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Q&A: Kenneth Moffatt on the importance of highlighting art for and by those from marginalized communities

The Ryerson University sociology professor is the 2018 Jack Layton Chair of Social Justice—and he has big plans for the role

RM Vaughan


Photo courtesy of Ryerson University.

Kenneth Moffatt is the 2018 Jack Layton Chair of Social Justice. That sounds fancy, and it is. Appointed across the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Community Services, the Chair emphasizes the causes of the late NDP leader, and works “to effect progressive social change.” But to many Torontonians, especially those of us in the queer arts worlds, Moffatt is simply Kenny, the Ryerson University social work professor who curates and contributes to art exhibitions: shows (to list a few) about troublesome masculinities, punk rock graphics, the unreliability of institutions, fatherhood, and bears-and-moose Canadiana (deeply queered Canadiana). And by “curate,” I mean he actually hangs the work himself and brings a box of wine for the opening. When Moffatt finds himself in an ivory tower, he burns it down.

As the Layton Chair’s first artist-curator, Moffatt has given himself a challenging task. He plans to support artistic endeavours that highlight the lives and struggles of marginalized peoples. So far, so sociologically/Community Art standard. Except, Moffatt wants the works to be both about and—here’s the important part—driven by the subjects. As he told me recently, “I’m tired of going to social work art shows where the people actually in the photos or who made the work are invisible. Curators, people like me, we get plenty of air time.”

His first project was a sponsored screening of Hugh Gibson’s documentary The Stairs, a film about addiction harm-reduction strategies and how they are applied in marginalized communities. The talk after the screening was lead by the people portrayed, not outside experts. That’s Moffatt in a nutshell.

This Magazine spoke to Moffatt about his new role and his plans for it.

How did you become the Layton Chair, and what did you understand about it before you took the position? 

I am thrilled to be in this position! I highly respect the two previous chairs for their sharp social critique and interest in supporting others’ voices. I understood the position to be aspirational in nature—that is, to encourage students in social justice to re-imagine the interface between community and university. And of course, the Chair recognizes the legacy of Jack Layton, who taught politics at Ryerson and was a very dynamic, engaged educator.

Your focus so far has been to let people who are involved with/clients of social work to speak for themselves. Isn’t it weird that we’ve come to the point where having actual clients speak is considered unusual?

This is still very much a struggle. In the stranglehold of neoliberalism, the voice of service users is obscured. There is a move in social work to [become akin to] managerial duties, thus leading to “outcome measures” and data collection. There is a push to technologize measurements of a person’s worth, which leads to reductive measuring of the service user’s life. More than ever, we need to figure out how to free up and hear service-users voices.

You have been involved with projects that entwine art and social justice work/social work for years. What have you learned from these projects, and how will that learning inform what you do with the Layton Chair?

I’ve learned there is a lot of intelligent and interesting art made in community and in non-profit, and, at times, elusive spaces. You need to reach out, search for space that exists without a profit motive. Often people are not noticed or are silenced because of class, race, gender sexuality and ability. Avoid always looking for experts or “big names,” because, honestly, that can be stultifying.

Contemporary art is notorious for being disconnected from contemporary problems, issues, society, etc. But Community Art can sometimes feel condescending and simplistic. How can people interested in both the arts and helping others bridge this gap?

Academics and people tied to big institutions get caught up at times in ontological loops proving their worth to each other. Contemporary art is at its best when it ruptures disconnected abstract thought and politics. Rather than be preoccupied with innovation and entrepreneurship, guiding principles [in art] could be literacy, listening, humility, and confidence in the local. Mix it up. Rather than merely facilitate voice, let it queer your perceptions.

CORRECTION (03/21/2018): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Moffatt was a professor of sociology, not social work. This regrets the error.

This article has also been updated to provide more detail into the role of Jack Layton Chair at Ryerson.

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