Zainub Verjee: “Culture sector will see a substantial overhaul as it will soon be data driven”
In a freewheeling interview, Zainub Verjee reflected on the state of the Culture Sector and offers inspirational insights for the new generation of Cultural Administrators. Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) premiered its interview series with special guest Zainub Verjee, the Executive Director of Ontario Association of Art galleries, serving 116 Public Art Galleries in 61 communities in Ontario.
CPAMO is a movement of Indigenous and ethno-racial artists working with presenters to empower the arts communities of Ontario. CPAMO seeks to open opportunities for Indigenous and ethno-racial artists to engage with presenters – in theatre, music, dance, visual arts – across Ontario and to enable presenters to develop constructive relationships with Indigenous and ethno-racial artists.
Zainub states that few comprehend the value of the sector especially its economic impact. More than 670,000 Canadians delivered cultural products and services in 2014 — more than three per cent of our workforce. That’s nearly five times the number employed in the auto sector. Their products included audio-visual media, written works, visual and applied arts, live performance, heritage and libraries. Employment in this sector has grown faster than the overall labour force, increasing 50 per cent over the last 25 years.
According to Statistics Canada, the estimated direct economic impact of Canada’s culture industries was $61.7 billion in 2014, or 3.3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). To put this in perspective, the GDP contribution of culture industries is much larger than that of agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined ($29 billion). Culture industries contribute more to our economy than accommodation and food ($38 billion) or utilities ($43 billion). Sports fans will be surprised to hear the direct economic impact of culture is 10 times that of the sports sector ($6.1 billion).
The same report demonstrates the economic importance of arts and culture in Ontario. It shows the province is responsible for 45 per cent of the total GDP of Canada’s arts, culture and heritage sector and provides almost 302,000 jobs.
CPAMO: Did you have any key mentors or people who meaningfully influenced your career, what you believe in and what you are committed to in your work and life?
ZV: Mentoring is central to professional life in Culture sector. Today, I am happy to see individuals, whom I have mentored over my long career, holding positions of influence and contributing substantially to the Culture sector across this country. Over three decades of my professional life, I have been influenced by key ideas that presented themselves as moments, institutions and individuals. Let me give you some examples.
In 1977, as a young new immigrant and graduate student at Simon Fraser University, I was in a theatre production in Matsqui Prison, part of a venerable rehabilitation program that was started by the legendary Leon Pownall, who directed an unforgettable behind-bars production of Threepenny Opera. Pownall pioneered Institutional Theatre Productions (ITP), and by the late 1980s, I witnessed convict Ron Sauvé after his release from prison taking over as Artistic Director, directing many productions as well as continuing to act. Ron Sauvé, with whom I acted in 1977, took ITP with him into the mainstream, with the mandate of helping inmates and ex-inmates explore the complexities of theatre, including the works of French dramatist Jean Genet and Brazilian Augusto Boal. This was my introduction to the transformational power of Arts and Culture and marked the beginning of my Canadian journey advocating for the critical and central role of Art and Culture in our society.
Similarly, two of my close and decades-long associations: one, with Dr. Shirley L. Thomson, former chair of the National Art Gallery, the former director Canada Council of the Arts and later the chair of Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, and two, Dr. Sara Diamond, President of OCADU, were very influential in understanding the idea of risk in Culture and advocacy of Arts as public good. And lastly, the institution of Western Front, of which I was the executive director in the early 90s helped me understand the value of art, and what it means in the quotidian sense, to put it simply.
Since I come from England, I had an association with the British Black Arts Movement post 1980s Brixton Riots, that shared similar impulses to that in US, responding to the period of Thatcherism. Institutions like Black Audio Film Collection, Sankofa collective, IniVA and people like Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, Keith Piper, Isaac Julian, Sonia Boyce, Rasheed Aareen, Sarat Maharaj and many others offered a way to engage with the State through activism to fight for rights and equality.
Infact, today it’s a déjà vu given the ascendancy of Black Lives Matter here in Canada, and broadly North America, as I reflect on Lord Scarman’s report on the violence of the 1980s in the inner urban areas in the UK, and the 62.3% cut by Arts Council of England in 2015 on funding IniVA, which was one of the institutional product of the times!
