Still reeling from a tumultuous year, Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has an entirely new board. Eight board members were elected at the organization’s annual general meeting (AGM) Sunday, held virtually over Zoom.
The previous board members had all submitted their resignations after a number of controversial decisions and internal debate that spilled over into the public eye.
PuSh is a celebrated multidisciplinary festival that showcases local theatre and other performance work, and also brings in national and international artists for three weeks every January and February (with the exception of this year, when a smaller slate of work was offered online).
The new group – made up entirely of artists and arts administrators – is positioning itself as a transitional board that will help guide the organization toward transformation in the wake of the dismissal of the artistic director and two other respected employees.
“We are a catalyst board,” said actor, playwright and author Carmen Aguirre before being elected. “We are here to hopefully push through the challenges it has faced in the last year. We want to right the relations with those members of the community that we need to right relations with. We want to do this with as much care and respect and transparency as possible.”
Aguirre recently caused a stir with the release of a video that was made for a PuSh-related event, which was to address the controversy at the festival, but the event was cancelled.
Led by theatre, film, TV and radio artist Camyar Chai, the group released a statement to members ahead of the AGM.
“How the future of the organization is determined impacts a diverse array of artists, arts organizations and audience members,” the statement says. “Since the organizational challenges of PuSh became exposed in the public square, discussion surrounding the society has become a symbol that reverberates beyond PuSh to our general cultural practice, certainly in B.C., if not all of Canada.
“So, it is even more crucial that the outcome – whether transformation or dissolution – is conducted with transparency, consultation, empathy and grace.”
The group’s stated goals include creating a climate of healing and wellness for the festival, continuing the organizational review that began last fall, and implementing an interim artistic team to “review and advance PuSh programming from a Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (JEDI) lens.”
The statement also calls for a healthy and just resolution with former PuSh employees Joyce Rosario and Janelle Wong-Moon.
Last June, PuSh announced the departure of Rosario, with the elimination of the full-time position of associate artistic director, which she had held. She had earlier served as interim artistic director after the departure of festival co-founder Norman Armour. In the same restructuring, audience services manager Wong-Moon also left the organization.
The festival cited the budgetary crisis caused by the pandemic for the restructuring, but the decision was strongly criticized – in particular the loss of two women of colour during the social-justice uprising that followed the killing of American George Floyd.
Then the festival announced the departure of artistic director Franco Boni, who told The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Nestruck that he had been terminated without cause. The organization, led by managing director Jason Dubois, has since been operating without an artistic director.
On Sunday, Chai told the AGM that he hopes the transitional board will steer the organization toward positive transformation.
“I have great faith that this board can help make that happen with the support of the community. This will be a community effort,” he said. “I believe it’s an important moment for the cultural landscape in this area.”
The other members of the board elected Sunday are dance artist Justine A. Chambers; theatre artist Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen, who is an associate artist with Full Circle: First Nations Performance; Sadira Rodrigues, who is director/curator of the Sunshine Coast Arts Council; Shanae Sodhi, associate artistic producer at Rumble Theatre; Camilla Tibbs, executive director at Gateway Theatre in Richmond; and interdisciplinary performer and creator Johnny Wu.
“As someone [who is part of] a generation of artists that grew up within the PuSh system, I’ve seen how the system has supported us but also has failed the community,” said Wu, who describes his work as seeking to investigate humanity through exploring social justice via storytelling.
“And as someone who has also been critical of the system, I wanted to make sure that I participated in the transformation of the system, rather than just be a critic on the side.”
The meeting also paid tribute to Rosario and Wong-Moon.
“There really are no words adequate to thank Joyce and Janelle for the depth of their contributions to PuSh in my opinion,” wrote Jane Heyman, one of the festival’s founding board members.
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