Actualizing Plans- My Program on Black Protest Art Comes to Life

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Leigh Raiford, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011

These days I’m happily aligning my academic research of visual culture, race, memory, and public space with my museum work and commitment to social justice.

In December 2014 my involvement with the #museumsrespondtoferguson initiative on Twitter encouraged me to brainstorm actions that art museums could institute to engage issues of racial inequities in the U.S. One of my ideas centers on designing programming that highlights the role of visual culture in the African-American liberation struggle. Fortunately this proposal is coming to life. On April 29th along with my colleague Gabriella Svenningsen Omonte, I will co-lead The Art of Black Dissent at Yale University Art Gallery. This program spotlights black protest art in the Gallery’s collection and current images circulating on the streets and via social media platforms in concert with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. For this summer we’re designing a walking tour that features black art and protest sites in New Haven, Connecticut.

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To prepare I’m brushing up on favorite references such as Amy Helene Kirschke’s Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Additionally, my resources are growing as I’m diving into many other critical resources on graphic arts, photography, the black liberation movement, and studies of New Haven’s local history and grassroots organizing. As our work progresses, I’ll share updates on these projects.
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January 31, 2016 at 7:48 pm Leave a comment

This Year and Always – Museums and Social Justice

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Carrie Mae Weems, Fresh Talk for Change program, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., November 2015

So many things have happened this year. Between working as a curatorial fellow, writing my dissertation, participating in various arts activist groups, presenting research, facilitating a Black Lives Matter teach-in and a workshop on the role of race in the arts, and healing from a series of accidents, there has been almost no time to blog. But as I catch some moments to reflect, I want to reignite this space because it’s an important way to share what I’m experiencing and find others who are committed to the arts activism.

Through this year’s activities I’ve found support in the #museumsrespondtoferguson initiative which started in response to the December 2014 Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events. After reading this call for action, I dedicated time to participating in the monthly #museumsrespondtoferguson online discussions that Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell have organized on Twitter. Through these conversations and my recent experiences involving leading workshops and developing museum programming centered on black protest art, I’ve learned that we all need deeper engagement with critical race theory.

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Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2014

Over the past six years, I have witnessed uncertainty and fear in several art museum professionals and students when discussing race. In addition to not wanting to feel “uncomfortable,” people worry that they will say something insensitive or that museum visitors and donors will find attention to this major social phenomenon too controversial or political. Perhaps even more troubling,  I’ve noticed that many art museum professionals act as if race is only a factor when works involves artists of color or depictions of people of color. Also there is little uproar about the scarcity of diversity within art museums. This climate has encouraged me to concentrate my efforts in making art museums more inclusive spaces that critically engage with race and intersecting issues such as of class, gender, and ability.

At present I have three key projects centered on inclusion and critical race theory in the arts.

  • First, the conversations on #museumsrespondtoferguson and other social media collaborations such as the #CharlestonSyllabus encouraged me to initiate the Social Justice and Museums Resource List. This open GoogleDoc that features discussions, readings, digital initiatives, and other resources welcomes contributions from museum professionals, theorists, artists, and students. So far I’ve mentioned it mainly to colleagues within the #museumsrespondtoferguson network and my friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook. To broaden its effectiveness, I need to reach out to museum studies, art history, and public history programs across the U.S. and abroad.
  • Second, I’m in the initial stages of developing a critical race theory toolkit for art museum curators and educators. I envision that this how-to guide will feature case studies and interviews. My goal centers on showing how race operates within the various facets of artistic production, instruction, exhibition, collection, and interpretation. As this study includes art made by artists who aren’t people of color and works that do not contain representations of people of color, it will extend the field that notable authors such as Bridget R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum and Jennifer A. Gonzalez, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, have forged. The innovative exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties curated by Teresa A. Carbone and Professor Kellie Jones is a significant model.
  • Lastly, I’m focusing on making the art museum workforce more diverse. I intend to coordinate outreach sessions that put museum professionals of color in touch with middle-school and high-school students. I’m looking forward to working through the details and building a coalition of museum collaborators to make this come alive in the near future.

And at some point soon I will finish writing my dissertation!
Yes, the new year will be a busy one. That’s a very good thing.

