I’m Losing Tons of Friends Fighting Racism. And I’m Totally OK with that.

AfroSapiophile

Dual-Identity, Double Conscience

As an Afro-American man in this nation called the United States, it is a known fact that at the professional level one must possess a dual-identity.  I don’t know too much about everyone else, but for me in these trying times maintaining such a thing is driving me to the brink of insanity.  Professional black man by day, abolitionist writer/speaker by night, there is a severe conflict within myself.  All of the micro-aggressions suffered at work.  All of the near-blatant racist ideas uttered by my colleagues.  How am I supposed to soak up, the notion for example, that a guy that I had Christmas dinner with would plow through a set of protesters with his 2010 Mustang?

riley-eyeThis is how racism works: you can have friends, people who hold you dear even, have outright racist ideologies towards your skin tone.  You can have girlfriends, boyfriends and…

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November 6, 2016 at 1:12 pm Leave a comment

Fit and Making One’s Place in the Arts

 

The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it. – James Baldwin

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At the intersections, “Red Carpet” by Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu and Kyle Goen, CrossLines Culture Lab, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, May 2016               [see below for larger image of this work]

In academia and museum jobs people talk a lot about fit. Candidates have to be a “good fit” with colleagues. This isn’t about skills. Instead, the existing staff want to feel that you possess certain values that the organization has deemed essential. When the instructor in my teaching certificate course repeatedly emphasized “fit”, I became ill at ease. For me, “fit” sounded like another way to ostracize people who are not the traditional members of the club. I worried that I would not “fit” anywhere. I’m not from a white, middle-class, or affluent family with generations of folks with college degrees. My background is  basically the opposite of many new professors and art museum curators. My teacher, a very kind person, assured me that “fit” wouldn’t mean more marginalization. I would like to think that she’s correct. This work is important to me. Knowledge and art belongs to everyone.

As I engage critical race theory in my studies of visual and material culture, I often return to this issue of “fit.” I’ve found that many art museum professionals avoid topics they identify as “political.” Because they have placed issues concerning race and racism in this political/shun category, they ignore it. But my research centers on representations of race and the dynamics of institutional racism in the art world. Where does that put me? How can I “fit” within frameworks that reject the effects of race?

When I study reports on the lack of racial diversity in art museums in the U.S., I think about the role of “fit” in cultural gatekeeping. I also consider how most of our art institutions have been silent about the increased public attention to racialized state violence. Although various professional organizations and art museums have made statements in favor of marriage equality legislation and in opposition of recent gender discriminatory laws*, most have not stated “Black Lives Matter.” They have not, as Adrianne Russell, co-organizer of the #museumsrespondtoferguson initiative, poignantly noted, expressed that they care about African-Americans.

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Tweet by Nikhil Trivedi, citing Adrianne Russell, July 7, 2016

Is “fit” the issue once again? Is highlighting anti-black violence too “political”? Are problems affecting African-Americans not good “fits” with the missions of our arts organizations? Who are these organizations really for?

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Black Lives Matter banner above the doorway of The Church of the Redeemer, New Haven, CT, March 2016

Dealing with the rejection of one’s humanity on a regular basis is disheartening. When people of color enter museums they aren’t transported to oppression-free spaces separate from the world. If museum professionals are serious about increasing the number of people of color in the field, improving workplace culture is one of several factors that needs to happen.  As museum colleagues expressed at a recent workshop about the role of race in museum spaces, museum staff (rank and file as well as leadership) must “stop labeling the topics associated w/ people of color [as] “difficult/controversial/political.” True engagement with diverse publics will entail confronting dynamics of race within and outside of our institutions.

People committed to building equity in art museums have a lot of work to do. Art institutions are making some gestures in the right direction. But for the most part they are slow to change and aren’t employing critical race theory to address the historical and continued practices of white supremacy within our museums. Consequently, most fail to be good “fits” when it comes to working for social justice. But I am an optimist. I believe those of us working from the margins can make our place. We can fit in a world of our making.

 

A Few Tools

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“Red Carpet” by Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu and Kyle Goen, CrossLines Culture Lab, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, May 2016

The Biggest Obstacle to Diversity in Libraries, by B. Binaohan, August 13, 2016 (this applies to museums too)

CrossLines, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, arts event May 28-29, 2016, Washington, D.C.; featured intersectionality

A Critical Lens on Diversity and Inclusion in Museums: #museumsrespondtoferguson, by La Tanya S. Autry, Museums and Civic Discourse session, National Council on Public History, January 2016

Social Justice & Museums Resource List, crowd sourced, open google document initiated by La Tanya S. Autry, July 2015

 

 

* These acts tend to be brief statements circulated on institutional websites or social media platforms. While one might question the depth of this engagement, it does demonstrate a preference for addressing certain social issues.

*All photos are by the author.

 

 

August 16, 2016 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment

From Planning to Doing: The Art of Black Dissent

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Time for catch-up!

Back in January I blogged about my excitement for my upcoming museum program The Art of Black Dissent. At that point I was in the planning stages. Well this spring after careful study of historical contexts, objects, artists, contemporary issues, and engagement techniques we launched our project. From April to May, my collaborator Gabriella Svenningsen and I held a public event and several sessions for classes at Yale University Art Gallery.  Our pop-up exhibition/dialogue program centered on protest visual culture of the African-American liberation struggle gained strong support. Participants who ranged from museum visitors and staff, high school students, undergraduates, K-12 teachers, and college professors responded well. As we expected, people  were eager to discuss this timely topic in relation to our nation’s challenging contemporary moment. On our project blog we share more information about the initiative and ongoing plans to bring the pop-up to local area public schools and libraries. 20160429_173738

The Art of Black Dissent welds together various elements of my scholarly background and personal ethos as it involves social justice, studies of race and racialized visual culture and social practice art, collaboration, critical pedagogy, engaged citizenship, and community engagement. It’s energizing to develop an idea into work that creates spaces for dialogue about contemporary pressing social issues. I envision coordinating more projects like The Art of Black Dissent as I shape my career of publicly-centered work in the arts.

 

August 14, 2016 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

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

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