To Fight Racism Within Museums, They Need to Stop Acting Like They're Neutral
The art world is full of the longstanding, racist histories that have affirmed white supremacy.
Illustration is courtesy of Lia Kantrowitz for VICE
In April, the Brooklyn Museum hired a white curator, Kristen Windmuller-Luna to oversee its collection of African art. The appointment outraged skeptics who felt that a black curator should oversee the institution’s African objects. Decolonize This Place, a New York activist group, staged a protest occupying the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court and penned a letter publicly accusing the museum of racism and aiding gentrification, demanding prompt change. One protester flung a pink banner over a balcony that read: “THEY WANT THE ART, NOT THE PEOPLE.”
The sign, for me, gets at the heart of the debate around how to combat racism in cultural institutions, which are both succeeding and failing to address the issue. The overwhelming whiteness of museums has discouraged communities of color from visiting their galleries. Nationally, about six percent of museumgoers are black and a 2010 study by the American Alliance of Museums predicted that in 2033 people of color would make up nine percent of museumgoers. Activists working within the system and outside of it want the same thing: for museums to stop acting like they are neutral and to acknowledge and correct the longstanding, racist histories that have affirmed white supremacy.
There is power in representation, and museums are tasked with selecting both their curators and the art on display. Recently, a pair of art world controversies—the Brooklyn Museum hiring and the Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibition of photos by Deana Lawson—illuminated the complex challenges museums must confront in battling racism and achieving a real sense of inclusion.
Relying on public protests to demand radical change, Decolonize This Place and the 20 or so groups that support their efforts are made up of activists who largely work outside of museums. Their marches recall groups active in the 1960s and 70s, like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, who picketed outside of the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, demanding to be included. Last year, the newer groups wrote and successfully lobbied for aspects of The People’s Cultural Plan—an effort that countered the city's own cultural plan and that was likely instrumental in increasing New York City's local arts funding by $40 million.
Decolonize This Place is asking the Brooklyn Museum to remove David Berliner, it's president, and other trustees tied to real estate or corporations driving gentrification in communities of color, like Crown Heights, where the museum is located. They want the museum to hire more curators and directors of color, increase pay for grounds staff, acknowledge that the land the museum’s building sits on was once home to indigenous people, and sweep its collection for colonial-era objects and return them.
The people of color actually working inside some of these institutions are, perhaps, more pragmatic. They consist of black museum professionals like Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who transformed the institution from a local organization into one of global importance. Golden has trained black curators who have gone on to present major shows by African-American artists at largely white museums across the country. The Studio Museum has also advanced the careers of scores of black artists, including portraitist Kerry James Marshall, conceptual artist Kevin Beasley, and abstract painter Julie Mehretu, all of whom completed the museum’s artist in residence program.
The group also includes white allies like the Nasher Museum of Art’s chief curator Trevor Schoonmaker, as well as black art historians like UCLA professor Steven Nelson, and celebrated African curator Okwui Enwezor, who defended the Brooklyn Museum’s hiring of Dr. Windmuller-Luna, his former student.
“The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said in a statement released by the museum. “There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better.”
Enwezor’s sentiments are real. Race should not determine a curator’s area of interest. However Enwezor’s view clashes with Decolonize This Place’s stance and overlooks the group’s point. “The issue of the hiring is not just about these two white curators,” art organizer Amin Husain told VICE. “There are over 20 curators at the Brooklyn Museum and two or three are of color.” He sees its public face—as a champion of diversity and inclusion—as a scam.
Despite this controversy, the Brooklyn Museum is more progressive than most. It revised its mission to be more inclusive, rehung its American art galleries, and provided long-term institutional support for artists and thinkers of color. It’s also notable that the museum has directed resources toward an African art curatorship and consistently mounted important exhibitions by black artists, including two surveys of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings and a major showing of the work of Mickalene Thomas, now a member of the museum’s board.
The museum also makes a point to acquire works by overlooked black artists, like their recent acquisition of a painting by Ed Clark at Frieze Art Fair, and to demonstrate the importance of black art within the history of visual culture. We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85, co-curated by the gifted black curator Rujeko Hockley, who trained under Thelma Golden, examined the social, political, and artistic concerns of black women artists during the second wave of feminism and the Black Power Movement. This fall, the museum will mount an extensive look at early black contemporary art in Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.