 

December 21, 2015 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

My Art Museum Mission

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement increased attention to racial inequity in the U.S., in December 2014 a group of museum professionals published a joint statement highlighting the lack of acknowledgment by most museums to the unrest and struggles in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and other cities. Soon after that call to action, Aleia Brown, @aleiabrown, and Adrianne Russell, @adriannerussell, both co-authors of the statement, started #museumsrespondtoferguson, an ongoing open discussion on Twitter that occurs every third Wednesday of the month. The exchanges I have encountered on this virtual forum along with actual conversations with my museum colleagues have reignited my focus on diversity in art museums. The thoughtful words of the beloved Maya Angelou “I am working toward a time when everything gives me joy!” helped me articulate my vision of how museums can promote anti-racism initiatives.

My Art Museum Mission
by La Tanya S. Autry

I am working toward a time when
being black and a curator doesn’t elicit surprise the curators, educators, conservators, and directors are of all races, ethnicities, and genders

I am working toward a time when
past and present systems of omission, discrimination, and privilege are admitted, addressed, and resisted

I am working toward a time when
more people realize that works by women and people of color are integral to the social relevancy of institutions

I am working toward a time when
fear of donor disapproval doesn’t obstruct progress, education, and inclusion

I am working toward a time when
programming regularly engages diverse communities

I am working toward a time when
art museums operate as sites of dialogue and social justice, places for public conversations about things that fracture society

I am working toward a time when
institutions work as collaborative partners with local community organizations
to improve the lives of oppressed people

I am working toward a time when
art museums are truly centers for all people

My Museum Mission was posted on the PAGE2Ferguson blog salon on Imagining America’s website, January 26, 2015.

April 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm Leave a comment

Community Noise

“Community” has been on my mind for a long time. A text panel at the retrospective exhibition Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014 presented at the Queens Museum of Art earlier this year reignited this concern. "Community Art is Bad Art," text panel at Do you want the cosmetic version or do you want the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014, Queens Museum of Art

Founder John Malpede of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a collective performance group composed of Los Angeles’ Skid Row residents, spotlights one of the main challenges confronting community-based projects: “Community art is a code word for bad art.”

The provocative statement reminded me that my graduate courses in art history rarely addressed “community art.” Through reading essays and books on public art for my research I quickly realized that many academics and art professionals don’t value collaborative projects.

Defining “community” is one of the chief issues plaguing this field of art. In Against the Romance of Community Miranda Joseph suggests that many people employ the term “community” to bolster their social or political agendas.  In this situation,  community becomes a static and exclusionary identity that reinforces conservative attitudes and social hierarchies. Joseph focuses on why people keep invoking the concept and aims to reclaim the radical potential of community. I like that Joseph doesn’t just dismiss the idea of collective practice. She challenges us to analyze how groups form and function as she asserts that community can be a powerful and inclusive political force.

Art historian Miwon Kwon also highlights the interpretative difficulties associated with the concept of community in her book One Place After Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity. She notes that writers who discuss art grounded in community engagement practices often fail to study how “community” operates in these projects. Kwon finds that people employ “community” to exclude difference or produce reductive, token-like, identifications. Her assault against the ideas of art historian Grant Kester on the efficacy of collaborative work is a must-read for students and practitioners of this field. Instead of community-based art, she proposes “collective praxis,” a form of group-based art that stresses disunity and self-questioning of communal identity.
I find Kwon’s attention to the lack of critical discussion about the meaning of community valid. Yet, I agree with Kester who argues that identity is more complicated that Kwon proposes. People can and do work together while at the same time realizing their differences and the limited nature of group affiliation. (Kester, who finds Kwon’s analysis entrenched in a modernist avant-garde orientation, offers his thrashing response in chapter 5 of his book Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art. It’s  another essential reference.)

Lucy Lippard’s apt remarks on community in her essay “Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art help us get past the discord. “Community doesn’t mean understanding everything about everybody and resolving all the differences; it means knowing how to work within differences as they change and evolve.” Community is a form of critical consciousness; it’s a “process of recognizing both limitations and possibilities.”

The LAPD exhibition’s ironic panel presents the stereotype and the group’s attention to realistic representations and diverse perspectives. Although the text doesn’t directly oppose the bias, it suggests that art that isn’t based in collective practice is superficial.  Because the Skid Row performers present multiple life stories, they produce a textured, varied conception of kinship. Additionally, the performers’ marginalized status as impoverished people forces viewers to recognize the borders associated with mainstream conceptions of community.

