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Monday, June 17, 2024

To bear witness: Real talk about white supremacy culture in art museums today

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“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” — Angela Davis, 2014

I feel like I’ve started and stopped this piece at least a hundred times over the last three months. 2020 has been a tumultuous year for the majority of us. Forget a ton of bricks: COVID-19 hit like a fleet of cement trucks. And as history has always shown, Black communities are again being disproportionately affected.

Since the onset of the pandemic, we surged into civil unrest around the globe regarding the blatant disregard of all Black lives. As the video of George Floyd’s heinous murder and the need to bring greater visibility to what happened to Breonna Taylor and Iyanna Dior took center stage, people all around the world took to the streets to say enough is enough!

If white folks and governments will not do what it takes to dismantle white supremacy once and for all, we will tear it all down. Like clockwork, racist monuments have been dropping like flies ever since. And though I hate to say it, museums need to be next up on the list. 

While the United States has always been a nation conceived and constructed by various groups of people of different races, genders and ethnicities, the foundations of our society have always turned upon the fulcrum of systemic white supremacy. When this is taken into serious account, it is not coincidental that for over two centuries the traditional art historical narrative has remained predominantly Euro-centric and male in essentially every museum dedicated to the subject.

Thus, it should not be surprising that Black professionals comprise only 4% of the positions most closely associated with the intellectual and educational missions of most art museums.

To illuminate that statistic even more, there are approximately 1,575 art museums in the country. So, as justified as we are in our current anger, we should not be super shocked by the copious disingenuous statements of solidarity that flooded social media and museum websites last week in “support” of Black lives — many of which used the work of Black artists without proper permission or flew as flagrant lies in the face of deliberate institutional obstruction, hostility and erasure of Black curators and employees. For me the reasoning behind such egregious and uncaring acts has always been very simple — it’s purposeful. 

We know very well that art museums are some of the strongest cultural bastions of western colonization. Through very deliberately racist and sexist practices of acquisition, deaccession, exhibition and art historical analysis, museums have decisively produced the very state of exclusion that publicly engaged art historians and curators like me are currently working hard to dismantle.

Yet, what we do not speak honestly enough about are the very distinct ways in which racism and sexism are often times utilized to traumatize us and undermine our work — the very work that our respective institutions claim they want and often recruit us to do.  

Last Friday, I participated in a Zoom call with many Black curators from around the world. The call included attendees from the U.S., Canada, and across the pond to the U.K., with representatives from small institutions to some of the largest and most popular museums, as well as independent curators. It was absolutely amazing to see so many of my colleagues at one time!

People that I’ve admired for years, as well as tons of new faces, spoke so passionately about how we could work more efficiently to support each other and particularly Black artists. However, my heart sank after about an hour of discussing our concerns about our institutions’ tone-deaf responses to this moment and our overall experiences in museums.

In what seemed like a moment where time stood still, I realized that no matter where in the world we work, what positions we hold in our institutions or how diligently and effectively we do our jobs, many of us are experiencing similar traumas and complete mental exhaustion from navigating and twisting and strategizing and contorting ourselves around abhorrent manifestations of white supremacy in museums and the art world at large. Ironically enough, I had to leave the call earlier than I wanted as my most recent occurrence of such mental and emotional acrobatics commenced over institutional email.

After six years of working as a museum curator — having worked at a small, a mid-size and currently a very large institution, respectively — I’ve learned a thing or three about how nefarious white supremacy culture in art museums really is. And let me say, the PTSD from racial trauma that many of my colleagues and I are carrying is a clear indication that art museums are in absolutely no way in solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and their communities. In fact, as a critical-race cultural historian who specializes in American art, I’ve worked very diligently throughout my career to illustrate that this too has never been coincidental.  

From the founding of the nation’s first art museums to the establishment of American art as an academic discipline and the development of curatorial practices around American “fine art,” American art museums and the collections they house have existed as material extensions of systems founded upon genocide and slavery and maintained by various practices of marginalization, omission and erasure.

If we are to eschew this exclusionary culture in American art and its institutions, it is imperative that we change the value system upon which both our art museums and our art history are founded. 