This is not to suggest that the demands of Decolonize This Place should not be taken seriously. They represent the structural racism embedded at the Brooklyn Museum—and at every museum in the country. According to a 2017 American Alliance of Museums report, 84 percent of museum curators were white, along with 93 percent of museum directors and board chairs. This means the vast majority of decisions are still being made by white gatekeepers, despite claims of diversity and inclusion and what shifts in power a “browning” America may bring.
The structural issues facing museums play out in ways large and small. Racism has forced black communities to create their own museums, like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. These vital black spaces are an attempt to fill the void left by mainstream institutions, but this configuration of black and white art spaces has mostly resulted in a two-tiered system that has been ineffective at combating racism.
The root of the problem often comes down to money, however. One black gallerist VICE interviewed, asked to be kept anonymous because the art world is small, pointed to the practicalities of the Brooklyn Museum position: “Would you go to school for all those years for a part-time appointment at the Brooklyn Museum where you maybe make $30,000 or $40,000? Who would want to take that job?” Privatized museum funding results in anemic operating budgets and low starting salaries for staff. And because museums often require curators to have a PhD, the curatorial field is largely only accessible to the immensely privileged—those who can shoulder the cost of extensive schooling and then survive on a meager salary.
Even if museums allow for people with non-traditional backgrounds to diversify curatorial positions, they will have to address one of the most well-kept secrets in exhibition making: deciding which artists get wall space is rarely solely left to curators. Instead, it often hinges on the patronage of white art collectors, gallerists, and board members.
If Decolonize This Place succeeds in removing Brooklyn Museum board members with ties to real estate and finance, it could begin to rebalance power inside museums. But the question remains: Who will fund them? “The government,” offered Husain. But it’s an unlikely prospect, when you consider that staff at state funded museums in Europe are paid poorly, state-controlled museums in Latin America have often been used as a tool to push propaganda, and President Trump has repeatedly called for the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts.
One art professional of color VICE interviewed called museums colonial projects where rich, mostly white people have historically stored their art trophies. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, is one of the largest museums in the world, but it is largely made up of galleries paid for by wealthy white families. And these endowments come with conditions: The Met’s Robert Lehman Collection is on view forever according to a 1969 agreement bestowing the collector’s 2,600 pieces of art to the museum. Museums around the country have struck similar deals. The newly created Edlis/Neeson Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago includes 42 works by artists like Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Jeff Koons—with the stipulation that the works must stay on view for 50 years.
I grew up as a black kid in Chicago and made frequent trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw contemporary art made mostly by white artists. Their works told me what beauty was, how power looked, and that the world good enough to be displayed on museum walls did not reflect me.
It created a viewing experience that was at odds with the world I knew to be true. I knew black beauty. I knew black power. I knew black love. I encountered them in my mother’s eyes, in music videos, at church on any given Sunday, and on the street corner where my grandfather and his friends hung out. Why didn’t the people I know deserve space in that museum? Not as an occasional four-month exhibition, but permanently?
Looking at works by white male artists tells us that they define what is high art and culture— they are the ones worthy of being on display. We are not told, on museum tours with curators—whose jobs are often endowed by the families the galleries are named after—how the works ended up on the walls. It’s a slick affirmation of white supremacy, a kind of gaslighting of the public for a museum to claim that it is impartial but is quietly allowing rich white collectors to define what we see.
The Brooklyn Museum attracts an audience that is 40 percent people of color, far above the national average. It’s a statistic that makes the outrage and comparisons it drew on social media to that museum scene in the movie Black Panther awkward. The Brooklyn Museum is not the British Museum, which was recently asked by Ethiopia to return looted Maqdala treasures. If the Brooklyn Museum’s visitor numbers are to be taken seriously, then audiences of color seem to feel welcome in the institution. So when groups like Decolonize This Place speak in the name of “the community,” it’s worth asking which one.
The museum system’s history of racism weighs on individual institutional efforts to address their roles in excluding black curators and black artists from their walls. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently announced it would sell seven works by white artists including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to increase its holdings of works by people of color and women. The sale and the mounting of solo exhibitions by black abstractionists, including Mark Bradford and the late Jack Whitten, is part of a broader strategy “to reflect the fact that the city is more than 60 percent black,” the museum’s director Christopher Bedford told VICE last year. The plan is a controversial effort, reflecting a rare radicality that speaks to the mixed reactions museums have received for their efforts to correct their favoring of white male artists over other groups.
