Racism at Museums Prompts an Outcry for Change

Emilee Geist

“I don’t want to be part of a response that does not begin with the premise that there can be an end to white supremacy and that institutions historically organized to safeguard culture and civilization must play an active role in this struggle. We might call that a romance or […]

“I don’t want to be part of a response that does not begin with the premise that there can be an end to white supremacy and that institutions historically organized to safeguard culture and civilization must play an active role in this struggle. We might call that a romance or a speculative fiction, but these are the genres of anti-racist work. Okwui Enwezor used to say that museums are repositories of the human imagination; Linda Goode Bryant, founder of Just Above Midtown Gallery, says that cultural institutions should be in the business of turning can’ts into cans. The Black curatorial tradition is one of radical possibilities; any claim to do otherwise under the name of Blackness is a travesty to our collective inheritance.

Within days the Public Theater installed B. Peppers’ portraits of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the street cases in front of their building, announcing that they were offering water and bathrooms to protesters. This was the idea of a young staff member, which to me says that part of responding meaningfully to this moment is toppling the vertical order of institutional hierarchies and being willing to try out good ideas before they have time to be fully baked.

As I have listened to the chorus of demands to abolish the police grow increasingly louder, what I have heard is an analysis of how the police are not only out there—in the streets and in poor and Black communities—but in here, which is to say in our buildings and psyches. A call for divestment involves an acknowledgment of the ways that museums rely on local police departments to do the work of mental health providers and emergency medical technicians, as well as the implicit ways contracts with police departments protect property over people.

Disability activists and freedom fighters in South Africa used the slogan, ‘Nothing about us without us is for us’; the conversation must begin with prioritizing who we mean by us. And because Black people are not an indistinguishable mass or one collective unconscious, but a social formation of differing interests, agendas, and ideas, this conversation needs to be an open-ended one without fixed outcomes in order to flesh out these differences.”

Jessica Lynne

Art critic, ARTS.BLACK

“I think about the emergency of Black arts organizations in the 20th century, and I think of places that had no choice but to root themselves in community, to serve not just as cultural spaces but sites of education, political organizing and direct-action campaigns, places for childcare, and other forms of stewardship. I wonder how different our communities would look if all of our cultural institutions took seriously this type of ethos, not just in moments of crisis.

Meg Onli, associate curator at ICA Philadelphia, organized the Art for Philadelphia Community Bail Fund benefit, and I have been really energized by her effort. The benefit featured a suite of prints by seven Philly artists, with the proceeds going directly to the city’s bail fund that posts bail for individuals who are not able to do so, with the mission of ultimately ending cash bail entirely in Philly.

I want to acknowledge Visual AIDS as an important example of an organization that, to me, emerges as an artistic and political intervention. I recognize that V.A. is not an organization that ‘pivoted’ but rather came to life in the midst of the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. I think about just how consequential the organization’s archival work, Day Without Art initiative, and, really, the institutional spirit was/is/will always be. I think about the clear moral failings of so many, including the Reagan/Bush administrations, and how the V.A. founders and community embodied a care and a love so deep so as to ensure that the (by and large) public silences about how HIV/AIDS was disappearing an entire generation of artists would not become permanent.”

Laura Raicovich

Interim director, Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York City, and author of a forthcoming book on art and protest

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