What You Should Demand of Your Art Museum: Decolonizing the Arts
On the tails of the most powerful civil rights uprising in decades, we are steadily moving towards a politics of accountability in all workforces and on all fronts. Those in the arts are recognizing that art spaces are not neutral grounds: we are acknowledging the work that needs to be done to establish a new moral paradigm, taking important steps like diversifying art collections and considering the art institutions’ role in neocolonialism. We are dissecting how galleries and museums have targeted largely white audiences to consume mainly white male artists, or alternatively artifacts taken from other cultures out of context.
The Met’s “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” wing: a rather problematic grouping of the disparate cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and North, Central, and South America: displayed together for their classification as a tribal primitive “other.”
Museums have their origins in imperial, violent, and exclusionary roots; they are wrapped up in the ideology of collection and display. In addition, the art gallery is and has been a historically white space, part of a self-sustaining capitalist ecosystem that caters to the ultra wealthy. Accessibility has been determined by capitalist gains, while the financial bracket further divides.
How do we decolonize? How do you tackle decoloniality in a system that is inherently colonial?
First and foremost, arts professionals need to approach their work understanding the political implications of their decision-making. So long as the personal is political, art can never be neutral. Art functions as a form of resistance, and we should want to see arts professionals with radical roots and strong conviction. The same way art and people are inseparable, art and political critique are indistinct. Museums should be ready and willing to respond to new political crises, and should be course-correcting canon on a daily basis. These solutions and their advocates should not need to always answer to a Board, which can be limiting to their flexibility and responsiveness.
Decolonize This Place protestor in a demonstration demanding the removal of Warren Kanders from the Whitney.
Furthermore, greater transparency of operations and their administration are imperative to liberate art spaces from questionable ethics and toxic gifts: Warren Kanders, Kenneth C. Griffin, Eileen Guggenheim, and the Sackler family are only just the tip of the iceberg.
In response to toxic bureaucracy in the arts, activist group Decolonize This Place is calling for large scale structural changes to the “closed-door committee adjudicating the boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ money.” Reformers are advocating museums clean up their boards by opening them to democratization, eliminating “pay-to-play” contribution requirements, and establishing a clear policy for receiving funding from trustees. Practically since the Medici era, artists and art institutions have long relied on the patronage of the extremely wealthy. However, in many cases this system has shaped the art world in rather ugly ways. Arts institutions are called to reassess their trustees and renounce problematic patronage: there is no place in the arts for such toxicity today.
Decolonize This Place demonstrators at the Whitney.
Image credit: KATHERINE MCMAHON
Institutions want the art, but often not the people and the voices that consume and create it. These issues affect everyone, and one of the only solutions is intersectional accessibility. Arts spaces must be actively working to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and other narrow-sighted, exclusionary perspectives. They should be providing resources for the visually and auditorily impaired; ramps, handicap entrances, and elevators for those with physical and mobility limitations; and gender-neutral washrooms. Museums and galleries should prioritize the presence and work of people of color, and be inclusive of queer, immigrant, and disabled participants. In addition to established artists, they should be providing constant exhibition spaces for BIPOC and emerging artists.
Following the death of George Floyd, several major Instagrams accounts created graphics for supporting black-owned businesses, including galleries.
What does this mean for exhibitions and its curators?
Acknowledging the contributions from outside the historic fraternity are imperative, which is why a new generation of young, globally-minded curators, art historians, and administrators with radical critiques of the industry as advocates and activists is imperative: especially in the demanding political contest of today. In fact, the whole system of curation and exhibition design needs reorganizing to be nimbler, and able to accommodate for the times.
Chaédria LaBouvier, the first ever Black curator at the Guggenheim in its 80 year history.
Language is incredibly important in decolonizing, and especially how didactics are handled largely determines accessibility. Curatorial statements should be straightforward, unpresumptuous, and unpretentious.
Museum educators are bridges to and producers of cultural knowledge, caring for their communities intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically. Education allows for meaningful access, and the institution should care about how wide of an audience understands them. They should always provide exhibition materials in local languages to meet the public demographics.
American Sign Language gallery tour at the Rubin Museum.
Curator Kimberly Drew states, “I don’t want anyone to think that they’re not intelligent enough to learn.” She poses a rather exciting challenge for arts spaces to be places of comfort, acceptance, and transparency. Museum professionals should be thinking about creating as many points of access as possible and as many invitations as they can: giving an all-access pass to the public, or as Drew calls it “giving a VIP card.” Operating in an open-door policy means inviting the public to see the backstage operations of the museum firsthand: open houses to conservation labs, and talks with curators, for example. These points of accessibility allow the public to understand the sometimes shielded and mysterious mechanisms of the museum.
The Harlem Studio Museum accessibility statement.
Additionally, decolonization and accessibility initiatives also include creating platforms for artists from more marginalized groups––such artists who are re-defining history and skill on a daily basis. The museum or gallery should be an artist-activated, publicly engaged space with as wide an audience as possible, as Bongisa Msutu states in her talk “The Coloniality of Access.” Arts professionals should foster generative relationships between the collector and the artist, gathering resources, residencies, and promoting philanthropy. The greatest collectors have made tremendous contributions to the working lives of artists and the narratives of history by building “mission-driven collections.”
A new wave of arts professionals with a sophisticated consciousness of history, situated on the progressive and remediate side of policy, are on the rise. The new arts leaders will not worry about reputation, patronage or funding when they publicly denounce white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and other systems of oppression that have corroded our society and the art industry for too long.
It is a privilege to work in the arts. From this position of advantage, I want to invite criticisms and demands for change, and see to them in my work. As the guests of museums and patrons of arts spaces, you should demand this much and more wherever you visit.
Graphic poster by illustrator Kelly Marcelle Malka of a quote by Toni Cade Bambara, an African-American author, documentary film-maker, social activist and college professor.
Image credit: Kelly Marcelle Malka.