Museum Drip was dripping along in my head for years, but as I’ve previously acknowledged, it was the urgency to say something in response to @ChangeTheMuseum that got me to finally hit “publish.” The stories on this account call attention to racial microaggressions (and aggressive-aggressions) and top-down governance that seeks to please super-wealthy board members. Of course, there’s more to the story than individuals and the wealth gap in museums’ lack of diversity. Another lack of diversity plaguing art museums: little diversity not only amongst art historians themselves, but their research areas.
My existence in the art world has been a bit of an anomaly in a couple of ways. Because of my path I’ve existed in a bit a bubble from some of the worst museum problems, but also have the benefit of a vantage point from which I can see where we lack access points. My academic training is in in art history, but I work in and always pursued work in museum education. In theory, museum educators are better off stopping their education in the content area after undergrad because if you become too close to the material it can be difficult to package it for visitors, who are many more degrees of separation from the content. But because I have experience in both, I understand how audience expertise and subject area expertise intersect.
The second reason is my pursuit of an MA knowing that I wanted to stop there and not dive headfirst into the academic world of pursuing a PhD. Yet I also steered clear of programs that only had a terminal MA, because I wanted to be around scholarship and specializations. In particular, I sought out programs that specialized in BIPOC artists. As an undergrad I became very obsessed with artist biography (shout out Giorgio Vasari) and the structural roots of the discipline. I studied the ways in which the European trappings of art history, over time, became applied to “non-Western” (read: non-white) artists. Following this path, I was able to get my MA without learning much about dead white guys, stop when I was ready to take my knowledge to the streets, and spend a couple of years in a setting in which I was surrounded by people doing serious work to interrogate traditional art history narratives and to uncover the stories of artists who were less likely to have received commercial success.
So. I am an art historian but a practicing museum educator. I am versed in but not steeped in the conferences and conversations of curators. And as an art historian, I studied the discipline from the outside in and surrounded myself with scholars who studied artists and genres outside of the traditional canon, which means I don’t know a lot about dead white guys but I can tell you a lot about women artists, indigenous artists, black artists and am currently working to learn a lot more about Latinx artists. I also have only worked in American art museums. As such – I’ve spent the first few years of my career kind of blind to how little art history programs are actually training the next generation of scholars to be in touch with American history.
Recently (via a couple of white guys, who woulda thought) I have gained access to the behind-the-scenes of a broad-ranging PhD program in a large department. I am able now to observe how art historians are trained outside of my utopia of Native Americanists. When looking for programs and professors that would fit well with their own interests, my budding art historian friends butted up against the reality that there are far fewer art historians trained in, researching and training future generations in American art history than in European art history. The Association of Historians of American Art formed in 1979 “in response to the need for an advocacy group that would promote scholarship in American art.” 1979 is only 10 years before I was born. You better believe there are still professors and folks in director-level positions in museums who entered the field before this association existed. These individuals will be about 70 now. As my generation enters the field, yes, it’s true that many of them are now retiring or no longer taking students. However, it gives you an idea of the state of the field of art history that there has only been a burgeoning advocacy for American art for the past 40 years. One thing I hope to drill into every readers’ head in every post is that for better or worse, institutional change is long and slow. All those art historians who attended graduate programs between 1979 and today are the first generation to be trained in an environment in which American art was taken seriously. Think about first-generation anything. Think about your first generation iPhone.
Logically, the recency of legitimizing American art makes sense for a field that originated in Europe. Indeed, the studies of African, East Asian, Southeast Asian and European art offer centuries more material than that of the United States. (I mean, how about American indigenous cultures, too, but I’ll save that for another day.) What a joke of a country, am I right? Not even 300 years old yet? Remember, plenty of brilliant art historians still don’t know how to talk about Contemporary art. I mean after all – the 1970’s were only 50 years ago! (Lol) Jokes aside, it isn’t inherently unfair or problematic that Americanists are newer on the scene. After all, great work HAS been done in the past 40 years, and tons of great work has been done in the past 25 or so, and the diversity of commercially successful, soon-to-be canonized artists is improving every day.
But the point is – it isn’t something museum audiences are aware of. It isn’t something you think about when you’re a museum staff trying to be reactive to BLM and pull together exhibitions that look thoughtfully at the history of America and say something about where we are today. And if American art has only been respected for the past 40 years – what does that say about the huge diversity of paths one could follow to tell the complete story of American art? How many scholars are specializing in Black art? Indigenous art? (Well, besides all of my friends?) Latinx art? LGBTQIA+ art? Intersectional artists?
Again, there are plenty of incredible scholars who have published significant work and are working currently in these areas. But this is just another one of those instances in which we need to be extremely cognizant of what we mean by systemic change. Systemic change does not mean something has been happening for the past 10 years and so the problem is solved. Systemic change means that people who have been working in the field for 40 years have gotten with the program. Systemic change means that those individuals with seniority in the field are paying attention to their younger colleagues and engaging in a give and take that informs by drawing on the past while incorporating new concepts and methods.
Ok, so back to museums? The following is a sweeping generalization: often, the catalyst for change comes from education departments, or other front-line staff who have more direct interaction with the public than their curatorial counterparts. (It’s a sweeping generalization. I can think of exceptions immediately. I’m not knocking curators as a monolith.) Remember about 600 words ago when I mentioned that museum educators often do not have advanced degrees in the content area? Educators are experts on the audience. Curators are the experts on the content. So if educators are driving conversations about American history, and your staff lacks an Americanist, you’re going to lack the depth and richness that the topic deserves. Even if you have your one Americanist curator, you’re up against centuries of an exclusionary definition of “fine art.” Many BIPOC American artists themselves are the ones doing the work to point out how exclusionary the art world has been for the lived experiences of their communities. I am all for expanding the definition of the curator and championing community practices, but is everyone doing the same share of heavy lifting to research and promote narratives outside of the traditional canon?
“For myself, one of the biggest obstacles as a Native artist is dealing with the mainstream art world’s lack of understanding of Native art. When I or any other Native artist have curatorial visits, or exhibition opportunities, or fellowship opportunities, oftentimes for somebody to begin to understand the work we have to provide an entire history lesson before we can even get into the depth of the conversation and the content of the work right now.”Dyani White Hawk Polk, “Pushing the Conversation Forward: Dyani White Hawk Interviewed by Sheila Regan“, BOMB Magazine online, published and accessed Monday, September 7, 2020 https://bombmagazine.org/articles/pushing-the-conversation-forward-dyani-white-hawk-interviewed/?fbclid=IwAR1TzBF2PI0bQjiGxE37cny6xJ8m6RjifZRiP-g__c1jcJ-FlUeL_goWQRo
This isn’t to say that I think anyone should be discouraged from doing deep dives into Slovakian representations of hats in the 18th century, or whatever non-American, weirdly specific niche topic y’all wanna spend your dissertation years on. I love that journey for you. It is just to say that art museums are not going to be able to do deep dives into black women artists at the turn of the 20th century (please @ me with the “there aren’t any,” maybe I’m not talking about artists who painted oil on canvas or bronze sculptures) until that happens at the academic level. We need more brilliant academics taking seriously topics that better reflect the human history of the past 150 years, and training students to do the same. We need to figure out a way to be less terrified of identity politics, which is a whole-ass post for another day. We need to figure out ways to dismantle archaic hierarchies passed onto us from “the Academy.” We need to somehow internalize the notion that “fine art” is a capitalist structure and not a qualitative assessment. And we need to continue to make this pipeline bigger and wider to accommodate more than just the folks who are squeezing into it with the extraordinary privileges that often accompany pursuing a doctorate in the arts!