I recently read an article about how companies are scrambling to find token Black creatives. The article concerns artist Shantell Martin. Martin is a rising contemporary darling thanks to her bold, dynamic murals and the potential of her work to be used in collaboration across different sectors, from corporations to the performing arts. Martin was asked by a certain well-known tech company to create a mural “while the [BLM] protests are still relevant.” “Still relevant.” Have I cursed in my posts yet? Should I? Well – here goes nothing: FUCK this.
It’s bad! Let’s debrief why its bad from the perspective of this blog about the practice of displaying art for public consumption, is the concept of a reactionary art display for a performative participation trophy. Typically, exhibitions of art displayed for public viewing are planned out months, more often years, in advance. Indeed, museums have been learning to become more nimble and find ways to participate and comment in response to world events. Much of the progress followed the popularization of the concept that Museums are Not Neutral. This new nimbleness is good, but there’s potential to exploit an outwardly “nimble” approach when an institution is actually just being reactionary.
“Museums are not Neutral” became a rallying cry in 2017. Most had “embraced it” by spring of 2020, as evidenced by every museum email I saw in June as part of their efforts to let me read their statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Learning to become more nimble and to pivot when we receive new information is good and healthy and important. Realizing that you have hosted no exhibitions by artists of color in one or more years of recent exhibition cycles and scrambling to save face when the pressure finally falls on you is unhealthy and unimportant. The problem with many museums’ Black Lives Matter statements was that they had nothing to with and no bearing on their exhibitions, acquisition strategies and staff policies. That’s how could even for a moment someone could fathom it appropriate to ask a Black artist to create something while the struggle for racial equality “is still relevant.” The art world is warmly familiar with participation trophies for racial justice.
As I’ve stated in a previous post, I believe there are a good number of art museums doing better than what’s being represented in the mainstream at the moment. However, I also believe that art museums exacerbate the problem because our overly competitive culture necessitates framing exhibitions and offerings as cutting edge. This struck me in winter of 2019 when I encountered this headline. “Long Sidelined.” They “Finally Receive their Due.” For the uninitiated, it would seem that this is the first-ever exhibition to celebrate shifting Native American artists outside of the anthropological halls of natural history museums. This is what we would call a big middle finger to the thriving community of contemporary native artists who have been exhibiting in high end galleries and museums for decades. It’s fair to say that it’s exciting that within the last decade there’s been much more interest in large-scale museum exhibitions and publications of art by indigenous artists. It is not fair to act like one exhibition is solely responsible for giving “long sidelined” artists (most of whom are in major museum collections) “their due,” and presenting their work without context.
This type of narrative is damaging to diversity initiatives. If every time there is a museum exhibition of work by BIPOC and women artists, the press around it employs language to make it seem like it’s a revelation, it continues to underscore the fiction that BIPOC and women artists don’t belong; every time they show up it’s worth making a big deal over.
So, gallerists, museums, people who hire artists – stop saying “finally” about BIPOC exhibitions. Stop framing every BIPOC exhibition as “long overdue” when I can easily point you to 50 majorly successful Black artists from the past 50 years. To that end, stop acting like Contemporary art – which is by nature more inclusive than any period in the art historical canon – is impossible to understand and explain. Stop acting like it takes so much heavy lifting to separate the “dominant” narrative from the…real narrative. Of the real people who populate the earth. Only some of whom, oddly enough, are white men.
EDIT – While revisiting this post for Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, I reviewed some saved materials and rediscovered this excellent 2015 review of a Native show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that blessedly echoes many of the sentiments I share here – proving to me that I am not in fact taking crazy pills! The article sums up our shared bafflement at the absence of acknowledging past exhibitions of Native American art – although with a much snappier catchphrase: “exhibit amnesia.”
“Artists of Earth and Sky actually follows generations of Indian art exhibits in New York City. However, reviewers have heralded the show in such a way that suggests a kind of exhibit amnesia…Regardless of their exhibit provenance, “Adena Man,” and other curatorial selections are extolled as “rarely seen.” The review language surrounding the items reads as a case of exhibit amnesia cleverly spun as a “groundbreaking.” New York is a city with one of the largest American Indian populations in the U.S., yet writers consistently overlook important New York venues with well-established reputations for exhibiting American Indian material items. The George Gustav Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, for instance, and the American Indian Community House are two institutions that have featured American Indian art for decades.”How We Still Look At and Talk About Indians and Their Art
May 12, 2015By Patricia Marroquin Norby & C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa
Museums, at least, exist to preserve our cultural heritage and to educate the public about it. Yes, the article that launched this post concerns a tech company, not a museum or an established art gallery. But it launched it because it saw museum practice reflected in what happened to Shantell Martin. While we all understand the necessity of the blockbuster and trend exhibitions, museums do not exist to conform to the whims of what our board thinks is important – especially if one day, that’s dead white men, and the next, we’ve got to engage Black artists while it’s relevant – which is always.