Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Personal history gets political

Facebook affiliation leads to art project's cancellation

The Koffler Centre of the Arts, with support from the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), has withdrawn its name and association  — but not its funding — from an offsite installation project by queer Toronto artist Reena Katz and curator Kim Simon due to Katz’s association with the Israeli Apartheid Week. The art project has since collapsed.

Katz and Simon were called into a meeting on May 8 with Koffler executive director Lori Starr and Koffler Gallery curator Mona Philip, where the centre’s decision was announced. “One of us asked ‘Why?’ and I knew, I knew,” says Katz. “Because you don’t get invited to a private meeting with no prior information with the executive director of an organization unless it has to do with Palestine.”

“She said, ‘Reena, someone who’s part of our organization informed us about a link on your Facebook page to the anti-Israeli Apartheid Week,’” says Katz.

Simon was shocked and incredulous. “As a cultural institution who says they stand for dialogue within the Jewish community, this is an opportunity for us to have a conversation,” says Simon. “Reena was very insistent, and she said, ‘Can I talk to your board? Can we have a discussion about this? Let me represent myself.’ And Lori Starr’s response to that was, ‘Now is not the time for dialogue.’”

The meeting ended and despite a tense and emotional discussion the decision stood. Ten minutes later, by the time Simon arrived at Gallery TPW (where she is the curator), a Koffler press release announcing the decision had been emailed to its entire network.

For Starr the issue boils down to what she refers to as core values. “No organization could partner with any individual who works against one of their core values,” she states in an email interview. “Just as an artist is free to express anything that he or she wishes to express, we are free to choose with whom we want to associate, based on our core values.

“When Ms Simon first came to us with the idea of working with Ms Katz over a year ago we were told that she had been critical of Israel. It’s important to understand that being critical of Israel isn’t what prompted our decision. Ms Katz’s public efforts in advocating for the demise of Israel as a Jewish state, including ‘condemning Zionism to the dustbin of history’ clearly runs counter to a core value of the Koffler Centre of the Arts.”

According to Katz the “dustbin of history” phrase was taken out of context. “This is not what I’ve ever said. Basically I had signed a petition in 2005 from Jewish Youth in Canada that was anti-Zionist, and the last sentence is, “we condemn Zionism to the dustbin of history.”)

There is a semantic distinction that needs to be drawn here: anti-Zionism is not anti-Israeli. Anti-Zionism respects the existence of Israel and is, very generally, in opposition to the idea of Israel as a specifically Jewish state. “At our meeting, I didn’t deny that I believed in the extinction of the state of Israel because that’s not  the point,” says Katz. “My attempt to identify with my culture has been a deep commitment. So they’re demonizing me and I’m the wrong person to demonize.”

So what does this all mean? To those who don’t understand the relationship between an institutional gallery and an artist, this all sounds harmless enough: The funding is in place, so surely all of this amounts to removing a logo from a postcard? “By disassociating from the exhibition, we have given the responsibility for the realization of the show to both Ms Katz and Ms Simon,” writes Starr. “The Koffler Centre of the Arts has no interest in shutting down the show, and as far as we know, it is scheduled to continue.”

But a few days before Starr answered my emailed questions Katz and Simon sent out a joint press release announcing the cancellation of their show. For them, the withdrawal of Koffler’s nominal support, combined with their denunciation of Katz as anti-Israel, has meant the disintegration of the entire project.

The installation (which, ironically, doesn’t immediately involve the contemporary state of Israel), titled each hand as they are called, has to do with Jewish immigrant history in Kensington Market and was heavily contingent on local participants: Jewish seniors who now live in Baycrest would interact with students from Ryerson Community Public School; a group of singers would sing Yiddish liturgical music; and a poster series designed by Cecilia Berkovic. The seniors have dropped out because of Baycrest’s relationship with the UJA, the singers’ voice coach has also dropped out because of the ensuing scandal and the posters have long since become irrelevant. Katz was also planning to involve local Jewish businesses and a synagogue, involvements that have been rendered moot without the support of the Koffler.

So while the press release was spun very carefully to avoid the C-word Katz, who has watched a year’s preparation and work crumble as a result, is more pragmatic. “There hasn’t been any component of the project that hasn’t been radically altered by their decision,” she says, “and it’s de facto censorship.”

Starr maintains that this is part and parcel of running an arts institution. “Arts organizations must have policies about how their core values are reflected in their realization of their artistic vision,” she states.

Simon has deeper concerns about the implications of this action. “Artists are vulnerable enough as it is. Aside from the money and the administration, there’s a human level to what the curator’s responsibility is, there is a certain degree of support and protection of the artist and the artist’s work, in terms of upholding its original integrity and that’s been seriously breached here.”