabulary and processes of board meetings, and instead built group agreements to foster equitable conditions for all collective members to speak, to listen, to honour their own mental and physical needs, and to understand why they show up. The change was so simple, but it freed us.
That’s when I started calling around, asking friends and colleagues how they negotiated the quiet work of organizational governance. I say “quiet” because it seems invisible; most ARCs don’t make much mention of how—or if—their boards work. From my experience both with arts and other non-profit boards, the board model is dysfunctional, requiring an immense amount of performative, often immaterial, and uncompensated labour from staff and volunteers. Not to mention that the board is a colonial institutional model—in Canada, the foundation of the charity and non-profit was built by the church (predominantly Catholic), and later, after Confederation, came under government control as a way to systematize operations and provide selective tax exemptions—with the attendant hostility.
In an effort to make the invisible visible, I met with roughly 20 artist-run staff and board members over the next six months. When I started, I assumed I was asking for a lot—their time, labour, knowledge— so I tried to squish my inquiries into 20 minutes, but by the end, some of the calls were up to two hours. I talked to artist-runs who were building new boards, starting from scratch, but within the same system that many of us have come up in. I learned about shifts to community-centred programming: artists, organizations, and neighbourhoods working together to reveal and engage with their histories and sincere acts of reciprocity. I talked with many about Canadian arts politics, the relevance and responsiveness of national arts service organizations (NASOs), and whether the last round of funding changes at the Canada Council (reducing NASOs to 60 percent of their total revenues) was forcing non–revenue generating organizations to become something else entirely. I talked to groups who have dispensed with staff hierarchies, working with highly involved members and others who, like AKA, continue to cross the T’s and dot the I’s of charitable bureaucracy while merging structural research with artist projects.
After a few months, I stopped feeling like I was taking something. I understood that we were all trying to figure out what it meant to serve communities while being stripped of the possibilities for exchange and real physical connection that our work relies upon (due to COVID) amid a societal reckoning that had been a long time coming. We didn’t have the time, but needed to think together anyway. A group of us have kept talking: Ada X, AKA, Articule, Artspeak, Common Weal, grunt gallery, Hamilton Artists Inc., Ociciwan, Sâkêwêwak, The New Gallery, Video Pool, along with some independent arts workers. We are in the early stages of seeking funding for research, a national conversation series, and a living virtual resource library on the subject of alternative forms of governance—or ungovernance—and anti-racist practices. In short: a total rethink and decentralization of the commonly accepted institutional model that artist-runs sought to fit within to be legitimate, professional, and funded.
The formation of the CCA in 1957 set a kind of bar for recognition and public value. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, first- and second-generation artist-led groups like the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., or the “Indian Group of Seven,” the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry, Sound Gallery (one of the ARCs that made up Intermedia), Art Metropole, the Shoestring Gallery, and Ironbow collective (later Circle Vision Arts Corporation) took individual radical, grassroots action to establish space, support, and recognition for artists by artists.1 In 1976 the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC), the early inspiration for ARCA, a national service organization representing ARC members, was organized with support from the CCA with the aims of enabling national dialogue and setting the course for professionalization. While the CCA and NASOs advocated for artist fees, wages, and money for spaces, professionalization also brought evolving pressure to form policy, regulations, contracts, strategic plans, every institutional step a further push away from truly artist-run beginnings. This had the effect of solidifying previously self-defining groups within a white-supremacist, colonial system—unfit, inaccessible, and for many, unsafe.2
This was AKA’s trajectory; in 1971 five women came together and formed a collective in response to a lack of gathering and exhibition space in Saskatoon and, about 10 years later, incorporated in order to access funding. Now here we are in 2021 with a collective once again, attempting to unlearn institutional and colonial ways of working. Throughout this process, I was introduced to Jordan Baylon, a second-generation PilipinX artist, critic, community worker, and CommunityWise Anti-Racist Organizational Change program associate.3 In their seemingly boundless generosity of time and knowledge, they shared the Centre for Community Organizations’ (COCo) powerful document White Supremacy Culture in Organizations,4 identifying widely tolerated behaviours that might be hard to see, name, or admit to, and antidotes to these behaviours. “Organizational culture is powerful precisely because it is so pervasive, impacting every part of our work; at the same time, it is very difficult to name or identify.”5 This document and conversations with Baylon have made clear how absurd it is for ARCs to continue business-as-usual artistic programming upon a shared foundation that is antithetical to our very reason for existing.