Last fall, I attended a lecture by the MacArthur award-winning contemporary artist Titus Kaphar at the University of Indianapolis, who asked, “Why have we amended the U.S. Constitution several times to address issues of racism and sexism, but never substantially amended the art history?”

Think about that. Despite decades of exhibitions that have paid homage to women artists and artists of color, how many museums have moved substantively to create galleries that offer a more honest display of the diverse array of artists working throughout the 20th century that we know were not white, male and living on the east coast?

More pointedly, ask a few museum professionals, particularly those from BIPOC communities, how many feel genuinely and fully supported by their institutions when they try to correct this erasure through programming, reinstallation of permanent galleries or traveling exhibitions. Most recently, Taylor Brandon, a former marketing associate at SFMoMA, illuminated this issue when she commented on how the institution allotted less marketing and programming resources to its Dawoud Bey retrospective relative to resources allotted for its Warhol exhibition.

In my experience, this is a common way that white supremacy culture rears its head in art museum marketing procedures. Relationship building is just one approach that I’ve used over my career to combat this. Therefore, fully engaging an institution’s security and facilities staff is often my first point of business upon starting any curatorial position.

I remember at one point in my career, my colleagues and I printed flyers to promote an exhibition that showcased a Black artist because the marketing department of our institution would not promote the show to Black communities. However, my relationships with the museum’s BIPOC staff served to remedy that.

I began my tenure at this particular institution almost a year and a half before the exhibition opened. Over that time, I got to know some of the museum’s BIPOC staff pretty intimately as I was visiting and speaking at their churches, making myself available for tours of the museum’s permanent galleries to the teachers and counselors they introduced me to, partnering with local Black artists on projects that were already happening in their communities, working in after-school programs with their children, and providing one-on-one mentorship to the teens and young adults in their neighborhoods.

I say all this to demonstrate the ways in which I consciously build relationships with a museum’s Black staff as a means to develop sound, trusting relationships in the Black communities that surrounded the museum.

Why? Because my curatorial practice centers Black people first. Secondly, security guards and custodians make up the largest group of BIPOC staff in most museums. And despite the fact that they engage visitors in the galleries on a daily basis, they are almost never asked to contribute to institutional content. This alone is one of the most racist and classist hierarchies maintained by white supremacy culture in art museums.

As a result of these relationships, many of which I still have today, my colleagues and I got in our cars and went out on foot to talk to community stakeholders. Because I had already established trust and knew that there was great interest in the exhibition, we were allowed to pepper homes, local businesses, churches, cars windows, schools and any other place we could find with the exhibition flyer.

More BIPOC attended that exhibition opening than had visited the museum’s galleries in over five years. I don’t care how much any institution claims diversity or inclusivity as “core values”: White supremacy is the only fundamental value present when a museum staff has to take it upon themselves to promote a show in this way, or as in Taylor Brandon’s case, an employee has to resign their position for even commenting upon the ways in which an institution undercut a project focused on BIPOC subject matter. 

To produce a genuine institutional and disciplinary culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in museums, white museum professionals must do the work both on themselves and within their institutions to heal the trauma resulting from decades of building both an art historical narrative and literally thousands of arts institutions that are steeped in the values of white patriarchal supremacy. And to do that, they must begin to be really honest with themselves. 

In 2017, Latanya Autry and Mike Murawski were brutally honest when they launched their “Museums Are Not Neutral” T-shirt campaign, which recognized the ways in which museum concepts of “neutrality,” “objectivity,” “normality,” “professionalism” and “high quality” function as a status quo system that perpetuates oppression, racism, injustice and colonialism.

Albeit true, this contemporary functionality is deeply rooted in European museum history, through what English sociologist Tony Bennett called “the mismatch” between the philosophies or mission statements purported to govern museums and the exclusionary practices embedded within their actual modes of functioning. In his 1993 monograph, “The Birth of the Museum,” he explains:       

“While [the idea of the museum as a vehicle for public education] requires that [museums] should address an undifferentiated public made up of free and formal equals, [its] functioning as an instrument of public reform], in giving rise to the development of various technologies for regulating or screening … has meant that they have functioned as a powerful means for differentiating populations.”