Encountering this narrative prompted me to reconsider how people think about community art. Many members of the rarefied art world undervalue these practices so it’s understandable that some artists disavow connection with the genre. Yet I don’t think dissociation is productive. Here are some of the key questions on my mind:

  • Does rejection of the term “community art” broaden or narrow conceptualizations of art?
  • How does “community art” empower individuals or groups? How does stripping the word “community” from collaborative work of diverse members who include formally and informally trained artists affect its value?
  • Can we retrieve “community”  and infuse it with that powerful and complex possibility that Miranda Joseph suggests?
  • Finally, at the College Art Association’s 2014 conference Chicago artist Theaster Gates proposed another way to think about these community-engaged practices that may be useful here: “What happens when art stops needing to be called art and needs to be called something else?”

 

Related:

Siona Wilson, Review of Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014, Queens Museum of Art, ArtReview, March 2014

 

 

August 5, 2014 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

Re-Thinking Representation: Applying Paulo Freire’s Ideas to Memorials

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C.

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, 2010.

Lately I’ve been considering how Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed* can help me to study memorials.  The book isn’t about visual representation and it isn’t a typical source for art historians.  However, it is prominent in educational literature and many of the author’s thoughts apply to the contentious world of visual culture.  Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, argued that a restructured educational system rooted in collaboration, critical reflection paired with organized action, and real-world issues could empower people to fight social oppression.

Of his many important ideas, his perspectives about research have strengthened my interests in inclusive, participatory approaches.  Similar to his suggestion that teachers and students work in a dualistic manner (both groups instruct and learn as they critically assess problems), Freire proposes that researchers work as partners with people “who would normally be considered objects of that investigation.” (87)  He identifies these people as co-investigators and suggests that the researcher include their views in the evaluation process.  For Freire and sociologist Maria Edy Ferreira, the purpose of the research shouldn’t center on studying people.  Instead, researchers should seek to understand people’s situation or experiences in the world. (91)  To conduct research cooperatively, Freire encourages researchers to focus on understanding through sympathetic observation.  This approach forgoes dictating to the participants.

As I discussed in my previous post “Learning through Participation,” I employ collaborative, socially based methods for my study of lynching memorials.  One of my main challenges involves addressing current criticisms of therapeutic memorials (“victim memorials”).  In addition to considering the role of sentimentalization and art historian Kirk Savage’s useful historical discussion of “victim memorials,”* I believe Freire’s work will help me to reveal the political dimensions.  His attention to how oppressed groups can work together to improve their condition will help me to dismantle censures such as “Why are these people getting a monument? Why is their pain more important than the pain of someone else?”  Freire’s arguments could help to enrich memorial scholarship by identifying the assumptions of these perspectives.

References:

*Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books, 1993, 1970.
*Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 236-244.

August 31, 2013 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

Learning through Participation

Ribbons of Remembrance at Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 2013, Duluth, Minnesota

Ribbons of Remembrance at the Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 15, 2013, Duluth, Minnesota (Attendees tied ribbons to this fence adjacent to the graves of the three men lynched in 1920)

In my research I’m blending approaches from the fields of memorial culture* and public art* for a holistic perspective as I study how people commemorate lynching violence in the U.S. To uncover social significance I attend memorial events and interview artists and various community members. My direct involvement with these contemporary practices encourages me to also ponder the role of the scholar in the production of culture. When I meet with folks, I realize that my presence and interest in their work may influence their understanding of the memorial process. Because I’m focusing on the social, I also need to indicate my degree of participation and people’s reactions to my actions in a thoughtful manner.
——–
A few weeks ago I presented a paper* at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Annual Remembrance event in Duluth, Minnesota. Members of the board asked me to address how the memorial operates as a sacred space.  This event was my first talk at a memorial site and I was honored to participate in the ceremony.   Although I’ve presented my research at several venues, this occasion posed its own challenges. I couldn’t rely on the visual comparison method via PowerPoint that academic art historians often employ. I was outside in the memorial space. So my experience discussing objects for museum visitors proved helpful in this circumstance.  I focused on the history of the lynching, the community’s present activities, and the physical space of the memorial. The studies of cultural geographer Kenneth Foote* and cultural theorist Marita Sturken” helped me to highlight how the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial functions as hallowed ground.
For the sake of time, I didn’t delve into current discussions in memorial studies centered on “victim memorials” or the ambiguities associated with the concept of community. (I will wrestle with those complex issues at a later time.) I aimed to provide a balanced, contextualized assessment. Also, I spoke with reporters about how the Duluth memorial differs from other commemorative practices.  While my participation did identify the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as noteworthy, I tried not to steer any of the committee members’ decisions about the memorial. Afterwards, several residents thanked me for providing this overview and specific attention to the spatial aspects of Duluth’s memorial.
——–
The process of evolving into a scholar entails identifying one’s allegiances, values, and mindset. Through my interdisciplinary orientation, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in traditional notions of the scholar as someone who tells individuals and communities how they should memorialize persons or events. Instead, I understand my position as providing historical context, demonstrating similarities and differences between memorials, sparking discussions, facilitating the memorial-making processes by helping communities discover related projects, and learning from the actions of communities and my participation in commemorations. For me, research is about collaboration.

