Different people will point to different milestones in Chicago beginning to grapple seriously with its lack of broad ethnic representation in the arts, a gaping hole in the cultural tapestry of one of the nation’s most diverse cities.
For Cesario Moreno, chief curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art, it was the conversation that began in 1992, amid the 500-year commemoration of Christopher Columbus, let us say, happening upon America.
“That’s the first time I remember people really standing up and saying, ‘No, get rid of the word “discovered,” and we use the word “encountered,” Moreno recalls. “It brought that into regular conversations, right? I wasn’t just talking to other museum people. I wasn’t just talking to historians. … That’s when I kind of see the beginnings of people understanding that history is more complex than just one narrative can describe, and culture needs to reflect that.”
For Kamilah Rashied, director of education for the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre, it was the publication of the City of Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, a document that pointed the way toward a decentralization of city culture, from a top-down, Loop-outward approach toward one that viewed culture as a thing that is and needs to be supported city-wide.
“I think prior to that, there was this assumption that culture only happens in the Loop and only happens at major institutions that have decades-long legacies that the elite have named,” says Rashied. “It was just really clear when the data came back that people were like, ‘Tourists go to the Loop. If I’m going to go to the Loop, I want more than tourism stuff, I want stuff that’s aimed at me, as someone who’s local, who’s year-round, who lives here. And I want stuff in my neighborhood, too.”
But almost everyone agrees that this summer of 2020 is destined to be its own kind of milestone, and perhaps the most significant one yet. The COVID-19 pandemic had already forced institutions, from museums to theaters to concert halls, into closing down and entering periods of intense introspection. Shrunken revenues made them think critically about what was most important to them.
And then came the killing in late May of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota, horrific on its own and as a reminder of other deaths under similar circumstances. Suddenly the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice was reinvigorated, moving onto the streets in cities large and small, and in a way that demanded wholesale change to fight systemic racism.
Majority public opinion suddenly got the point. And in ways they had not before, big companies felt obliged to take public stands in support of the movement. Some of those included the major cultural not-for-profits in Chicago.
“I write today to acknowledge the impact of this pivotal moment and to commit the Art Institute of Chicago to both support and model racial justice and equity,” museum Director James Rondeau wrote in a public statement June 3. “Museums are contested sites; we are not neutral. We have the ability to play a constructive role in civic discourse. “
Employee-led campaigns at some of the big museums, including the Art Institute, made public demands for more diverse leadership and exhibition policies and for fairer treatment of the lower-wage workers who are typically the institutions’ most diverse staff, the very employees who were facing layoffs and furloughs amidst pandemic-driven cutbacks.
Several Chicago arts organizations were called out on leadership issues, and they made changes. At Victory Gardens Theater, Executive Artistic Director Erica Daniels resigned after protests over her elevation to the artistic half of the leadership role and the theater’s decision to board up its Lincoln Avenue space rather than welcome BLM protesters in.
At Second City, the iconic Chicago sketch comedy theater, longtime co-owner Andrew Alexander quit and apologized after former performers leveled charges of institutionalized racism at the venerable institution. “The Second City cannot begin to call itself anti-racist,” Alexander said in his resignation statement. “That is one of the great failures of my life.”
In this period of self-reflection, cultural workers fighting for greater diversity and broader inclusion in their realm see a real opportunity as opposed to what has sometimes come across as window dressing.
“The current push is absolutely new and different from previous years,” says Julie Rodrigues Widholm, recently departed as the director of the DePaul Art Museum and who was, before that, an MCA Chicago curator. “We are seeing deep structural change and a call for transparency that is unprecedented. We are in an era when even the Art Institute publicly declares that ‘museums are not neutral.’”
Asked to elaborate, to explain why she said “even” the Art Institute, Widholm — who took a new posting this summer running the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive — explains it was about the cultural hegemony that a museum like that has represented.
