I take no pleasure in realizing the unpleasant aspects of something I’d otherwise be very proud of. In this case, the object of pride is the nearly finished Remai Modern, in Saskatoon, my hometown. The latter fact makes it especially important that I stop short of supporting the new gallery and highlight the original sin it has recently committed.
The Remai is an unequivocally positive architectural contribution to Saskatoon. A low-lying stack of elongated rectangles clad in glass and metal scrims, the gallery – set to open in 2017 – appears as a distant cousin to Manhattan’s New Museum and the Whitney. The Remai will replace the Mendel, which had inhabited an understated Modernist gem on the city’s west riverbank, since 1964. The new building represents Saskatoon making a collective decision to welcome versions of art and culture from a spectrum of perspectives wider than its own city limits. Unfortunately, the gallery’s board has committed a bafflingly self-destructive gaffe, and is now tightly ensnared in a predicament of its own making – albeit one with a clear solution.
The Remai Modern’s mission statement, to facilitate “transformative experiences by connecting art with local and global communities,” is laudable. Already, though, it hasn’t been upheld. This is evidenced by the gallery’s insipid response to the offensive actions of Remai board member John Gormley, a local radio celebrity appointed to the board in March 2015. In November, following the massacres in Paris, Gormley took to Twitter, writing: “Me: Next guy in a Western democracy who chants ‘Allah Ahkbar’ we shoot. Wife: Don’t be this way #Angry.” Shortly, two petitions insisted that Gormley be removed. In an open letter, artist and former Mendel artist-in-residence Adrian Stimson made his own request for the pundit’s removal, rightly pointing out that although Gormley’s “on-air persona is meant to promote dialogue,” he had gone too far. Additionally, Gormley’s alma matter and part-time employer, the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan, publicly distanced itself from him, declaring that his comments directly contradict the ethos of their department – a place that “people can enter ‘from many doors’ and where people can build, rather than tear down, the foundations of community.” The Remai should have demonstrated an equal commitment to its own ideals.
After a meeting in December, where Gormley was present, council directed the board to investigate the complaint under the city’s policies on code of conduct for directors and anti-harassment. On February 11, this third-party committee found that Gormley had not violated its code of ethics, because “the scope of the codes and policy only applies to the actions of individuals when acting in their role as a director.” This rationale does not align with the board’s own description of Gormley’s role within it, specifically Alain Gaucher’s comment in December that “John Gormley’s experience as a lawyer, policy-maker, and journalist contributes to the work of our board.” Reading Gaucher’s statement, it’s reasonable to deduce that Gormley’s role on the board extends, by design, into his work a public figure. Neither Gaucher, nor a third-party committee, enjoy the right to retroactively alter this fact.
Stimson pointed out that retaining Gormley would surely damage the gallery’s reputation both locally and internationally, before it had even opened its doors. As a member of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation working in a place where racism towards First Nations peoples runs deep, Stimson’s understanding of the xenophobia informing Gormley’s comments must be acute. Stimson went further, generously handing the board – which is uniformly white – a suggestion both reasonable and easy to implement: extend an olive branch to Saskatoon’s minority communities by replacing Gormley with a person of Muslim or Indigenous heritage. The board declined his offer in a virtuosic display of bureaucratic deflection, offering to continue discussions on the matter before reminding the public of the valuable contributions represented by Gormley’s legal, bureaucratic, and journalistic talents. Does the Remai’s board believe that there is not a single lawyer, politician, or journalist in Saskatoon of First Nations or Muslim background who might be up to the job?
As should happen, there has been debate over whether Gormley’s remark constitutes hate speech. Speaking to the CBC, Criminal lawyer David Butt pointed out that the tweet may be defensible against such accusations, because it’s written as a dialogue between two people, with Gormley expressing an incitement to violence, and his wife condemning it. This point is useful in illuminating Gormley’s sophistication as a rhetorician, though it doesn’t absolve his sentiment. Being a lawyer and public commentator, Gormley understands perfectly how to guard himself against repercussions – it’s a simple matter of laundering hatred through rhetorical devices, in this case literal double speak.
