Letter from Sanquhar

Letter from Sanquhar

by Ric Kasini Kadour

I am working in Sanquhar this month, leading a series of artist residencies at The Nithsdale Hotel and A’ the Airts. I’ve posted on social media a little about our time here, but have been too focused to do much more. A recent social media post by a disgruntled party has prompted me to take a few minutes to write about my time here.

Kolaj Institute’s work in Sanquhar is motivated by a deep affection for the place and community of people that live there. From the people in the pubs to the folks you pass on the street to the knitters and quilters and volunteers at A’ the Airts, there is an overwhelming sense of welcome that is matched by the natural beauty, deep history, and fantastic folklore of this place. These things come together to make Sanquhar a brilliant site to explore artist practice, place, and collage.

This September 2023 trip to Sanquhar is my fourth since I spent two months here in early 2020. This trip, though, has been a little different. Since I arrived in Sanquhar, I have been exposed to a campaign of harassment and bullying masquerading as an art exhibition. A poster has been placed in public frames outside of MERZ that encourages the viewer to connect anti-gay sentiments with my name and uses language that attempts to denigrate and shame me and my family. Flyers pointing to these posters have been strategically placed at venues where it is publicly known I frequent. Social media messages have been posted to commercial, public Facebook and Instagram pages that name me, misquote me, and misrepresent events to which I was tangentially a party. I am not the only subject of this campaign: it also targets directly and indirectly other people in the town, as well as artists who have been in residency here before, women in particular. As the campaign escalates, I and others are left wondering when it will end and if we should be concerned for our personal, physical safety.

Bullies are best ignored and left alone. Like toddlers having a tantrum, they want attention. They want to control the conversation. They want power over the people they attack. Bullies use passive aggression to cause fear or intimidation. They lie and obfuscate. They pretend “It’s just a joke.” What they don’t do is work to resolve conflict and create an environment where everyone feels safe and secure. That is in part because they don’t feel safe, secure, or good about themselves. They don’t know how to deal with uncomfortable parts of themselves. They don’t know how to be accountable or how to make amends. They may be feeling ashamed of their past behavior. From a distance, it’s sad. One cannot help to feel a little compassion for the pathos-ridden cry for attention.

Being bullied is another matter. You want to be left alone and to go about your business, but daily life is interrupted by someone else, who you don’t want to converse with, who is demanding that you give them your attention. Mixed with passive aggressive actions, threats, and intentional misinformation, you are left in a state of dysphoria and a deep sense of despair. To engage the bully is to give them what they want, which may just invite more unwanted engagement. But, when you ignore the bully, they escalate their actions, which leaves one with a sense of unease about how far they will take it and for how long things will go on. You begin to worry about your emotional and physical wellbeing. Frankly, the whole matter becomes exhausting. When the bully is also targeting others, you feel guilty for not doing or saying anything.

How did this situation come about? In 2022, Kolaj Institute formed a working relationship with MERZ in Sanquhar centered around bringing collage artists to town to learn and make art in community with one another. In Spring 2023, we collaborated on a solo residency that brought a collage poet to Sanquhar.

In June, I met with the poet to debrief their residency and to talk about what would come next. During that meeting, I heard some disturbing reports of the Director of MERZ’s behavior. The artist reported boundaries not being respected and being yelled at by the Director. This was concerning. Later in June, I received a message from an artist who was in residence at MERZ saying she needed to urgently speak to me. When we finally connected, she said that she was in Sanquhar, unable to leave, and feeling unsafe because of the behavior of the Director.

When someone reaches out to you and says they feel trapped and unsafe, you believe them and you do what you can to get them to safety. I believe that is the right thing to do and that’s what I did. I encouraged the artist to contact A’ the Airts to work out a place to stay and a plan to get home. I also rang the Director of MERZ to speak to him about what was going on. When he proved difficult to get on the phone, I reached out to the Chair of MERZ’s Community Advisory Board to ask for her advice and direction on how to proceed. I learned that MERZ did have a process for resolving the conflict and I communicated that to the artist and put them in contact with the Chair of the Community Advisory Board.

When I finally spoke to the Director, I found they were not, in my opinion, taking the matter seriously. He was unwilling to have a conversation about how his behavior was resulting in women feeling uncomfortable. I was asked to pay off the artist to settle the matter. He denied the abuse that the collage-poet in residence reported. He was generally dismissive of my concerns. I stated that we couldn’t continue unless these conflicts were brought to a resolution and there were systems and procedures in place to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of future residents. I offered to help develop those policies. The offer was rebuffed. The issues went unresolved. Faced with a critical deadline for the Fall residencies, I sent the Director and the Chair of the Community Advisory Board a detailed email of my concerns and informed them that we would pause our relationship with MERZ to give time for the Director to work out the issues.

