When the Confederation Centre Art Gallery recently hired Charles Campbell as an adjunct curator, it ticked some boxes — he's Black, and promises to bring more diverse voices to the gallery, which the centre has made a priority.
But both Campbell and his boss say he's no token.
In this year of Black Lives Matter protests, communities and institutions have become acutely aware they need to do better and more to include and represent Black, Indigenous and people of colour — which includes the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, an institution which has colonialism baked right into its name.
Settlers of European descent including Sir John A. Macdonald gathered in the so-called birthplace of Confederation in 1864 to create Canada. The Confederation Centre was built 100 years later in memorial to that legacy, and includes a stage where Anne of Green Gables The Musical has played for more than 50 years, as well as the art gallery and a public library.
"They were looking for some new and diverse voices within the gallery," Campbell told CBC Radio: Mainstreet P.E.I.'s Angela Walker.
As the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in summer 2020, Campbell and some other curators discussed how Canadian institutions had failed to support Black artists, and came up with a project to look at the work of BIPOC artists in Canada.
"They were very enthusiastic," Campbell said of the Confederation Centre Gallery's response to the project, which he will spend much of his two-year contract leading. The gallery is keeping mum on the details of this large project until everything is in place.
'Shine a light' on BIPOC artists
Campbell is a Jamaican-born artist who was raised from the age of five in Charlottetown. He returned to Jamaica, where he cut his teeth as an artist in the 1990s, and was chief curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica for a time. He now lives in Victoria, B.C.
Island audiences may recall Campbell from a piece he created for Art in the Open in 2017 called Song Catching – The Bog, in which he brings his character Actor Boy to imagine a different future for those who lived in Charlottetown's Black community of the 1800s, The Bog.
Campbell said he is excited to amplify the voices of more Black artists.
"It's not that Black artists don't exist, don't participate — it's that the extent of their influence isn't recognized, and it isn't picked up and carried on in a really productive and meaningful way," Campbell said.
What better place to challenge some of the assumptions of Confederation than a place that was built as a memorial to it?" — Charles Campbell
"What we want to do is pick up the work of Black artists, BIPOC artists, Indigenous artists, and shine a light on the really tremendous work that's being done, and sort of and allow that work to have its full effect."
Campbell said he is excited to have institutional support for the work, and he is looking forward to returning to the Maritimes as soon as COVID-19 restrictions allow travel. Until then he will work remotely from B.C., and notes much of the preparation is research-based, so travel is not necessary.
'Take on our history'
Does Campbell have concerns about working for the Confederation Centre, a living memorial to the Charlottetown Conference of 1864?
"I've always had the attitude that we have to take on our history in a really direct fashion," he said. "We can't pretend that everything is all right now, or that we didn't make these mistakes in the past.
"We're living in a Canada created out of that moment, right? So in a way .. what better place to challenge some of the assumptions of Confederation than a place that was built as a memorial to it?"
But don't call Campbell's hiring tokenism.
"It's a really problematic word," he said. "We can walk into an institution that has, you know, 20 white staff and nobody thinks 'Oh, some of those people were hired because they are white.' But if one Black staff is hired, you think, 'Oh, well that guy was hired because he is Black.'"
There aren't many artists of colour included in the [Centre's permanent art] collection, and that is something we would like to start to address. - Kevin Rice
Campbell points out the exact opposite is likely true — the person who may have had to demonstrate the most experience and who has worked the hardest is probably the Black person.
Most of the centre's board of directors are white.
The gallery and theatre have made a concerted effort to showcase Indigenous voices from across Canada and ensure gender parity, but Black voices have been lacking — by their own admission.
"There aren't many artists of colour included in the [centre's permanent art] collection, and that is something we would like to start to address," said gallery director Kevin Rice.
'Watershed moment' of BLM
Modelling an inclusive organization and engaging diverse communities are priorities for the Centre, laid out in its five-year strategic plan published in 2019.
"There is a general recognition that we don't show as much diversity as we might want to," Rice said.
"It's been a watershed moment in terms of Black Lives Matter and the impact those marches and those conversations have had on people, and it's overdue in some cases. Any small steps we can take, or major steps we can take, to achieve some of those connections with diverse communities that we want to achieve, that is good," Rice said.
Hiring Campbell as an adjunct curator will better inform both the centre and its audience, he said, and he is excited about the new project Campbell is working on.
'It is a big task'
"I think we do realize our shortcomings and we try to improve ... it is a big task," Rice said.
"I believe the institution is sincere in their desire to expand the range of voices within its context," Campbell said.
Campbell said he is excited to invite young Black people to the gallery to "speak and imagine with us," and hopes he and his work can be a source of inspiration — one that he didn't have growing up in Charlottetown, when Black history wasn't celebrated or talked about.
Rice hinted more changes are afoot at the gallery, possibly with the hiring of an Indigenous adjunct or guest curator as well.
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