The Art Institute, she explains via e-mail, is “an example of a very large traditional encyclopedic museum that has conveyed a sense of authority, objectivity, expertise, and ‘the canon’ stemming generally from European and western notions of art history, quality, display, etc. For them to acknowledge that museums are not neutral is pretty radical and signals a new approach to their work and identity.”
Indeed, Rondeau was abject in his public letter. “As we reflect on our past, we are accountable for our museum’s legacy of white privilege and exclusion, not only in the representation of artists of color in our collection but also of those in our community who have historically felt unwelcome in our spaces,” he wrote. “That legacy is antithetical to the museum we aspire to be. We have been investing resources, and will extend those commitments, to create meaningful change.”
Another major Chicago institution, the Field Museum, is also changing its approach in response to the moment. “This is something that’s been of concern for institutions everywhere for a number of years now,” says Julian Siggers, who began this month as the Field president and CEO after leading the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “But there is a real urgency now. With the BLM movement just moving so front and center, there’s a real urgency — and it’s from the staff, too. I mean, they really want to make headway in this area.”
As a newcomer, he’ll be working on a new strategic plan, and it’ll look different, he says, than it might have before the events of the summer.
“Traditionally when museums work on a strategic plan, they sort of have buckets,” Siggers explains. “So they’ll have ‘research’ and then ‘public engagement’ and ‘exhibitions,’ ‘K-12 learning.’ They’ll have, you know, ‘philanthropy,’ and then they’ll have ‘diversity, inclusion and access’ as its own bucket. I want to have ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ in every single bucket. So it actually becomes the fabric of what everybody does.”
Lyric Opera, too, is filtering principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) throughout its practices, from the new hires it makes to the way it frames what it calls “heritage operas,” the company has posted.
And one way the MCA responded to the pandemic is by organizing “The Long Dream”, a major new exhibition opening in November that features all local artists “whose work offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world,” the museum says.
Rather than having one primary curator on the credits, the show is organized democratically.
“It is not business as usual,” says Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith. “It is a project that is collaboratively curated across a collective of people inside the institution … You’ll see a show that is more diverse than anything that we’ve put on in recent history, both in terms of diversity, of the types of artists and voices across certain fields of work, across stages of their career, and also the demographic and social representation of who’s included in the show.”
Northwestern art historian Rebecca Zorach, who has studied the history of Black art in Chicago and curates contemporary exhibitions, says the current moment seems to be about deeper issues than in the past.
“Much of the ‘change’ that occurred in earlier moments of race-related crises in institutions was more peripheral, more ephemeral, more about PR and trying to build audiences than about actually investing in diversity,” she says. “That is, it’s one thing to hold an exhibition, and relatively cheap — it’s another to make long-term hires.”
African-American and Latinx executives are on the rise at big institutions, she notes, and “many of the most successful and best known Chicago artists are African American and/or Latinx and that matters and institutions have to respond to it.”
Working on the South Side, one such artist is Theaster Gates.
“It feels like the question of equity and opportunity has always been kind of an undercurrent, and now it feels like an overcurrent, where I think the general public is going to hold institutions more accountable,” he says.
Gates, in his own practice, has advocated for Black Chicago doing for itself, a process he participates in with new institutions like his Stony Island Arts Bank, an old financial building revitalized as an art-making hub and cultural space.
“While I don’t necessarily agree with ‘cancel culture’ aspects,” he says, “I think some people need to be called to the table — if not for individuals, then maybe for the structures that could do more. People are saying, ‘Man, we really need those structures to do more.’ I think that that’s a good thing — that people feel empowered to say more to power than just, ‘Give me a little.’”
To be sure, anti-racism work and work toward diversity and inclusion were already going on in Chicago culture, albeit in fits and starts.
The Field Museum began in late 2018 to remake its woefully outdated Native American galleries, this time with the full-throated participation of Native experts who will help present the artifacts not as the cultural histories of departed peoples but as points on an ongoing timeline. That new exhibition has been delayed some by the pandemic, but should open by autumn, 2021, Siggers said.
