Inclusion at the Art Gallery of Ontario

By Frances Bleviss, Gallery Guide, Art Gallery of Ontario (August 2018)

Diversity is when everybody’s invited to the party…Inclusion means that everybody is asked to dance.”
Dr. Johnetta Cole, Former Director of The Smithsonian Museum of African Art

Canada, as a nation, is engaged in the process of Reconciliation, working at making amends for the unjust treatment of its Indigenous Peoples. Canada’s First Nations, The Inuit of Canada’s North, and The Metis rightfully claim their rights as full and equal citizens, entitled to the treatment Canada has traditionally afforded those who came to its shores as immigrants.

Appropriately, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is responding to the need to ensure the gallery presents Canada’s historical and present narratives from multiple points-of-view. Both the Vision and Mission Statements of the AGO make reference to a greater and more diverse community. This has given rise to a clear focus on the decolonization of the gallery and its collection. One of the lenses of Interpretation is, “Telling the story from a point of view that considers the simultaneous histories and perspectives.” In the galleries, “language will be inclusive, contemporary and accessible.”

 The AGO has facilitated these multiple perspectives by creating the Department of Canadian and Indigenous Art, which includes the newly created position of Curator, Indigenous Art, held by Wanda Nanibush of the Anishnaabe-Kwe. “She is committed to ensuring that Indigenous art and Culture will be given their place in relation to Canadian Art,“ said Stephan Jost, the AGO’s Director and CEO. Ms. Nanibush partners with Georgiana Ulyarik, the Frederick S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art to “…develop high quality exhibitions of Canadian content that shape cultural conversations, locally and globally.” (AGO Public Announcement)

Wanda Nanibush, Curator, Canadian and Indigenous Art, and Garry Sault, Elder, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.                                             Copyright AGO 2018

This past year, the AGO launched a distance learning series with schools in remote and rural parts of Ontario in collaboration with TakingITGlobal. The program Connected North has partnered with Indigenous Artist Nylie Milgizi Johnston to develop an Ojibwe language and education resource kit. “This project supports students and educators in the process of understanding the Anishnaabe Nation, with the aim of strengthening Indigenous Identity and Culture as well as encouraging Ojibwe language revitalization and community development.

In 2013, the AGO partnered with the Toronto District School Board in a program expressing Aboriginal Cultures NAC10 visual arts course. Annually, hundreds of TDSB students visit the AGO on NAC10 Learning Days. During this customized day of programming, students learn from and with Indigenous Artists through live performances, workshops and discussions. This program allows students and teachers to engage with works by First Nations, Inuit and Metis artists in the AGO’s collection.

Melissa Smith, Coordinator, Gallery Guides, Adult Education Officers, and Access to Art Programs and Workshops, has shared with the guides a Land Acknowledgement for the gallery, finalized by Wanda Nanibush, Indigenous Curator. The full version recognizes that, “The Art Gallery of Ontario operates on land that has been a site of human activity for over 15,000 years. This land is the territory of the Anishinaabe nation and was also the territory of the Huron-Wendat, Neutral, and Seneca nations. The Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Anishinaabe Three Fires Confederacy to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. Toronto is also governed by a treaty between the federal government of Canada and the Mississaugas of the New Credit (Anishinaabe nation). Toronto has always been a trading centre for First Nations.” Guides may also introduce their tours with a shorter version. As a complement, Gallery Guides, a learning community, are doing readings about decolonizing museums.

Clearly, the AGO, at all levels, continues to develop initiatives to include all of Canada’s peoples, so that soon, everybody will not only be “asked to dance”, but will dance, enhancing our privilege of being AGO Gallery Guides.



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