The recent opening of a small exhibition of the black photographer Deana Lawson’s work at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art was meant to be an act of inclusion—a celebration of everyday blackness across the African Diaspora. Yet, after the show opened, an African-American woman walked into the exhibition's small, first floor gallery and was stunned by what she saw. She turned on her cell phone camera and began documenting her disbelief.
“At the museum—I’m not really for sure what all these pictures is about,” she said, panning over the large-scale photographs. Then she hovered over Lawson’s Nation, an interior shot of three black men in a New York apartment. The two central figures are sitting on a dark leather couch shirtless with gold chains around their necks. The woman zoomed in on the man wearing a brown durag who aims his right hand, fashioned into a gun, at Lawson’s lens. “It’s kind of creeping me out,” she said.
The video caused a firestorm when it was first uploaded to Facebook. Some commenters assumed that Lawson was white, while defenders of the images, who saw the show as a sign of progress at a museum, pointed out that Lawson is African-American. On the museum’s Facebook page, a commenter named J Cameron Bayne wrote, “The Deana Lawson exhibition is NOT a ‘Representation of African American Life.’” In Bayne’s opinion, the Lawson show is “a racist insult” that narrowly represents the artist’s personal experience in a way that would traumatize any black child who saw “such visceral images.” The criticism echoes the outrage felt when the Whitney Museum showed white artist Dana Schutz’s controversial painting Open Casket, a gruesome depiction of the body of Emmett Till. The African-American artist Parker Bright staged a one-man protest in front of it wearing a t-shirt reading "BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE".
The highly stylized and staged pictures in the Lawson show were intended to depict how black men, women, and children living on the margins throughout the African diaspora might appear if they were considered and celebrated. They were meant to elevate a different kind of black experience in a space that has historically preferred exhibiting respectable, middle class, or freedom-fighting depictions of black life.
The Lawson images upset all of that, critiquing not only the kinds of black representation we have grown accustomed to as a culture but also the very history of photography. Images like Kings, of black men posing at a party, and Eternity, of a nude, curvy black woman standing in her living room, exist in a grey area that should make an audience question them. Are they appropriated from a black family photo album? Are they National Geographic-style ethnographic studies? Are they simply portraits of the ways her subjects want to be seen? Because Lawson picks the people and the poses, are they a kind of self-portrait of the artist? Why does she photograph black men one way and women another? The fact that you can’t pin down, at first glance, how and why Lawson produces the images gives them power and calls into question our romanticizing the still image, our wanting poor black people to go away, and the problematic history of suggesting a single picture can frame an entire culture.
Like the protest at the Brooklyn Museum, the outrage over the Lawson exhibition has less to do with specific institutions and more to do with the systematic issues of racism and inequality. Museums are broken because America is broken.
The Carnegie Museum responded swiftly, putting up a quote from Lawson that clearly states her intent and adding public programming, including an address by the artist. Still, there have been no announcements of structural changes, ensuring the community will continue to view the museum skeptically and perpetuating the possibility of avoidable controversies.
This is not to say audiences shouldn’t do their research and read the wall text at museums. But the museum should consider that the audience brings its own understanding and knowledge to the space and art, too. Despite, the Carnegie Museum’s best intentions, a black visitor walked into the gallery and immediately felt uncomfortable with images that were supposed to celebrate her because they were presented in a space where she wasn’t previously welcomed.
The black female visitor recognized, like those who expressed their dismay online, that Lawson’s deliberate images were once presented as stereotypes used to dehumanize black life. National Geographic recently apologized for its role in pathologizing blackness. But the legacy endures and colors the conversation about meaningful representation.
For so long, our own images were used against us to call us powerless, ugly, and more recently, to justify the killing of unarmed black men, women, and children. It’s not hard to imagine why some people do not see “self mastery in the midst of chaos,” as Zadie Smith has written about Lawson’s photos. They are still living in the eye of the storm of injustice and they would rather, like the protesters in Brooklyn, see both cultural and governmental institutions make real changes around racism.
Earlier this year, the celebrated artist Carrie Mae Weems held a performative lecture at the National Gallery of Art. She spoke of her three-decades-long career before turning her attention to the “skin of a building.” “We really have to understand the role of museums,” she said. “How they play contemporarily, who’s in them contemporarily, who’s not in them. Right? Right? That becomes more and more important, certainly as the country becomes more brown.”
Visibly exasperated at the thought, she continued, “Major institutions are going to have to redirect the ways in which they are dealing with us.” That is not to say, she added, that museums have to only exhibit brown people, because that would be “boring.” “But they certainly will have to have a kind of balance that has not historically been there.”
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