CPAMO: What advice can you give for emerging cultural administrators?
ZV: Right at the outset, to be a Cultural administrator one has to understand that it is not a homogenous domain. On the contrary, the field is very heterogeneous and demands a disparate set of skills sets and competencies. Depending on the scale and mandate of the organization, the demand will range from that of a generalist to specialist. All cultural organizations have histories and nuanced contexts, that they are products of particular times. An Artists-run-centre will differ from a Public Art Gallery as will it vary from say Municipal Culture Department or a Public Museum. The future will demand a complex array of skills and an entrepreneurial temperament as the stakeholder interests as well as demands will be different as the ecosystem will be driven by technology and nature of audience.
CPAMO: What trends and changes in the cultural sector have you noticed in the last few years?
ZV: The culture sector has been completely co-opted into the neoliberal instrumentality of public policy. Today broadly, it resonates a service industry! Festivalization of Culture sends a mixed message from a public policy perspective. Ofcourse, there are multiple drivers –– demographics, digital technology, culture as public good––that have impacted the culture sector over the last decade. We are still functioning with the ideas of the 1980s. Largely, the absence of a coherent cultural policy is the biggest gap. The recent announcement by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly conflates broadcasting policy and cultural policy! Pervasive and ubiquitous digital technology has clearly impacted how culture is produced and consumed. It is defining the very audience and their morphing behavior in relation to arts.
CPAMO: What do you think will change in the cultural sector over the next five years?
ZV: We are living in a very complex times where old narratives are re-emerging in a newer context offering immensely complicated challenges: Climate Change actions; terrorism and war; epidemiology and public health; increased mobility (migrations and refugees); pervasive digital technology and existence of four generations at the same time in history. How can we think through such complex times and issues? Are we to reimagine the old answers to new questions or offer something new and original?
One key fact is that Culture sector will see a substantial overhaul as it will soon be data driven. This will have an impact on multiple fronts ranging from advocacy, production, dissemination, administration and above all the very sustainability of the idea of culture as public good. However, there is an urgency on two fronts. One is to ensure next generation leadership is in place and two, diversity in the leadership.
CPAMO: What might surprise someone to know about you?
ZV: One of the surprises could be that I am an artist, curator and programmer. My works have been shown at MoMA (New York) and Venice Biennale and are in various public and private collections.
In the tumultuous times of the 1980s and 1990s, I have been in the thick of Constitutional reform processes as much as the height of the racial identity politics and the growing impact of the fermenting international trade regimes that forebode challenges to global cultural diversity. I co-founded and co-directed, InVisible Colours (1987–1989), a film and video festival and symposium and school education program, bringing women of colour from 27 countries and showcasing over 100 works. In 1991, in the context of the twin failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, I worked closely with the late Senator Laurier LaPierre on the Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future. During the national debate on Canada’s constitutional arrangement, as the Citizen’s Forum Official Moderator for Vancouver, I facilitated numerous public consultations. Similarly, when the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act 1991, part of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, I was working with the historically significant settlement of the Japanese community in Vancouver located around Powell Street (Japan Town). I aligned myself closely with the Japanese community through my work on the Board of the Powell Street (Japan Town) Festival in Vancouver.
At the same time, I was aware of the Stephen Lewis Report on Yonge Street Riots of 1992 leading to the short lived Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat and began furthering my interventionist advocacy work creating alliances between the communities of colour, black, first nations and LGBTQ. One such manifestation of my work was in the decade long movement in 1990s of anti-racism, progressive left movements, AIDS Activism, Lesbian Gay rights leading to Toronto based Desh-Pardesh festival and subsequent institutionalization of a space for Cultural production for people of colour. My advocacy work will continue as there is an eruption of the concerns of Anti-Racism as seen in the Black Lives Matter and Islamophobia and growing need for institutional responses, including the recent reincarnation of the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat. Despite the status of Women Legislation (1970), through my active engagement with the established alliances, I bore witness to sex workers disappearing from Vancouver in 1990s, as another chapter unfolded in the national tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) highlighting the vulnerability of women to extreme violence. The Strawberry ceremony and rally are important moments of solidarity for MMIW for my work.
The full interview can be seen at CPAMO