Haema Sivanesan is one of the senior-most curators in Canada. She has been working as a curator in museums, at festivals, non-profit and independent contexts for more than 25 years. She is now Chief Curator at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A CURATOR?
To curate literally means “to care”. Most of my curatorial work is centred on the work of immigrant and diasporic artists who are asking questions about identity, society, history, histories of colonialism and their relationship to Canada as a place that is at once “home” and unhomely.
I think of my work as two-fold: being a practice of caring for “culture”, meaning forms of artistic production as it reflects upon and inquiries into contemporary life and experience, and as a practice of thinking with artists.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW A CAREER IN ARTS WAS FOR YOU?
It was just my luck that I was able to steer my professional degree in architecture into a career as a museum curator. It’s still the only career that I want to have.
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME A CURATOR?
I trained as an architect, but realized mid-way through my degree that my interests and strengths were in the area of architectural history and theory. I was particularly interested in Hindu and Buddhist architecture of South and Southeast Asia and was looking for a way to make that the area of my work.
In the midst of all that thinking, I was offered a position in the Asian Art Department at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
I started there as a research assistant working on a very large exhibition of Indian art for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. I was eventually offered a curatorial position, and have built my career from there.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES PEOPLE OF COLOUR FACE IN THE ARTS?
A former Director of the BC Arts Alliance, Mo Dhaliwal commented a while ago on the problem of tokenism in diversity and inclusion committees, where POC are invited to participate on these committees with the tacit expectation that they remain agreeable with the status quo. This is the larger reality in the arts. Unfortunately, colluding with the status quo won’t affect the changes that are very much needed for POC to succeed and lead.
The issue of unconscious bias as a systemic issue is barely discussed. I don’t believe that there are robust enough anti-oppression and supportive management practices in place to properly support POC in arts institutions.
The question that you ask is complicated by the fact that we work in culture, and many of us as POC are examining issues of identity, race, immigration, diaspora — and therefore, trauma — in our work, but we are doing so within the colonialist structures of arts institutions.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY AT GLENBOW LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The Glenbow is undergoing a major renovation and transformation, so the work day is not very “typical” for anyone at the museum this time. But add in the pandemic and it has been a strange time to start a new job.
My responsibilities essentially encompass setting the artistic and curatorial direction for the renovated museum, building and managing a curatorial team, strategically building the Glenbow’s collections, developing and managing exhibitions, and supporting various aspects of fundraising and donor-giving related to art work acquisitions.
My days include an interesting variety of things from delivering talks and jurying a competition to grant writing, and meet and greets.
WHO ARE SOME ARTISTS IN THE SOUTH ASIAN COMMUNITY THAT YOU ARE KEEPING AN EYE ON?
Having worked in Toronto for a number of years, I really miss being immersed in a diverse and vibrant, urbane South Asian cultural scene. I have just not found anything like it anywhere else in Canada.
Most recently, I have been working on a long-term project with South Asian-Canadian artist, Leila Sujir, who is a professor at Concordia University, Montreal. The project will ultimately result in the creation of a 3D stereoscopic video installation that looks at the South Walbran forest as a “contact zone” between South Asian and First Nation communities. Leila is a senior artist in Canada, whose work has explored issues of immigration and race by way of autobiography.
WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR PEOPLE INTERESTED IN PURSUING A CAREER IN THE ARTS?
The professional field is very competitive and precarious. Be prepared for low pay, poor management practices, racism and various barriers. I know that does not sound very encouraging, but unfortunately that is the reality. It’s a consequence of working in an “elite” field.