Fit and Making One’s Place in the Arts
The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it. – James BaldwinIn 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.
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?
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
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.
Entry filed under: Art, Black Lives Matter, Diversity, Museums, Racism, Social Justice. Tags: #museumsrespondtoferguson, Art Museums, arts activism, arts organizations, blacklivesmatter, critical race theory, CrossLines, cultural fit, Diversity, inclusion, institutional critique, intersectionality, Museums, Racism, social change, social justice.