In this discussion of the ways that the European bourgeoisie specifically designed the museum as a space to “reform” the European working class and to promote culture as an extension of European empire, Bennett demonstrates how early European museums promoted the idea of “high culture” to ultimately reinforce class hierarchies and the use of culture as power. In doing so, the museum was established as an exclusive space that denoted the supremacy of European elites, while simultaneously being strictly a space for lower-class Europeans to receive instruction on how to become more sophisticated citizens. 

Though Bennett’s class analysis delineates the basis of discriminatory culture in early European museums, and is a vital lens through which to understand the histories and contemporary realities of class discrimination within art museums today, his argument glaringly lacks sufficient consideration of the importance of race and gender to the cultural structures of public museums in 19th century Europe.

If we are to achieve a comprehensive awareness of the mechanisms of white supremacy culture in art museums, and a better understanding of why the last 30 years of focused exhibitions of women artists and artists of color, programming designed for “underserved” audiences, and various diversity initiatives for hiring curators, training graduate students and expanding board membership have not produced genuine cultures of DEI within art museums, we must first analyze European museum history to identify specific moments that elucidate exactly how the museum itself was established as a space to codify white identity. 

Recognizing and interrogating such historical moments is critical to understanding the underpinnings of white supremacy culture in today’s art museums because the European model of the public museum served as the quintessential architectural, interpretive and cultural archetype for early American art museums.

More pointedly, examining the cultural histories of European and American art museums in this manner illuminates the ways that these institutions and the collections they house were deliberately employed to instruct masses of white men how to recognize themselves as human, citizen and seeing subject, while classifying women and non-white individuals, as well as their cultural products, along a visual spectrum of pseudo-scientific, racist and sexist categories ranging from beautiful, static object to primitive, non-human savage.

This is the type of honest investigation that must be the rule, not the exception, if American art is to remain relevant to audiences outside of its discipline and if art museums are to become cultural institutions that truly value Black lives and want to be engaged with BIPOC communities.

Notice that I said “engaged with BIPOC communities” as a semantic refusal of the traditional idea that success can be measured by the ways in which communities engage with the institution. Meaning: those who are actually visiting the museum.

This is not a reliable metric because we know that people of color are not visiting traditional art museums en masse. So, how can art museums ever claim success when they know that traditional audiences do not and in some cases have never reflected the demographics of the communities where art museums are located?

To answer this question, I’ve spent my career developing strategies through lectures, programming, acquisitions, reinstallations, exhibitions and relationship building to demonstrate that not only are more truthful interpretations of permanent collections necessary to developing diverse audiences, it is unequivocally essential to the development of a genuine culture of DEI.  

Although I am an Americanist, I am a Black woman from Detroit. This is my worldview. My curatorial philosophy is rooted in a working class, womanist value system which does not uphold white patriarchy as a standard of universality or excellence.

Yet, as a woman of color, I am cognizant of the fact that within greater society, white-maleness has always been and is still considered to be “right.” Thus, at the heart of my curatorial practice is an understanding of the traditional art historical narrative and its maintenance within museum collections as more insidious than instructive.

Therefore, the process of developing genuine cultures of DEI within museums cannot occur through reinterpretation alone. It actually has to start with gaining a full understanding of the institution’s overall interest in and capacity for building said culture. 

Another strategy that I’ve used throughout my career to initiate this investigation is fully engaging an institution’s docents. In some museums, I know it is not common for curators to work closely with docents. However, because docents are typically long-time volunteers who spend the majority of their time engaging various sectors of the museum’s public in the galleries and are typically versed in the institution’s learning objectives, they have been a valuable resource to me as I’m typically interested in developing anti-racist programming and gallery interpretation. 

Interestingly, I’ve been able to garner a more honest sense of where an institution stands on issues of race, class and gender as the docent cores that I’ve come in contact with over my career were comprised primarily of middle-class white women.

In our current climate, I know readers will ask how a group of middle-class white women can provide any valuable information about institutional ideas of race and class. In my experience, whenever a museum has not provided sufficient interpretation and engagement of works by women or BIPOC, docents who are interested in those works will often take it upon themselves to study the scholarship in efforts to provide audiences more in-depth conversation and tour experiences regarding those works and the themes they express.

