Posts filed under ‘Art’

Your neutral is not our neutral

Archival Decolonist [-o-]

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nationsperspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by…

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February 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” – Angela Davis


Over the past 10 years I’ve worked in various positions at different art museums. For years, often I’ve been not only the only African-American person, but the only person of color, at institutional meetings. Yes, I meant that – years. Many times when I proposed programming centered on issues of racial inequality, white co-workers told me that the museum had to maintain a neutral stance or that my ideas sounded “political.” So they pushed aside my proposals. Each time I encountered that attitude, it was an attack on my body, my presence, my mind.

I have always known that museums are not neutral. They have never have been neutral. I would hope that our colleagues know that museums originate from colonialist endeavors. They are about power. As I have shared on social media networks, if anyone comes as me with that neutrality mess, I will take them down. I have had it with that narrow-minded perspective that ignores history and enables museums to operate as racist, sexist, and classist spaces.

A couple of months ago Mike Murawski and I started discussing this neutrality defense on Twitter. At some point he tweeted “museums are not neutral.” I answered, “that should be on t-shirt.” Not long after that exchange Mike wrote me and said let’s do just that. I’m so glad he did. Along with the hundreds of people who have supported our project, we’ve sparked critical discussion with our colleagues in museums, academic institutions, and broader publics. Also, we have raised over $5,000 for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has lead social justice initiatives for decades.

I’m proud to do this work with all of you who center justice.

[A few days ago, thanks to my friend Mike Murawski, I shared a version of this statement with colleagues attending the Museums as a Site of Social Action, #MassActionMIA, gathering in Minneapolis.]

If you would like to join us in making a statement against the myth of museum neutrality, please consider purchasing one of our Museums Are Not Neutral t-shirts. Proceeds support the Southern Poverty Law Center. 





October 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm 5 comments

Reflecting on My Time at Yale: The “Museums and Social Justice Reading Group”


from the series The Gates of Yale, 2014, La Tanya S. Autry

Last summer I co-founded the Museums and Social Justice Reading Group with two colleagues from Yale University Art Gallery.  We held a few gatherings off-site at local eateries and grappled with some difficult topics such as concepts of empathy, the possible roles of empathy in art museums, and how social justice might apply to art museum spaces.
While I had started my Social Justice & Museums Guide, open listing of resources, months before our group formed, I realized that it could serve as our un-official syllabus. (Museum professionals from areas across the U.S. have contributed suggestions to the list.) When I mentioned the reading group on Twitter, several colleagues expressed interest in joining via a digital platform. I liked the idea; but I decided to hold off on extending our project because we were in the initial stages.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have many gatherings because life happened. Our busy schedules dampened our energies. Even so I continue to mull over several of the discussion points we engaged. Down the road I plan to return to this initiative.

Recently I did send one last note to my fellow Museums and Social Justice Group members to serve as a farewell to that iteration of our endeavor and an invitation to continue what we started in other ways.
Below I’ve shared an adapted excerpt of that message as it spotlights significant calls for authentic commitments to critical reflection and social justice in our museums. These efforts deserve serious attention from curators, artists, educators, and others who care about the arts and humanities.
This letter also highlights the next steps of my career journey.


While I have enjoyed curating my recent exhibition Let Us March On: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, it has meant that my schedule has been jammed pack. Regretfully that stymied my ability to continue co-organizing our Museums and Social Justice Reading Group.
Now I’m just about to complete my fellowship at Yale- Friday, July 14th is my last day. I’ve learned a great deal during my time at here and will miss many people. As a parting gift, I would like to share a few more articles with you.

In February, the Davis Museum’s decided to remove art made by immigrants as response to Trump’s Muslim ban.
Later in May, in concert with NEMA, Margaret Middleton, a museum professional based in Providence, RI, organized a panel to discuss the museum’s project. Pampi, one of the co-panelists, wrote a rich reflection about the gathering.

Below please find links to essays by Pampi and Annie Wang, a Wellesley alum who critiqued the museum’s gesture much earlier. I feel that both authors did a good job at highlighting the Davis Museum’s lack of self-criticality.

Back in February, many art publications mentioned the museum’s decision. But I didn’t see any articles that put the lens on the inherent problems that many art museums would engage by pointing the finger at others about exclusionary practices. Moreover, most art writers failed to discuss how a ban against a particular ethnic group is different than one against all immigrants.

Pampi and Wang challenge all who both care about museums and support social justice to think deeply about how we can institute self-reflection and self-critique in our museums while negotiating the slippery terrain endemic to the colonialist origins of museums, trendiness of institutional inclusion rhetoric despite prevalent current practices and longstanding histories of exclusion in our museums, and the stated desire to be relevant in contemporary society. Tall order!

Critique of Davis Museum’s decision to remove art by immigrants

Mainstream press about Davis Museum’s decision to remove art by immigrants

More reading
The table of contents of the current issue of The Journal of Museum Education, Volume 42, No. 2, Summer 2017, “Identifying and Transforming Racism in Museum Education” looks fantastic. I haven’t gotten my hands on the journal yet. But I am eager to read the articles. 

Next month I will begin my new joint position as Curator of Art and Civil Rights at Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College. I plan to infuse my curatorial and teaching work with studies of the relationship of social justice to museums.  While I question the possibilities of change within existing frameworks at most art museums in the U.S., I continue to envision a future where more of our art centers are grounded in anti-racist and equitable labor practices. It’s going to require much more critical praxis to make enduring intersectional, structural changes.

Thank you for taking part in my initial efforts in this area during my time at Yale. I look forward to more conversations. If you are also committed to this work, please do keep in touch. You can also find me on several social media platforms under the digital handle Artstuffmatters.



July 14, 2017 at 7:43 pm Leave a comment

I got to get in on the #wheatpasteart 

@tlynnfaz art is powerful. 

Touched on her recent #stoptellingwomentosmile campaign in our #artofblackdissent session last night @theinstitutelibrary. #publicart #streetart #intersectionality #intersectionalfeminism

July 14, 2017 at 7:39 pm Leave a comment

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


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

2016-05-28 14.08.09

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.


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?


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


“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

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

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