Inclusion in the Creative Workplace: Institutional Diversification

Posted: 16/03/2016 11:32:58 AM by WorkInCulture editor | with 1 comments

All that you touch, You Change.

All that you Change, Changes you.

-Octavia E Butler

My name is Syrus Marcus Ware and I am an arts educator, researcher, artist, and advocate. My work over the past decade has focused on creating active spaces for people to gather and imagine possible futures together. For the past twelve years I’ve done so as the head of the Art Gallery of Ontario Youth Program. In this role, I’ve witnessed the power of bringing together a diverse group of people to create intergenerational projects about social change.  Recently, I returned to school to become a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. My research focuses on marginalized populations working in institutions and educational settings, with a particular interest in the experiences of racialized, transgender, and disabled[1] people in galleries and museums. These sites can seem particularly impenetrable by those who are most in need of social supports, and yet I have witnessed the ways that marginalized people in particular have called for accountability in these sites. I am drawn to Sara Ahmed’s (2012) phenomenological consideration of institutional life, wherein she states that institutional life, or how we experience institutions, is essential to understanding how to shape and change social structures. I like to consider institutions as sites where those on the margins can push for larger social change (for, as Chantal Mouffe (2013) writes, institutions have always been sites of resistance and contestation, ignoring this fact limits movement building within and across institutional walls).

In 2014, I co-authored a chapter with my colleague, Wendy Ng[2], about the colonial legacies of museums and galleries, centering around the experiences of Indigenous and radicalized museum workers, and that called for a diversification of museum sector staff, volunteers, and board members. Our chapter was published in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), and added to a collection of scholarship that called for systemic change. Our chapter addressed the museum as an institution, one rooted in centuries of colonial expansion, collecting, and anthropological framings of racialized and Indigenous communities. Museums and galleries often position themselves as agents of benevolence, spaces of rejuvenation, of historical fact and of neutrality. We challenge this perception in our work by addressing the need for diversification and critical understandings of race, gender, class, disability, and other experiences of marginalization with the museum sector.  In particular, we call for a new era in museum life, one that embraces the diversity of Canada. In this new era, diversification would be a top-down internal process that would see the diversification of boards, senior management, staff, and volunteers, rather than simply courting a more diverse set of visitors. Who will lead these changes? We believe that it will need a broad investment, but that those who have traditionally not been represented in the arts sector are perhaps in the best place to articulate what is missing and what might be needed to reverse this trend.  Social constructions of difference intersect, and it is from this place that we are at our most powerful to resist marginalization. We can come together to redefine, reclaim, and re-remember the beauty of a diverse human existence.  We can change spaces to be more reflective of our communities.

I’m a big science fiction geek. In 2005, I had the opportunity to sit down with Octavia E. Butler to discuss her work and artistic legacy. Like so many, I was drawn to the “Earthseed” passages in Parable of the Sower (1993). We talked about her now famous quote, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you”. I would like to consider this idea in context of institutional diversification. As we work to make sense of the changing face of museums, galleries, and other public gathering places, we need to allow ourselves to get immersed in this culture. To touch them, and change them. And that by doing so, we are changing ourselves, and gaining information, connections, and resources to carry us forward into the next era together.

[1] Drawing on the Social Model of Disability, I am intentionally using the language ‘disabled people’ created within disability communities- designed to re-centre and celebrate human difference.

[2] Thank you to Wendy Ng for her suggestions and feedback on this blog post!


Ahmed, Sara. On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press, 2012.

Butler, Octavia E. "Parable of the Sower. 1993." New York: Grand Central (2000).

Mouffe, Chantal. “Institutions as Sites of Agnostic Intervention”. Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World. (Gielen, Pascal, Eds.) 2013.

Ng, Wendy and Ware, Syrus Marcus. “Excellence and Equity?: A Reflection on the Diversification of Museums”. Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, (Editors: Acuff and Evans) AltaMira Press, 2014.

Syrus is a visual artist, activist, curator and educator. He is the Coordinator of the Art Gallery of Ontario Youth Program. As a visual artist, Syrus works within the mediums of painting, installation and performance to explore social justice frameworks and activist culture. His work has been shown widely, including at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Art Gallery of York University and The Gladstone Hotel. Syrus’ recent curatorial projects include The Church Street Mural Project (Church-Wellesley Village, 2013), That’s So Gay: On the Edge (Gladstone Hotel, 2014) and Re:Purpose (Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2014).

He is part of the PDA (Performance Disability Art) Collective and co-programmed Crip Your World: An Intergalactic Queer/POC Sick and Disabled Extravaganza as part of Mayworks 2014. Syrus is part of Blackness Yes! and produces Blockorama at Pride and other related events throughout the year. For the past 15 years, Syrus has hosted the weekly radio segment, “Resistance on the Sound Dial” on CIUT 89.5FM. Syrus was voted “Best Queer Activist” by NOW Magazine (2005) and was awarded the Steinert and Ferreiro Award for LGBT community leadership and activism (2012).  In 2009, Syrus coedited the Journal of Museum Education issue Building Diversity in Museums with Gillian McIntyre. Syrus’ writings on trans health, disability studies and activism are part of curricula at City University of New York, York, and Ryerson. Syrus holds degrees in Art History, Visual Studies and a Masters in Sociology and Equity Studies, University of Toronto.  Syrus is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.

Rana Khan
Bravo! Well- written piece about an issue seldom thought of in context of museums.I also loved that quote myself!
22/03/2016 10:50:01 AM

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