Creating Equity In Art Institutions
This blog post originally appeared on the McKnight Foundation’s State of the Artist blog
Angelique Power: A Tourist in this Life
Why aren’t there more artists of color in mainstream arts institutions?
I’ve been getting this question a lot as I make my way across the Great Lakes region hosting information sessions for the Joyce Foundation’s Joyce Awards program. Joyce’s Culture Program focuses on improving racial equity in the arts; the Joyce Award is a $50,000 prize for artists of color in partnership with a nonprofit.
I always hesitate before I answer this question. Inequity in cultural institutions is due to a confluence of factors, none of them secret in the art world: the “pipeline” needs to be designed for more minority artists and art professionals; boards and staff should be more reflective of the communities that surround them; programming and even the vibe of an organization all are critical parts of the equation. Some cultural organizations pay lip service to these ideas, make minimal effort then wonder why they don’t see dramatic results. Others have been hard at work for decades and have realized much gain, but know more needs to be done. I spent seven years running the communications and community engagement programs for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. I get it, and I don’t want to embarrass arts organizations.
Their desire to diversify is genuine, and the issues are complex and nuanced.
Can arts organizations do more to diversify themselves inside and out? Absolutely. But will that solve the problem?
What about restrictions that communities of color place on our artists?
The project I was most proud of at MCA Chicago was a yearlong “Engagement Residency” with one of the top contemporary artists working today, Mark Bradford. Mark creates large-scale abstract paintings, video, sculpture and sound pieces. He is also genuinely interested in connecting to a variety of people in the places that surround where he makes and shows his work. You can find residents from his South Central LA neighborhood appearing in videos he’s created. My favorite example of his work is the life-sized ark he built in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, post-Katrina. Titles of his work include Mississippi Gottdam, The Devil is Beating His Wife, Thriller.
In Chicago, he spent a year working with students at a Westside high school helping them honor their individualism by finding their artistic voice. During this time he decided he wanted to meet people who would never come to the MCA to see his work. He wanted to do his standard artist talk, but in a church on Chicago’s Southside, the faith home for thousands in the black community, where many convene to share their lives, talk through ideas and reflect.
One hot and balmy Sunday afternoon, Mark, curator Tricia Van Eck and I drove out to the church for Mark’s talk. As we sat in the cafeteria drinking punch, watching children wiggle by us, hearing women laughing over a mid-day fried chicken, veggies and potatoes meal, Mark suddenly revealed how nervous he was. You’d never think this 6’ 7”, strikingly handsome, gregarious, dark black man, could ever feel uncomfortable the way he breezes into a room and everyone gravitates toward him. The church doesn’t always love the gays, he murmured. Well how about a Black, Jewish girl? I asked, smiling. Tricia, the only white person in a 10-mile radius, a willowy, perennially curious woman who enjoys talking with people more than any curator I’ve ever met, mentioned she is always happily out of her element, no matter who she’s around.
We realized a few things in that moment. One, we are all tourists in our lives, taking in new experiences, carrying our baggage inside us, being both of and apart from communities. Two, the saying is true about communities of color; we aren’t monolithic, but varied and layered.
There is not one way to reach us, to understand us, or to target us. And three, our nervousness signaled something major was happening. As we knew from the art world whenever we push ourselves into a friction moment, when we challenge ourselves to participate in a new experience we may not fully understand at first, we become vulnerable and therefore ready to be transformed.
That alone could’ve been enough of a realization to pack up, praise Jesus and call it a day, but something even more transformative was still to come. When Mark took the stage he talked through his art slides like he would anywhere else. As always, he was funny, reflective, casual and honest. The congregation listened and seemed genuinely impressed he was there. Then came the Q&A.
A hand shot up. What is the responsibility of a Black artist?
No responsibility. Mark said directly.
A shifting in seats. A furrowing of brows. An uncomfortable silence.
Tricia and I exchanged glances.
Mark continued, When I watch the news at night, I hear these stories of someone robbed so-and-so, someone did this to that person and I watch shaking my head and mumbling to myself “please don’t let it be a Black person, PLEASE don’t let it be a Black person.”
Mmm hmmsrolled across the pews.
I cannot create art from that space. I just can’t. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am going to be Black until the day I die and I’ll never forget it, nor do I want to, but I can’t create my best work from a place of responsibility. There are plenty of obstacles that already challenge us in the contemporary art world. We shouldn’t also hold our own selves back.
This is, of course, my memory of his words, but I remember it so clearly because as he spoke, and the congregants intently listened, a new understanding was collectively reached. Artists of color are often defined by their ethnicity, by those of the same race and those of different races. Their art is made to center around what it is saying about race itself. Is it doing justice to the race? Or bringing it down? Is it a step forward, or a setback? An indictment, a platitude, a post-post-racial comment?
Instead, what if everyone is seen as a tourist in this complicated and compelling life? As simple as it sounds. This doesn’t mean ignoring race, but acknowledging it as one of many important factors that play into our art, our experience, our wall label.
And most importantly, the art world cannot continue to expect visitors to cross barriers, enter unknown territories, and seek out artists on view in their hallowed halls. It ain’t a 1.0 world. While I do not deny the importance of curators and artist programmers, their intellect, their research, their knowledge base – we also can no longer deny that the world is large, and the majority of artists that are doing important, sophisticated, resonant work are outside of these institutions. Additionally, people will continue to connect, engage, learn, and explore in ways and places meaningful to them (churches, schools, front porches, gardens, markets, sewing circles, block clubs). There is real discussion, reflection, enlightenment and engagement happening here. When the art world steps outside of itself to visit with, talk to and learn from these other bastions of culture, knowledge, worship – the art world instantly becomes less isolated, more comprehensible and frankly, better.
Some of you insightful, wise readers may disagree and that is, of course, a good thing. My hope is that by talking about the often unsaid, agreeing and disagreeing, we can create more of these friction moments, these catalytic shocks to our ways of thinking that free us to be vulnerable, curious, and uncomfortable, and to wholly connect to the vibrant world around us.
Can I get an Amen?