This has been a very effective strategy for me to gauge an institution’s commitment to inclusive content because if the institution is not supporting docents’ efforts on this front, I know that I’ll have a hard time getting full support of my ideas and projects. Furthermore, if the institution is encouraging docents who engage the collection within the contexts of race, class and gender, that tells me that I won’t have to work as hard to garner institutional support of my curatorial ideas. 

I share this because this strategy has provided vital information over my career about how to discern the severity of white supremacy culture in an institution’s education department.

For instance, if docents are conducting gallery tours that address issues of race, class and gender, were any museum educators involved in helping docents develop these tours? Do these tours only happen when a traveling show by a BIPOC or woman artist is on view? Do such tours of the permanent collection look exclusively at works by women when discussing gender or BIPOC artists when discussing race, or do they engage a wide range of works on view? Have museum educators met with docents to exchange information or develop a plan about how best to engage the entire collection when discussing issues of race, class and gender? Is this a unique or one-off tour offered primarily to BIPOC school groups? And most importantly, are docents and museum educators using the works of BIPOC scholars and art historians to inform their interpretation?

Again, these are the types of questions BIPOC curators have to answer before we can do our jobs responsibly and effectively. Furthermore, I want readers to see just how much free labor BIPOC museum professionals have to do to ensure that our work and the work of BIPOC artists is represented accurately and responsibly.

For instance, before I can even comprise a checklist for my exhibitions or gallery reinstallations, I have to lead hours of critical-race discourse both within the museum and in the broader arts community to prepare viewers for more culturally relevant content. As I often lead programs and curate exhibitions that focus on anti-whiteness and contemporary social issues, I typically have to work for months within the institution just to build the structures needed to support whatever project I’m working on. This typically highlights just how desperately the staff needs collective anti-racism and inclusivity training, which in my experience the institution stalls even when museum employees have worked with outside consultants to draft proposals designed specifically to address issues of white supremacy within the institution’s culture.

This not only deliberately undermines the months of structural work I’ve done to support my project, it more egregiously undercuts the very work that the institution claimed it was hiring me to do. 

This is why I’ve always found the confusion that museum’s exhibit around issues of inclusion to be so fascinating and sometimes infuriating. If the museum’s permanent collection represents white people and clearly celebrates European and Euro-American visual culture as “genius” and “universal”; if both the board of directors and 98% of the professional staff is white; if Black and brown presence in the institution is heavily reliant upon school groups, security and facilities staff, and only appears in the galleries as a one-off or an addendum; and when institutional procedures deliberately undermine, erase and ignore the work of BIPOC employees, why exactly are institutions surprised that museum audiences are predominantly white?

The answer is they’re not. The inquiry itself and the feigned astonishment that accompanies it are blatantly and purposefully ignorant. Whenever the million-dollar question of how to better engage diverse audiences is posed, I always reply with the following question: “What would it look like if communities of color, the disabled and LGBTQ communities were centered at every level of the institution along with white upper- and middle-class communities?”

Of course, the question is frequently met with blank stares and blinks, which then prompts me to provide the following answer for them: It would mean that inclusion had to be central to the functionality of all museum departments, which inherently means that the institutional value system would have to decenter white people. 

As appreciative as I am to have worked for several prestigious institutions, my professional endeavors as a socially engaged curator and historian have come at a cost. I’m pretty much tired all the time, even when I take my mental health days.

I’m currently on a six-week personal leave because, as poet Nayyirah Waheed says so eloquently, “All the women in me are tired.” And so are just about all of my BIPOC colleagues in the field.

Stop asking us for reading lists and resources and take the initiative to at least use Google. Just because we are BIPOC does not mean that we are anti-racism scholars, facilitators or activists.

Stop expecting us to listen to how shocked and upset you are about the current protests. If you’re upset about watching the protests, imagine how upset we are about watching BIPOC die over, and over, and over, and over again.

Stop asking us what we think are best solutions because we’ve been implementing our solutions to these problems for our entire careers, often to have them underfunded, undermined or completely erased by white superiors and institutional procedures.

Thus, no matter how many times the question is posed, the answer remains the same: Yes, rectifying white supremacy culture in art museums absolutely requires recontextualizing objects, but it is unequivocally clear that white museum professionals need to initiate and enact these processes at home in their own mirrors.

Kelli Morgan is a curator at Newfields.

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