With our relationship with MERZ on pause, we implemented the contingency plan we developed in Fall 2022. Residents would stay at The Nithsdale Hotel. We would convert the Hotel’s Function Suite into a giant collage studio. We would hold morning meetings and lunch at A’ the Airts, Sanquhar’s community arts organization and cafe, which had been providing lunch to our residents in the past.

I said in my email to MERZ, “My hope is that this step will allow MERZ the time it needs to develop as an organization and to put in place the programs, policies, and infrastructure it needs to succeed doing this work. I am happy to help and to reserve some time while I am in Sanquhar in September to work on these issues so that Kolaj Institute can, if desired, return to MERZ in Spring 2024.” (You can read the full email HERE.)

In the intervening months, attempts to be in touch with the Director went ignored. In August, the Director sent me a “tortuous and curt” email (words from the email) which sought information seeking to lay the blame of our withdrawal from MERZ at the feet of the artist who felt unsafe in June and A’ the Airts and its staff. I ignored this email. Our decision to pause (and eventually abandon) our working relationship with MERZ was about the Director’s behavior and actions, based on conversations we had in June 2023 and our experiences with him leading up to that point. I made that decision separate from any information shared with me from a particular artist. I initiated the conversation with A’ the Airts and The Nithsdale Hotel and I am grateful they accepted my proposal so that we could continue our work in Sanquhar. We did all of this because we want our residents to have a safe, secure, and professional experience during their residency.

Upon arrival in Sanquhar, I went about the business of preparing for the residencies. On a morning walk, I saw the blue plaque erected last September to commemorate the Schwitters’ Army Collection of Collage Art had been removed. This saddened me because I felt that the removal of the plaque, which honored the 202 artists who contributed to that project, was a disservice to them and what it represented. A few days later, I noticed a series of posters placed on the exterior of MERZ. The posters changed every few days. One such work shows an invoice printed on a photograph of a bedsheet on which is an invoice to A’ the Airts in the amount of £87,000 for “…professional misconduct by management and staff…” It never occurred to me that one could use an art exhibition to harass people, but here we were. Then the flyers and an exhibition catalog appeared, followed by the homophobic poster with my name on it. Then there was a social media post, which said, among other things, “A’ the Airts has shredded its charitable status while the globe-trotting Kolaj Institute can pick up its bags and move on: ‘it’s just about damage limitation,’ Ric Kasini Kadour insisted to MERZ (without irony) in June.” The misquote is obvious since the phrase I would have used, had I actually said anything like it, is the American English “damage mitigation” not the British English “damage limitation”. If you are going to put words in my mouth, at least use the right accent.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. I fear for the wellbeing of those who are the target of this campaign. I fear that people will think art is a tool for harassment. I fear that the bullying will lead the hardworking staff at A’ the Airts to give up and move on. I worry about what happens when the bully isn’t fed the attention he craves and continues to escalate. Self-portraits of the Director wearing poop-emoji hats or in clownface aside, there’s a point where the matter is disturbing in its surrealness. It feels unhinged. Ultimately, I hope the person finds the resolution they need to soothe whatever is causing them to act in such a hostile and anti-social manner. I hope they do that before they cause irrevocable damage to the people around them. Self-reflection, personal growth, and emotional intelligence can be difficult skills to acquire. In writing this letter, I in no way want them to have to experience the sort of bitterness and harassment they are directing to others. It’s painful to watch someone destroy the bridges around them, to self destruct.

I want to leave you with this: Art should be a force for good. Something that builds up, not tears down. Art should speak truth to power and help us see injustice in the world. But art should never be weaponized and used as a tool of harassment. That not only turns the artist into a bully, it pollutes people’s relationship to art. The world is toxic enough.

The people of Sanquhar have been wonderful, thoughtful, and supportive; a real testament to the character of the community. The Collage Artist Residencies are going brilliantly. Artists are doing great work. The accommodations at The Nithsdale Hotel are comfortable and the staff is affable. The facilities at A’ the Airts are top-of-the-line. The man who runs the Sanquhar Tolbooth Museum has been sharing stories about the castle. The Community Collage Nights have been well attended. The exhibition of folklore-themed collage looks great and is making for good conversation. On Friday, I will travel to Dumfries to present Collage on Screen at The Stove and speak about the work Kolaj Institute is doing in Scotland. Sanquhar is a wonderful place to visit and we are laying the groundwork for the Spring 2024 Residencies.

Sanquhar Rabbits When the Artists Come to Town by Ric Kasini Kadour