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Interview with Karen Carter, executive director of MacLaren Arts Centre

In February, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship celebrated the impact and accomplishments of Black Canadians in a series of enhanced citizenship ceremonies held virtually in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and the Atlantic Provinces. Arts leader Karen Carter joined us for our virtual ceremony on February 19.

Carter is the executive director of MacLaren Arts Centre in Barrie, Ont. She is the former executive director of Heritage Toronto, a City of Toronto agency responsible for the education and promotion of Toronto’s heritage. She is the founding executive director of Myseum of Toronto and co-founder and director of Black Artists’ Network and Dialogue (BAND), the organization dedicated to the promotion of Black arts and culture in Canada and abroad. She is also the founder and creative director of C-Art a Caribbean Art Fair launched in January 2020 in Mandeville, Jamaica.

Following the ceremony, we spoke with her about arts and culture, community, and what Black History Month means to her.

Why do you think arts and culture is so important to you, personally, and to society in general?
I firmly believe that arts and culture is one of the most effective ways to help make the world a better place through informal education. And I think from a very early age, I knew I wanted to work in some capacity in the arts. For me, it’s all about essentially the soft power impact of arts and culture in helping to create spaces for difficult conversations, helping to create moments of enlightenment and joy, and helping to create opportunities for people to gather.

I think one of the things I said that I love about this country [during the citizenship ceremony] is that it is this experiment on how to become better, and do better. I think the more diverse the moments that allow people to come to those difficult conversations in ways that are accessible, the better. And I think that our societies need that in order to be really sophisticated and whole. If you don’t have the arts, you are missing a part of the human condition. So, for me, the choice to be able to do this kind of work is a privilege because it is a way that you influence people’s lives both in the short term and long term if you do what you do well.

You gain a sense of belonging when you understand what you are belonging to.

What role do you think arts and culture can have in fostering belonging?
I think within the Canadian landscape, the belonging — and I think we have started to do this post-Canada 150 — is really making it a core part of arts and culture spaces to connect more with our Indigenous roots. I think you gain a sense of belonging when you understand what you are belonging to. I think more work has started been done, and obviously more work has to be done, to really understand who we are as a country and creating opportunities for Canadian artists to be a part of that. That understanding is partly about understanding the complex relationships we have with our Indigenous communities and then through that, we start to understand the complexities of the broader narrative around Canadian culture and identity. Even things like the land acknowledgment, you get up in the morning and this land that you stand on in this country that is still trying to find its way is stolen Indigenous land. You deal with that reality and it’s then how do we start to move forward in a way we pay homage and respect, but also pull in those communities in their authentic voices. That is almost a roadmap for how to then go further in that broader understanding of all of these people from all over the world that came here be it 400 years ago, 200 years ago, or last week and have made this country home and contributed to it in so many different ways. I think understanding the history helps us to understand the present and helps us to gain a true sense of what belonging to this country means. 

Can you talk a bit about the work that you have done with Heritage Toronto and now at MacLaren to make arts and culture more inclusive?
For me, the lessons learned and the work that I did at Heritage Toronto around heritage education and supporting advocacy in the community reinforced for me the importance of understanding history in how you then develop whatever you are doing with arts and culture. For instance, right now at the MacLaren, the first project I am working on is a public art projection project. Some of that is announcing my tenure in the institution as the new ED and also to take the preciousness out of art.

For me there is a juxtaposition between understanding the history, which gives you a sense of the community that you are in, and then starting to make choices around how you present, collaborate, and partner to do your work as an arts organization that is a balance of those communities. Not every community is going to come into their interest in culture in the same way, but your responsibility as a culture leader is to try and do as much as you can to serve all the audiences.

I am really excited at the opportunity to make it feel accessible, not precious or intimidating.

Given your focus on highlighting diverse voices throughout your career, what advice do you have for institutions who may be looking at doing this work for the first time?
I remember when we started Myseum of Toronto, the idea was that the museum belongs to you and the museum belongs to community, and if the community has a sense of ownership to it, it de facto pulls the organization back to the ground. I think what has been the Achilles heel for most institutions is this idea of ‘if you build it they will come’. So, we build this big edifice and do all this stuff in the building and we are seeing no one is coming and they weren’t coming before COVID, let’s be truthful. So, I think the core lesson for me both in things that I have done at BAND or the work at Myseum, even the playbook for how I am approaching life at the MacLaren, is to leave your institution, go out into your community, be open to what that meeting may lead you to because if you go out, they will come in.

I think we need to spend more time out in the community and it isn’t even about having a program that you have developed, it is just go meet with people and say ‘hey, here is what we are doing, I am curious about what you are doing.’ Listen more and talk less. Don’t go feeling like you have to have something to ask or some idea in mind, just be open to the initial introduction and then see where the relationship goes. It is kind of like dating, you meet people, you don’t start planning the wedding the minute you meet them.

Leave your institution, go out into your community…because if you go out, they will come in.

You created BAND (Black Artists’ Network and Dialogue) to promote Black arts and culture in Canada and overseas. Has the way the work of the organization is received changed over the years?
The goal with BAND was how do we create space for artists to be artists. It was how do you create something to support Black Canadian artists so that they can develop and then hopefully get more of a space on the international landscape. For a lot of us who live and work in the diaspora across the globe as Black folks and as people of African descent, and as even people on the continent, there is always this balancing, this pushing back against Americanness that Black identity is so inextricably linked to. Living adjacent to that machine and the way it presents culture, there is always a balance that you got to find to make space for your little voice.

I do think right now, with everything that has happened, what has occurred for BAND is it’s kind of heightened our ability to be a place to push and share information. I think after 10 years, the gallery as a space and the things that we do there and the partnerships locally and internationally are in a good rhythm and now it’s like how do we take that creative capital we’ve built and that credibility and see how we can help move the needle forward. Like how do we help others develop other spaces across Canada because we don’t want to be the only ones. It would be nice to have a bit of a circuit, so can we get a gallery space out west, can we make sure there is something in Montreal? How do we use that knowledge and that credibility that we have to help cultivate opportunities for a national Black cultural landscape to be developed?

What does Black History Month mean to you?
I am actually less interested in the month on its own and more how the month promotes a curiosity for citizens about other citizens. For me any history month is really about using that month to punctuate a particular moment and it hopefully influences a seed that might be planted. Something that you were introduced to may then lead you to say ‘what can I do as a co-conspirator or advocate to dismantle racism’. Or ‘what little thing am I going to do to make sure that my kids are not going to end up hearing about this for the first time as adults.’

For me, the month itself has become really important and powerful because it influences what someone might learn that impacts how they then walk through life throughout the whole year. The understanding around the Black cultural community issues just helps you be more empathetic around any racialized community’s issues. It helps you think “oh, this is how I am approaching Black issues, I might be more comfortable and curious about Indigenous issues or issues to do with the Jewish community’.

I also think Black History Month in Canada is important to just root it here. The good thing about what Jean Augustine did in making it a Canadian thing is it started to push the conversation around not just American references, but about Canadian references. Like who is the Canadian Rosa Parks, and then you have the conversation about Viola Desmond.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.