Art Gallery of Mississauga responds to allegations of racism, calls for the gallery to cease operations

 

The Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM) has responded to allegations of racism and bullying, as well as calls from people who identify as former employees to cease operations and replace all operators, staff members and board members. 

Earlier this summer, a website documenting allegations of racism, bullying and harassment at the city-run gallery, along with a petition calling for the temporary cessation of all operations (and the firing of all staff and board members) went live.

According to the people who created the Hold the AGM Accountable website and associated change.org petition, the site and petition were launched after the AGM's former community activator, Sharada Eswar, came forward with allegations of bullying, "patriarchy and white supremacy," and "gaslighting" at the gallery. 

The site also claims that the AGM has caused "significant harm to individuals and communities," alleging that operators have mistreated and harassed Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), showed a lack of leadership and "bad governance," engaged in conflicts of interest, shown a lack of transparency/accountability, and "pretended to care about marginalized communities in Mississauga." 

In a statement posted on its website and social media, the gallery said some allegations were levelled as part of "smear campaign," but added that it will endeavour to address the issues raised "with the time and attention they deserve." 

"The [AGM] acknowledges widespread systemic racism and discrimination as well as oppression in our arts community that has gone on for too long. We are committed to advancing the important dialogue and action for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), 2SLGBTQ+ and those with disabilities with an inclusive platform," the organization wrote. 

"Given the complexity of the issues, the AGM will endeavour to address them with the time and attention they deserve." 

According to the Hold the AGM Accountable website, the board of directors "was given an opportunity to reflect on and address concerns" at its annual general meeting in June and "chose not to do so." 

The group behind the Hold the AGM Accountable website has demanded a "reset" and is calling for all staff to be let go, precariously employed staff to be offered severance equal to them having worked for one year, the resignation of the interim executive director, the disbandment of the current board of directors, the establishment of an advisory community made up of members of the BIPOC community, a new integrity process and more.

The site also calls on donors and funders, such as the City of Mississauga, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts and others to refrain from releasing any further funds to the AGM and recouping funds that have already been provided. 

Insauga.com reached out to the AGM for comment but did not receive a response. 

In a statement, the AGM said that five days prior to the gallery's annual general meeting, former employees "spearheaded a smear campaign" against the gallery.  

"Our investigation has uncovered private human resources information which we cannot discuss or disclose in respect of, and in compliance with privacy laws. We acknowledge an intent to disrupt the annual general meeting of the members of the AGM. We confirm that the AGM has not received, and have not been presented with any official letters or documents by the individuals involved," the gallery wrote. 

The Hold the AGM Accountable website features testimonials from people who allege they were treated poorly or differently while employed by the AGM. One anonymous post, reportedly written by a former staffer, alleges that gallery staff told them to speak more clearly on the phone so that callers could better understand their accent. The same worker also alleges that they were asked to work overtime without pay. 

Another testimonial, written by a former Black and Status First Nations employee named Keisha Erwin, alleges that the interim executive director of the gallery suggested conducting a sage burning to rid the space of negative energy. Erwin said that when she told the director that the suggestion amounted to cultural appropriation and that the gallery should consider an alternative action, she was reportedly told that her alternative solution was "too expensive." 

In a testimonial, Eswar, the former community activator who led the AGM's Border Crossings project, alleged she was forced to abandon the project because of bullying from the gallery's then-treasurer.

In a lengthy post on the Hold the AGM Accountable website, Esar said that after the board of directors assumed leadership at the gallery, she was subjected to "aggressive emails" regarding artist payments, the reported lack of inclusion of European voices in the project and "questions that were beyond the scope of [her] job description and expertise."

"Emails, so aggressive that I began to dread logging into my computer. I was made to feel incompetent, incapable of doing minor tasks correctly and peppered with questions that felt more like inquisitions," she wrote.  

Eswar said that on one occasion, she was asked about a missing camera that she insisted she never bought for the project and was told she would have to file a police report for insurance purposes if she couldn't recover it.

"In spite of me insisting that there was no camera bought, I was repeatedly interrogated, making me feel like a criminal…It reached a point where I began to question my own sanity, my memory, my actions, my thoughts. After much heart wrench and soul searching, I resigned. I left the project and everything that I had worked towards to that point behind." 

Eswar wrote that she felt compelled to share her story after the AGM made a "hypocritical" #BlackOutTuesday post in support of Black Lives Matter on Instagram. 

In the statement posted to its website, the AGM said it has created a public advisory committee in response to the situation.

"We do intend to take thoughtful action for positive change," the gallery wrote, adding that its board is comprised of a "diverse, multicultural group of individuals who are committed to contributing in an equitable and inclusive way." 

The gallery said it has invited members of the public to join its committee, which it says will contribute to the "ongoing process of upholding and growing the mandate of the gallery." 

"We take great pride in our mandate and support access for all. We continue to hire artists for various projects from all communities. We continue to work closely with our benefactors. In 2019 our database indicated hundreds of artists hired from the BIPOC community," the AGM said.

"Our staff database indicates great representation of individuals that are multicultural and inclusive of all people. As well, we continue to increase representation of newcomers to Canada to enhance our learning experiences through our various projects."

The City of Mississauga, which provides space and funding to the AGM, said it's keeping an eye on the situation and working to ensure that the gallery is not in violation of the city's funding terms and conditions.  

It did not signal any intent to pull funding from the gallery at this time but said it is monitoring the controversy. 

“The [AGM] is a separate and autonomous not-for-profit organization with its own board of directors and policies. In keeping with our role as a funder, staff have engaged the gallery’s board leadership on these matters to ensure that the gallery is not in violation of its funding terms and conditions," Sonja Banic, Manager, Culture Services, said in an email to insauga.com.

"The city’s values, policies and commitment to equity, inclusion and the assurance of safe and respectful workplaces are requirements that we demand all of our funded groups to demonstrate and uphold. Our grants team is continuing to monitor this issue and will maintain regular contact with the AGM’s leadership group over the balance of this current funding year.”

According to the gallery's website, the AGM, which is located inside City Hall, is still closed due to COVID-19-related restrictions. 

Cover photo courtesy of the AGM's official Facebook page

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