The Health of the People is the Highest Law: Roundtable on Cultural Non-Profits and Accountability


“The Health of the People is the Highest Law is an inscription carved high on the facade of a modest little public library in an unfashionable corner of London. I was reminded of this inscription while reading Jacques Derrida’s essay, ‘The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela In Admiration.’ In this homage to South Africa’s most celebrated political prisoner, Derrida describes Mandela as a prisoner of conscience who breaks institutional law through his respect for the higher Law—that which pertains to justice and is proclaimed in writing, from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights, to be the basis of western democracy.”

Jean Fisher, ‘The Health of the People is the Highest Law’, Revisions,  The Banff Centre, Walter Phillips Gallery, 1992

What does it mean for a cultural non-profit institution to be accountable? Leaders tend to pay attention to accountability once a problem of trust arises—a scandal in the sector or in their own organization, questions from community residents or donors who want to know if money is being well spent, or pressure from regulators to demonstrate that they are serving a public purpose and merit charitable status. Amid this search for accountability, it is tempting to accept the popular momentum that more accountability is better. But is it feasible, or even desirable, for institutions to be accountable to everyone for everything? And, can shades of opacity play a role in this process? The challenge of our institutions is to prioritize among competing accountability demands. This involves deciding both to whom we owe responsibility and what form our accountability takes.

Join us for a roundtable discussion on the occasion of curator Yesomi Umolu’s visit to Vancouver from the Reva and David Logan Centre for the Arts, University of Chicago. She will be joined in conversation by Pollyanna Library’s Vincent Tao and Syrus Marcus Ware, artist in residence, Grunt Gallery and a core team member of Black Lives Matter – Toronto.

Co-organized with the Vancouver Art Gallery through the generous support of the Province of British Columbia’s Creative Economy Strategy.


Project Support

Province of British Columbia