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Galleries have a role to play

Alica Hall, Executive Director at Nia Centre for the Arts, shares crucial insights about preserving and supporting Black art.

Alica Hall

Alica Hall. Image courtesy of Nia Centre for the Arts 

By Alica Hall, Executive Director, Nia Centre for the Arts

Galleries are not simply spaces for artists to fill, they chronicle our shared history as Canadians. They remind us of people we admire, places we should remember, and moments we do not want to forget. As protests around the world bring issues of police brutality and anti-Black racism to the fore, museums and galleries, like every other sector, are thinking about their role in this social movement. 

As the Executive Director of Nia Centre for the Arts, I have been pushing for greater representation of Black artists in institutions and corporations for years.

Ten years ago, Nia Centre for the Arts was established to address the lack of opportunities for Black artists to show their work and create a safe space for Black youth to explore the arts. By bringing our community together to create and experience artistic traditions, we honour the beauty and struggle of what it means to be Black in Canada. This has been our role in the movement to amplify the voices of our community. To announce we are here—even when nobody else is watching.

Over the years, we have: 

  • Hosted Toronto’s first Black art fair showcasing work from over 24 local visual artists 
  • Worked with established Black curators to present Exposed, an annual exhibition exploring Black subjectivity
  • Commissioned 11 local artists to respond to Now’s the Time, the AGO’s retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work

Now, we’re taking on our most ambitious project yet—renovating our 14,000 sq. ft. facility at 524 Oakwood Ave. Once construction is complete, our space will have transformed into Canada’s first professional, multidisciplinary arts centre dedicated to Black artists and their work. The new Centre will house a multi-use performance space, visual art and recording studios, a digital media lab, event space and exhibition space. 

We recognize that supporting and showcasing Black artists isn’t our work to do alone. Public galleries, including the AGO, play an important role in addressing and advancing conversations about race and representation through the arts. 

Studies show that racialized artists struggle to find space in major art galleries. Despite racialized people making up 28 percent of the population, an analysis of major public art galleries by Canadian Art found that only 11 percent of solo exhibitions centred on non-white artists. 

With every piece of artwork displayed and object collected, galleries make a conscious statement about what we value as a society. If they are not reflecting our stories, they participate in the erasure of Black life.

Being the most prominent gallery in the province, the AGO’s investment in Black artists ensures that visitors can experience works that deepen their understanding of the Black Canadian experience. This kind of support also enables artists to build viable careers. We have lost a whole generation of artists due to the lack of funding, opportunities and investment. 

Public galleries, like parks and other public spaces, play a critical role in shaping the culture of a city. I believe that galleries must move beyond their halls to engage with community members in meaningful ways that deepen our understanding and preserve Black visual culture. 

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