The Art Institute last year reworked its African art galleries “through an inclusion lens,” said Rondeau at the time. “The first paragraph acknowledges the sort of violent legacies of colonialism, the problematic categories of art and non-art… So for the first time that I’m aware of in this institution’s history, we problematize aspects of collection and display upfront.”
In 2019 the museum canceled, practically at the last minute, a major Native American pottery exhibit because the collection included grave objects and an outside curator hadn’t sufficiently involved descendants of the people whose work was on display in the process.
Heather Miller, executive director of Chicago’s American Indian Center, called the late exhibition cancellation “amazing … our concerns and our issues were actually addressed.”
On a broader scale, since 2014, Enrich Chicago, a collective of 30-plus cultural and philanthropic institutions, has been working toward “ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector,” it explains.
Through research, collaborations and racial justice workshops, the organization, initially funded by the Joyce Foundation, has aimed to bring access and opportunity to “ALAANA (African, Latino, Asian, Arab, Native American) artists and organizations.”
And the need is there. “A Portrait of Inequity,” an Enrich Chicago report that was released in March because of the pandemic’s predicted impact — after being completed in late 2017 — found gross injustices and disparities in, as the subtitle has it, “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Chicago’s Arts & Culture Community.”
In a city where whites, Blacks and Latinos are each about 30 percent of the population, the study found that more than 70 percent of boards and “decision-making staff” at foundations and arts and culture organizations identify as white. Further, organizations with strong ALAANA leadership “receive 50 cents for every dollar that white organizations receive,” according to the report.
Given the urgencies — and opportunities for change — of the pandemic, “it is time to move closer to the Chicago arts and culture sector of our imaginations,” Enrich Chicago Director Nina Sanchez wrote.
At an April Zoom conference exploring the report, Angelique Power, Field Foundation president and a founder and board member of Enrich Chicago, urged those watching to examine “the deep inequity baked into philanthropic institutions” and to ask “Where is the money going? How is currency recreating the false hierarchy of race?”
That said, every sophisticated Chicago cultural organization was at least nodding in the direction of diversity before the present moment, whether it be taking orchestras or plays to local parks, making admission free to Chicago teens, or amping up educational efforts designed to expose new audiences to their offerings.
“Right now, diversity is an industry of its own,” says Court Theatre’s Rashied. “Some people are in that game because it behooves them to be into those things.”
But such earned skepticism about some motivations Rashied has witnessed in the past is giving way to the urgency of the present moment, where the conversation about anti-racism and correcting practices is much broader.
“The confrontations feel pervasive and visceral,” Rashied says. “Right now, I feel like daily any kind of institution can get run on by social media or whomever about how they are inherently racist and problematic. I love it. Like, I’m microwaving my popcorn and snacking and snacking. I love it because it’s overdue.”
But there can be a tokenism, still, to some corrective efforts — an organization saying, in the words of the Mexican museum’s Moreno, “’We did an exhibit on Diego Rivera. So, you know, we’re good for the next few years.’ They’re still seeing it that way, and they’re not realizing that it’s not necessarily about what you exhibit in your gallery, but it’s more about who’s curating and who’s researching and how are they doing it.”
Real impacts will be hard to gauge until we come out of the pandemic and budgets and attendance are back to normal and new hires have been made.
But the conversations, at least, are real. “It’s at my kitchen table. It’s at my water cooler. And I think that is very healthy,” Moreno adds. “I would love it for us to be transformed, to be really better. But I know my species too well, and I know that we might just be a little better. And that’s good.”
Where Moreno’s formulation is two steps forward and one back, Widholm, the former DePaul curator now at Berkeley, disagrees on the count.
“I do think we’re taking three steps forward now,” she says. “I am seeing greater internal institutional reflection followed by action and a willingness to actually listen and change. It’s certainly a bumpy, winding road toward a better more equitable future for museums but it is long overdue and there’s no going back now.”
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