*PDF copy of my address “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as Hallowed Ground” – Autry-CJMM as Hallowed Ground-remembrance event 6-14-2013
I would like to thank the following organizations for supporting my recent research trip to Duluth, Minnesota: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board and the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.

A Few Key References
*
Memorial Studies– Savage, Young, and Winter encourage scholars to consider social issues

  • Kurt Savage, “History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/savage.htm.
  • James Edward Young, “America’s Holocaust: Memory and the Politics of Identity,” in The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by H. Flanzbaum, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 1999.
  • Jay M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006.

*Public Art

  • Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
  • Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013.
  • Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
  • Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004.

*Cultural Geography and Collective Memory

  • Kenneth Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003, 7-33.
  • Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007, 200.

July 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Pinning My Inquietudes/Hopes for Art History

Lately I’ve been revising my Pinterest boards so that they engage key concerns I have about art history. Pinterest boards-May 2013I began using Pinterest, an online customizable set of bulletin boards, last summer when I taught History of Photography.  The boards for arth318snapshot served as a resource for my undergraduate students and broader publics.  I later started my own artstuffmatters‘ set of boards. Initially it focused mainly on books about various subject areas.  I didn’t really do much with it.  However, I recently had a “eureka moment” that sparked a different, more passionate direction.

Last fall at the Imagining America October 2012 conference, I heard a presentation that continues to inspire and challenge me.  Dr. Marta Vega, Executive Director and Founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, centered her address on “inquietudes,” things that make one feel ill at ease, in relationships between academia and the wider world.  She argued that many academics don’t engage community organizations as partners or as higher education institutions.  Because they don’t value the knowledge and experience of these agencies, these scholars can’t actually engage most people.  She urged the scholarly sphere to recognize that it is a part of community instead of promoting hierarchical behaviors.  If we are serious about civic engagement and creating enduring social change, we need to foster connections between people. We need to make our arts centers inclusive.

These ideas resonated for me because in my work as a graduate student I sometimes feel apprehensive about scholarly research, dissemination methods, and traditional constructions of the discipline. One of my major inquietudes involves issues of inclusion and diversity.  When I hear about diversity in art history, it’s usually in regards to museums careers. In the academic sphere most of this discussion involves courses in art of non-western cultures. While varied course offerings are very important, we need to make this strategy a part of a system that spans types of art, chronologies, and fields.  We need to consider full inclusion and diversity in relation to our research and pedagogical methods as well.  We should communicate this focus to our undergraduate and graduate students. (I have encountered more than one art history graduate student who mistakenly believes that diversity-related topics only pertain to modern and contemporary art. One person even told me that race is only a relevant topic for those who study African or African-American art.) Our lack of attention to community and vernacular arts compounds this problem. Additionally, we need to consider how we can encourage people of diverse races and ethnic backgrounds to study and teach art history.  The discipline sorely lacks diversity in terms of students and faculty members. Addressing these matters can help us to engage broader publics and demonstrate the significance of our discipline and the humanities.

I have created boards for topics I’d like to see more art historians critically engage – diversity, community arts, public scholarship, digital scholarship, teaching techniques, and image use among others. These boards contain links to resources that I would have loved to know about when I started graduate school. I hope students, instructors, and others interested in the arts find this collection helpful. If you have suggestions for the boards, please let me know through the comment feature here or on Pinterest. As I work to create positive change in the discipline, I’ll continue blogging about these inquietudes in future posts because this platform is one way to explore, expand, and celebrate my connection to community.

By the way: While I’m serious about a lot of things, I also have a sense of humor. My boards “Foot Fetish in Sculpture” and “Theory Can Be Fun” are works in progress just because they make me smile. Foot Fetish Sculpture

Related articles:

“Art History Department Explores Diversity, Accessibility” The Oberlin Review, 4/17/2013

May 30, 2013 at 2:42 am 2 comments

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