Indigenous Art Curator Wanda Nanibush Leaves Art Gallery of Ontario, Prompting Questions

Wanda Nanibush is no longer the curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto.

The museum confirmed that Nanibush had recently departed her position at the museum after “seven incredibly productive years” but did not provide a reason to ARTnews.

“Incorporating historical narratives that have been long excluded in institutions like the AGO is very hard work,” AGO director and CEO Stephan Jost said in a statement emailed to ARTnews. “In coming to this mutual decision with Wanda, we acknowledge her monumental leadership and vision and are deeply grateful for everything she accomplished.”

Related Articles

Kaleb Suedfeld sit in front of the Tom Thomson painting Northern River at the National Gallery of Canada. The On2Ottawa group member is wearing a bright pink shirt and reads from a piece of paper while his right hand is glued to the gallery

Climate Protestor Smears Pink Paint on Tom Thomson Painting at National Gallery of Canada

Jean-François Belisle Named New Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada

Last week, Jost emailed AGO staff a memo, which has been circulating online, about Nanibush leaving the museum, calling her work invaluable and acknowledging their frank discussions. “One of the many things I always heard from Wanda was her honesty, which at times resulted in difficult conversations, including in the last few weeks,” Jost wrote. “Incorporating historical narratives that have been long excluded in institutions like the AGO is very hard work, but she unswervingly inserted Indigenous art and artists, with grace, honesty and pride – which has changed our sense of history and our collective future at the museum.”

A report from The Globe and Mail, which first reported the news of Nanibush’s departure, described the exit as a mutual decision after “years of outspokenness that caused friction with some at the gallery and in the arts community – which came to a head with the Israel-Hamas war.”

Nanibush joined the museum in 2016 as its inaugural curator of Indigenous art. A celebrated Anishinaabe curator, Nanibush was the co-head of the AGO’s Indigenous and Canadian Art department and co-authored the book Moving the Museum: Indigenous + Canadian Art at the AGO (2023), which won the Toronto Book Award last month. She was also a jurist for the 2023 Sobey Art Award, Canada’s top art prize worth $100,000 Canadian dollars ($80,000 USD).

On November 16, Toronto arts journalist Radheyan Simonpillai posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) that Nanibush’s page on AGO’s website had been removed.

A letter sent by the Toronto-based organization Israel Museum and Arts, Canada (IMAAC) to the AGO on October 16 has also been leaked online, sparking concerns that Nanibush’s public support of Palestinian causes may have contributed to her departure from the museum.

The letter from IMAAC alleges that Nanibush posted “inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.” After it was leaked online, the letter was verified by the Globe and Mail and Hyperallergic.

The letter was signed by Sara Angel, a former arts journalist and editor who is now the founder, publisher and executive director of the Art Canada Institute, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Toronto.

Pearl Berman, the executive director of IMAAC, told the Globe and Mail in an email statement that the letter did not call for Nanibush’s departure from the AGO but a push for “substantive” training on antisemitism.

One source with knowledge of the reasons for Nanibush’s departure told Globe reporter Josh O’Kane that the letter did not play a role in the decision for her exit from the AGO and disagreed with some of its contents.

IMAAC was formerly known as Canadian Friend of the Israel Museum. Its stated mission is to support the Jerusalem institution and its programming, as well as Israeli grassroots arts organizations.

Nanibush’s support for Palestine included recent social media posts, all of which appear to have been deleted, as well as a 2016 feature for Canadian Art magazine where she linked the experience of Indigenous peoples living in Canada to that of Palestinians. “Colonization marks a before and after where identity is radically altered by loss,” Nanibush wrote.

The departure of Nanibush from the AGO marks the third loss of an Indigenous curator from major Canadian arts institutions in recent years, many of them under concerning circumstances despite increased efforts to work with Indigenous artists and curators.

In July 2020, Lucy Bell stepped down from her position as the head of First Nations Department and Repatriation Program at the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives in Victoria. An investigation later confirmed her accusations of racism and discrimination as well as prompted the resignation of Indigenous collections curator, Troy Sebastian.

Last November, Greg Hill lost his job as the Audain senior curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa after a sudden restructuring. Hill had worked at the gallery for 22 years and was its first Indigenous curator. He was laid off along with three other senior staffers, including chief curator Kitty Scott.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *