Moving Arts Leadership Towards Equity
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
by Lisa Mackay
In 2021, the Rozsa Foundation Arts Leadership programs underwent a substantial evaluation and shift in content, the roots of which lead back to 2020 when Arts Leadership Director Geraldine Ysselstein took over the REAL program. The global events that followed reinforced the need for substantial changes in our approach to arts leadership training. “It became obvious during the pandemic, the social reckoning of Black Lives Matter, and discovering thousands of graves of Indigenous children, that leadership in the arts would require a change in perspective and a willingness to engage in the important discussions happening in the community,” she said. Geraldine also realized that to bring these important discussions into the Rozsa Foundation’s professional development programs, she would have to engage deeply with them herself as a white female settler.
Geraldine reached out to several leaders in the arts community to create what she termed a “Faculty Advisory Team” to help her guide the content and facilitators of the Rozsa Executive Arts Leadership (REAL) program. “I wanted this group to provide context of arts and society from a bird’s eye view,” she explained. “They are artists, creatives, change-makers, historians, activists, researchers, and arts leaders within the community. When this team gathers, they are focused on building relationships, sharing, uplifting, and leading by example.”
She deliberately approached three individuals for whom she had great respect, who had been involved in the 2020 session of REAL. It was important to Geraldine that they be Indigenous, Black, and a Person of Colour. “I was very forthright and said, I am inviting you because you are IBPOC, because you are an artist, because artists are changemakers, because I respect your leadership in community, and because other arts leaders need to hear from you.” Cheryl Foggo, Jared Tailfeathers, and Su Ying Strang all agreed to join the group, which began meeting in October 2020.
“I had met each of them in different places for different reasons as part of my arts management journey in Calgary,” Geraldine elaborated. “ I had engaged with each of them, I respected them, and I continued to stay connected with them. Creating an advisory team was an opportunity to bring those experiences and relationships together and connect them with each other too.”
Having these diverse voices helping to advise her was paramount to Geraldine. “Perspectives, and the weaving of our narratives matters to me, and I think they are necessary to create a new and different narrative,” she explained. “By making Jared, Cheryl, and Su Ying’s voices a priority and creating meaningful space for them, I learned so much and gained a new awareness that I brought into everything I did.”
Each [Zoom] meeting begin with lengthy personal land acknowledgements, followed by a lengthy personal arts experience each member had recently experienced, and their thoughts about it. “After investing the time into these areas”, she said, “the decisions we had come together to make were easy and quick. The quality and depth of the decisions, and the resulting REAL program components, were really built through the first two conversations; where you ground yourselves and each other on the land, and in the art, and find a shared trust. From this solid place we are able to see a path for arts leadership and the REAL program.”
The meetings gave Geraldine an opportunity to become more comfortable with new concepts. At first, she said, the personal land acknowledgements seemed difficult, but she was able to practice them with the group, and build up her skills and understanding of them and their importance. This translated into the REAL program, where the personal land acknowledgements at the start of each session had a powerful impact on the REAL 2021 participants, who will now also be able to carry on this practice in their own careers and lives.
Geraldine also discovered the importance of humility and curiosity in the success of the team meetings. She saw the three other members as experts, and tried to listen deeply, learn, and work to understand the things she was hearing. This took a lot of energy, or as she said “mental, emotional, and spiritual labour,” as she practiced this at every meeting and developed with each experience.
The results of regular meetings with the Faculty Advisory Team went far beyond the REAL program; such a shift in perspective cannot be contained to one area. Both the Rozsa Arts Fundamentals Training (RAFT) and Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) were altered and expanded, and facilitators like Kodie Rollan, Toyin Oladele, Hunter Cardinal, and Mary Tidland were brought in. Staff meetings and strategic discussions at the Rozsa Foundation itself were transformed, and began with long personal land acknowledgements. "We certainly recognize that as a Foundation we're on this journey of learning around equity and reconciliation alongside the arts community," observed Executive Director Simon Mallett, "and to find ways to incorporate the learnings and practices happening with Arts Leadership programs and planning meetings into our own team dynamics has helped us to center this work in our organization."
Although Su Ying Strang has since moved to Lethbridge to become the Executive Director of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and is on a hiatus from the group, they continue to meet to discuss ways of incorporating the positive practices they co-discovered. “Taking the first action was actually the most difficult step in this process,” muses Geraldine. “After that, its about committing fully and be willing to follow the process wherever it takes you. Cheryl, Su Ying, Jared and I did the deep work in 2021, and set the foundation for us to continue collaborating and improving in so many ways. I am most excited about the work that is yet to come!”