The gallery’s failure to live up to their own mission statement extends to the uniformly white complexion of their appointed board. As abhorrent as explicitly violent racism is the insidious effect of institutional racism: “racial discrimination that has become established as normal behavior within a society or organization.” Recently, in the United States, the meaning of the term white supremacism has undergone a drastic evolution. It’s now understood that this term extends to the systematic prevention of visible minorities from accessing positions of power. It’s a moot point whether this process appears intentional or not. Human beings are susceptible to cognitive bias, a process whereby we lose sight of the variables that inform our decisions. It follows that institutional racism is often maintained by people who may not even realize what they are doing. With this in mind, defenders of the gallery’s decision to keep Gormley on its board would do well to consider the implications of this penetrating observation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz: “white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”
The same people may recall a comment made by Joni Mitchell, who was raised in Saskatoon. Speaking to the city’s Star Phoenix in 2013, she said, “Saskatoon has always been an extremely bigoted community. It’s like the Deep South, and the [Mendel Art Gallery] was one thing I thought would be beneficial for people.” Readers of this article, some of whom I will know from the two decades I spent in Saskatoon, may interpret this quotation as an irresponsible slag. Unfortunately, the lackadaisical acceptance of Gormley’s incitement to violence corroborates Mitchell’s words. All of Gormley’s positions of employment remain intact, and the small burst of community outrage has largely dimmed. It’s my wish that the city’s community – and that of our larger artworld – muster sufficient courage to stand behind their new gallery’s mission, so that statements like Mitchell’s might no longer deliver the sting of truth.
Am I am being sensational? It’s hard to imagine that those impacted by the multiple attacks on Muslim people in Canada since November would think so. On November 14, in Peterborough Ontario, a Mosque was firebombed. On November 16, in Toronto, a Muslim woman was beaten as her attackers spewed racial slurs. At the University of Toronto, on November 19, a man reported being spat at and directed to remove his turban – which was in fact a topi. Consider also the two women in Toronto, who on November 18 reported being verbally assaulted in a transit train with accusations that they were terrorists, or the woman in Ottawa, who on the same day found a note in her mailbox telling her to “go back home.” On the other hand, it is likely that Gormley would find a supporter in the young man in Quebec who, the same week, took to YouTube to announce that he and a group of ten allies would be taking to the streets in order to systematically kill Muslim people. If we extend our frame of reference to include recent events in the American South – not only Charleston, but the seven African American churches burnt during one ten-day storm of racism this past summer – nauseating implications appear. Gormley’s tweet, and the defenses it has enjoyed, are most disturbing for the possibilities they represent – possibilities that have already become realities, elsewhere.
In discussion forums online, the only problem that one supporter found with Gormley’s statements was that he apologized (equivocally, it should be noted, saying that he was sorry if he had offended anyone). Another person openly mocked Stimson’s suggestion that a Muslim or Indigenous person be appointed in Gormley’s place. The link between Gormley’s statements and the racism of his audience is clear, if not demonstrably causative. Just as clear is the significant overlap between Gormley supporters and the substantial portion of Saskatoon’s population who oppose the gallery’s construction. Gormley’s real function on the board is to curry favor with these people. It follows that the Remai’s board faces a decision. Do they appease a population already hostile to the gallery’s existence, or implement Stimson’s suggestion, and in so doing live up to the ideals they have already put in writing?
The workable answer to this question hangs in plain view. All the board has to do is respect the group of people whom Gormley – and the gallery in defending him – has offended most, the Muslim and Indigenous populations of Saskatoon. These are people whom, despite the malignant sentiments they receive and observe on a daily basis, have not resorted to expressing their frustrations through the violent rhetoric that Gormley didn’t resist. The Remai can achieve this modest reparation by enacting Adrian Stimson’s suggestion. In doing this now, they will have to carry around some mild embarrassment, and absorb the blowback that Gormley’s supporters will surely deliver. But this is far better than operating on a daily basis, knowing that they have made a false promise out of their admirable mandate. Given their inability to arrive at this conclusion on their own, it’s obvious that the Remai’s board should be taking advice from anyone other than John Gormley. In failing to respond to the poisonous rhetoric of one of its own members, the board has also set a precedent of sheltering violent and alienating vitriol. This is how Canada’s most exciting new public gallery risks failing in its ambition to be a “world-class” institution, before opening its doors.