Friday, August 7, 2009

Update: Koffler Controversy Both Calms and Continues

Kudos to Murray Whyte for breaking the news last week on his blog that "Reena Katz and the Koffler Centre have come to some sort of agreement following the debacle that preceded the opening of Katz's project each hand as they are called."

As previously discussed here and elsewhere, this controversy began whenKoffler Centre, a Jewish cultural organization, pulled out of a project with Katz just weeks before it was to launch in the spring. Their rationale: that Katz, as a Jewish person who questions Israel's actions in Palestine, is unsupportable by virtue of the centre's mission, in which "Israel's wellbeing and existence as a Jewish state is a core value".

At first it seemed as if the events reported on by Whyte, which were followed up by an article in the Star, heralded a form of resolution between Katz and the Koffler—mainly evinced by an announcement that the project is going ahead this fall after all. That resolution seems to have dovetailed with some actions by the Toronto Arts Council, which took interest in the controversy given that they are a funder of the Koffler Centre, and that the Koffler's actions may have contravened the TAC's anti-discrimination policies around the right to freedom of political association.

However, in the days that have followed this positive news, more opportunities for fractiousness have arisen—it seems that each "side" on this conflict is jockeying for the "We won" position, and is upset that the other is doing so. As Adam McDowell at the National Post reported yesterday,

Katz and Simon’s statement [available here on Facebook] said the TAC had “determined that the Koffler was in violation of the City of Toronto’s non-discrimination policy regarding an individual’s right to freedom of political association.” However, council executive director Claire Hopkinson would not confirm or deny that it had censured the Koffler Centre, and Starr’s statement claimed victory, reading, “We are pleased that the TAC affirmed the Koffler’s right to choose with whom it partners.”

This prompted a statement of frustration by Kim Simon--in a Facebook status update, she wrote that she's currently "very confused why TAC will not confirm for the media the decision they shared with us openly. I think you should all contact Claire Hopkinson and ask, as TAC has invited individual inquiries -"

To add more weirdness to the events, the Star today ran a statement from Koffler Centre director Lori Starr stating that "The Koffler Centre of the Arts deeply values its partnership with the Toronto Arts Council. We continue to aspire to be a centre of artistic excellence and experimentation while at the same time remaining true to our core values as a Jewish cultural institution that welcomes and inspires all." (The statement is in a small item in print -- I couldn't find it online for linking.)

Granted, this more recent "post-resolution" conflict is much tamer than the one that came before it. But it still makes me wonder what exactly will come of all this—both for this individual project and for other cultural institutions.

As I've blogged previously, I think that cultural institutions do discriminate on the basis of political views quite a bit—it's just that this discrimination tends to happen quietly, at a very early stage in the curatorial process, before any contracts have been signed. And I'm not sure that any action by the TAC can realistically change that early-winnowing-period practice, except by mandating that institutions exhibit artists with range of political viewpoints—a mandate difficult if not impossible to enforce. It can definitely take action, as it has here, in instances when that process becomes more visible at a later stage in the process. But early on, it's difficult to gauge discrimination—and have it slip under the radar.

Further, the reason the Koffler instance has come under (much-deserved) scrutiny is that they were well aware of Katz's political views prior to signing the contracts with her. It was only at the last minute that they pulled out of the arrangement, after all the festival brochures had been printed and distributed, and the event promoted, and even given props, by the media—producing pretty much the definition of an unprofessional, unclassy, stupid, bridge-burning act. Also, as I've noted previously, many of the artists the Koffler has exhibited in the past are people with liberal viewpoints who are quite conceivably critical of lsraeli politics—just, perhaps, not as vocal about it as Katz. Is the Koffler here simply instituting the equivalent of a "don't ask, don't tell" curatorial policy? Curious, indeed.

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