I would guess that there are a great many of us working at fostering spaces for safe and open community and artist exchange, while going through the motions of board-led governance. We work with and program artists whose practices align with the structural challenges of our organizations, which undermine our capacity to show up for the communities we serve. So many artist practices cross into structural dialogue: racial justice and anti-oppression, stolen land, authentic histories, labour, identity politics, radical kindness, power dynamics; the list is unending. Ironically, we are forced to adapt our organizations—with equity work and progressive values increasingly being made a condition of grant funding—without any real funding for the time, internal, and external labour to do so. So we have no choice but to channel the work through our programming. I’m curious how covert we are about it. When grants are due, I find myself in some kind of hypnosis; no matter how resolute I am in AKA’s agency and self-determining work, I also fear too much risk—which is to say, asking for our current ideal: a break in artist projects to make time for the collective and staff to shift the organization, and to include fees for our non-staff collective and community members to co-author AKA’s reinvention.
I can’t say this next bit without acknowledging that artist-runs are in perennial cycles of renewal and questioning. In the final issue of FUSE, in the article “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear,” an anonymous group of arts workers collaboratively wrote: “New projects and possibilities are everywhere, but it is imperative that current administrators envision new models and configurations and work closely with the councils to make them possible. This is how artist-run culture was born and it’s what is required to keep it alive through this awkward midlife crisis.”6
Being an incorporated non-profit seems to be such a small eligibility criterion, relatively speaking, but its implications are all-encompassing. If we stay the familiar course, our insides will not match our outsides. We need to make our spaces braver, to share the power with communities, to hold space for conversations, and to take—and be given—the time to reimagine our structures. Reading through most grants, it is difficult to find any mention of money for structural change with the exception of CCA’s Sector Innovation and Development, a “component of Supporting Artistic Practice [that] funds Canadian groups, organizations and cultural connectors for projects targeted towards growing and improving the arts sector.”7 Our aforementioned group of artist-runs and collectives is working on an application. Right now, we’re in the early work of talking, sharing, and storytelling, and I suspect that the project will mirror a nationally organized form of that.
When the group first started talking, I admitted to AKA’s collective that I felt as if I had spent this last summer with nothing to show for my work. While the process left me feeling full and good, based on my learned definitions of productivity—the ones at the bedrock of our organizations as they stand—I struggled to perceive it as serious work. Felicia Gay, MacKenzie Art Gallery curatorial fellow, co-founder of The Red Shift Gallery, one of AKA’s collective members, and someone who has shown me a great deal of kindness and mentorship, told us that visiting was a Swampy Cree research methodology, a way of learning and working that is shared.8
Everything I’ve learned over the last year is a credit to someone else.
Will the CCA or other granting bodies fund projects that seek to undercut the criteria that they judge us by—projects for structural rather than artistic innovation? Can we ask them to enable artist-runs to define their own models, instead of being beholden to the non-profit governance structures that be? How can we balance what we owe to our known and unknown communities with what is expected of us by our funders? Is there room to risk being wrong? And is not trying at all worth the risk?
Thank you to Jordan Baylon, Amber Berson, Jen Budney, Jesse McKee, Natasha Chaykowski; Ada X, Articule, Artspeak, Common Weal, grunt gallery, Hamilton Artists Inc., Ociciwan, Sâkêwêwak, The New Gallery, Video Pool, and AKA’s Collective: Kaetan Bonli, Kathleena ChiefCalf, Gabby DaSilva, gan/respectful child, Alexa Hainsworth, Derek Sandbeck, Lauren Warrington, and Aurora Wolfe.
Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in being a part of this conversation.