After the Black Lives Matter outrage, STIR investigates the response of the art world

The brutal murder of George Floyd ignited global outcry at the dehumanising racism America’s Black community is victim to – we investigate how the art world is responding.

by Kabir Awatramani Published on : Aug 24, 2020

The brutal murder of George Floyd in late May this year ignited national outrage at the continued intuitional injustice that America’s Black community is prey to. A counterforce, manifesting in widespread civil disobedience, protest, and crucially: record voter turnout at state elections rock the landscape, trembling far beyond the police force – across cubicles in corporate America, within gentrified suburbs, and all over Tik-Tok. Leadership at many start-ups and glossies swiftly responded with reorganisation to helm a new and possibly conclusively inclusive vision of American expression. But, high up in the palest of ivory towers: fine art – does anyone hear the fireworks? Does anyone care?

The impulse to express ourselves is adduced in the caves we abandoned some 65,000 years ago and is arguably as innate to the human experience as is sustenance or reproduction. Not unlike the gender bias, the absence of colour in art history books is indicative of deliberate exclusion. A report in 2018 revealed the glaring disparity in how Black artists are received by American institutions: over the past decade, purchases and gifts of work by African American artists accounted for only 2.4 per cent of all acquisitions by the 30 museums surveyed. Shockingly, at four of these museums, such work accounted for less than 1 per cent of all acquisitions. This exclusion bears the legacy of how high “art” is defined – the dominant group dictates who is celebrated, as well as what is elevated to sublimity and what is denigrated to functionality. Will Black Lives Matter, now recognised as the largest social movement in American history, rectify this?

'Black Lives Matter' protestors gather in Philadelphia | STIRworld
Black Lives Matter protestors gather in Philadelphia Image: Chris Henry

Curator Nicola Vassel identifies this marginalisation as an “embargo of history,” and highlights that the current movement actually brought an already brewing effort for inclusivity to the boiling point. “The movement has exposed pent up vitriol and unleashed fear and panic in our institutions. They for too long had allowed systemic laziness and indifference to settle cosily around black narratives,” she explains. 

Increasing visibility is notable, albeit recent – in 2018, the number of solo and thematic exhibitions focusing on the work of African American artists increased by almost 66 per cent from 2016. The year 2020 was slated for a handful of anticipated exhibitions presenting the works of Black artists including Mickalene Thomas, Valerie Maynard, SHAN Wallace, and Shinique Smith at Baltimore Museum of Art, as well as solo shows featuring Dawoud Bey at SFMOMA, Deana Lawson at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Jordan Casteel at the New Museum, among many others across the United States

Yet, Vassel advises against the temptation to haste. “I worry that the hurried approach to solving their ‘optics’ problems has destroyed some excellent careers. These are bright and rational people who surely would have been open to more penetrating suggestions on racial discourse. This trigger-happy positioning will have its own repercussions—good and bad. The reckoning appears unwilling to spare, but few and sadly for this generation the sins of the father have now come due.” Her caution comes on the heels of brouhaha at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where last month chief curator, Gary Garrels pled “reverse discrimination,” in response to criticism.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | Black Lives Matter | STIRworld
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Garrels later publicly apologised, explaining that he would hope that in reorganising the collections (and in effect the cannon and markets) it is, "important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men”. But his refrain misses the forest for the trees – the canon of art history as we consume it is so exclusively male and Eurocentric that one might surmise that any white man who takes a brush has failed if he isn’t on the books. The court of public opinion inspired the end of his 27-year incumbency.

A commitment to the status quo is not unique to Garrels. To understand just how systemically racial biases influence curatorial practice, Ali Rosa-Salas, Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center, Henry Street Settlement in New York City encourages distribution of budgeting to serve as a microcosm for the dominant paradigm. In light of COVID-19, New York City expects to see a whopping 11 per cent cut in funding for cultural affairs, whereas the police force, which has been unequivocally identified as perpetrators of systemic and repeated racist attacks on minority communities, received cuts that many criticised as thinly veiled reallocations. The contrast in budgeting reflects our society’s priorities - who is valued and at whose expense. “Now, when we can’t congregate anymore, as institutions we ask ourselves who are we serving? What is our purpose?” asks Rosa-Salas.

Rosa-Salas is optimistic about the impact of Black Lives Matter on the arts.  “The contemporary art ecosystem has a critical opportunity to pivot in ways that are life affirming and inclusive. If this opportunity is not nurtured and worked through with integrity – that’s just not an option at this point,” she says. Rosa-Salas remarks that it’s heartening to witness major institutions like the MET and Gagosian introspecting on how they can contribute toward antiracism and de-colonialism. However, is this reckoning due only of American institutions? Afterall academic imperialism is hardly the exclusive purview of the United States.

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker | The Marvelous Sugar Baby | Kara Walker | Black Lives Matter | STIRworld
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker in the Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn Image: Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons

In July, Instagram pages around the world blacked-out in solidarity with George Floyd and statues of colonial glory were dismantled across the Atlantic – it’s worth investigating the global appeal and implications of Black Lives Matter. Diana Campbell-Betancourt, artistic director of Dhaka-based Samdani Art Foundation and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, asks us to think about what blackness means in a South Asian and global minority-world context. Although, the dominant paradigm of discrimination in South Asia is frequently caste and colour as opposed to race – they exist on a continuum with one-another. “In this context, could a Dalit individual possibly identify with George Floyd more so than a fellow Indian from the cultural and economic elite in South Bombay? Is region not just a limiting mindset?” she continues. Campbell suggests that in building entirely new institutions, fairs, and biennales, we have a salient opportunity to expand the scope of agency and inclusivity from the ground up. And such calls to action are pressing now more than ever before. 

The Temple of Dendur in the Sacker Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY | Black Lives Matter | STIRworld
The Temple of Dendur in the Sacker Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY Image: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Indo-Swiss artist Apnavi Makanji emphasises this unity in recognising that the struggle to represent Black artists is indeed a responsibility for all artists of colour, if not everyone in the art world. “You cannot separate my identity from my art,” says Makanji. “In the West, it would simply not have context,’ she mentions. Makanji recognises that the pedagogy of art, reflected in galleries and museums, the canon, and the market oftentimes reduces artists of colour to their identities, and thus frames them in a discrete narrative as parallel to the history of art, if not yet a part of it. “Now is the time when we have to come together to support Black artists and their communities,” she urges. 

And indeed, some institutions have already transcended the social media manifesto phase and begun the work. The New York Historical Society’s “History Responds” initiative, which was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, recently mobilised its network to acquire images of the protests as well as paraphernalia like flyers and protest signs with slogans like ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. In acknowledging the historical significance of the movement as worthy of documentation and representation, the museum grants Black Lives Matter a subjectivity and agency often previously denied to the Black expression in American history.

Although the outstanding cascade of to-be-delivered promises from galleries and museums can leave one skeptical — the onus remains on us as participants and consumers of culture to transcend our voyeurism and actively hold those responsible accountable. “The price of liberty is constant vigilance,” quips Vassel. 

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