Last weekend, a crocheted banner bearing the words “Black Lives Matter” turned up in front of the Nevada Museum of Art. Tacked onto Kate Raudenbush’s Garden of Eden sculpture by the guerrilla artist “yarngurl”—a local knitter/crocheter whose identity has always been shrouded by a COVID-style face mask in public—the gesture was brought on by the museum’s response, or lack thereof, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
After the museum posted an Instagram message on June 1 that honored the life of Christo (of Jean-Claude and Christo fame, who died on May 31), social media followers took to the comments section to call out the NMA’s silence on the separate issue of Black Lives Matter, questioning whether the museum had addressed recent events.
They had not, but posted the following statement on the same thread:
“As a place of community, the Museum values and respects the agency of all people. We serve as a gathering place, an inspiring public square where many different ideas converge, where a diversity of ideas are shared in a safe space of inclusion, tolerance, and kindness. We strive to offer meaningful art and cultural experiences for everyone, and believe that art has the power to educate and to heal.”
As milquetoast statements go, this one is particularly “All Lives Matter” flavored for an institution that has, many times over, featured work that critiques the multiple axes of oppression that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) face—a distinction that The Holland Project (a frequent partner and collaborator of the NMA) was quick to point out in their reply, characterizing the museum’s response as “both weak and offensive to us and your community.”
For as long as I have lived in Nevada, I have always thought of the NMA as an inclusive institution that does more than simply pay lip service to artists of color. They are a museum that has developed relationships with local Paiute communities. They repeatedly hand over gallery space and microphones to Australian Aboriginal artists. Before every public lecture, they acknowledge the indigenous land they stand on. They show queer artists without putting on a queer artist show.
These gestures are often called “making space.” They are not empty, but—as perhaps we are realizing—they are not complete either.
In Shaheen Kasmani’s MuseumNext presentation titled, “Decolonizing Display,” the textile artist decries diversity as a band-aid for the bigger work of decolonization, which she defines as, “an upfront challenge to White supremacy.” She continues:
“[Decolonialization] decenters the Eurocentric view and it values the narrative that’s been “othered.” It dismantles systems of thought—epistemologies, methodologies, philosophies, faith, and the straight white man as the standard human.”
In the lecture—which is on Vimeo—Kasmani goes into detail about her uncomfortable experience co-curating “The Past is Now” at the Birmingham Museum in England, an exhibition designed to confront British imperialism and examine the ways that the city of Birmingham has been historically complicit in empire-ing. The problem, however, for Kasmani and at least one of her co-curators, was that the process itself was exploitative. In addition to not spending the time she was promised to work with historians, academics, and the museum’s collections for the research phase of the exhibition, Kasmani and her co-curators (which she later discovered stood for “community-curators” and not “collaborative-curators”) were barely compensated for their work, leaving them feeling tokenized.
She explained: “In Museumland, [the exhibition] got loads and loads of positive publicity—there was professional development on the staff side, but there wasn’t much going on for us. So we felt like everything we had done had been co-opted. There wasn’t enough credit given or redistribution. The exhibition on colonialism turned out to be a colonial experience.”
It’s easy to write Kasmani’s interactions off as extreme—and extremely ironic—examples of exploitation, but as more grievances stack up against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter (and in the wake of decades-long, slow-burn reform), it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that when it comes to art museums, “colonial experience” is the norm.
Following their Christo post and ensuing backlash, the NMA—in lieu of a direct response from museum leadership—posted a Kehinde Wiley painting from their current exhibition, “The World Stage,” with a quote from the artist. This was, predictably, met with more outcry as social media users accused the museum of hiding behind black artists.
On June 2, the NMA posted a black square—the de facto symbol of ally support—on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for #blackouttuesday, updating their official position to read:
“We are pausing digital communications in order to create space for important dialogue. We are grieving and listening to the symphony of voices in our community that must be heard—because we want to do better.”
Inducted into the ranks of museums wanting to do vaguely better, the NMA is not alone in fumbling their message of solidarity.
The SFMOMA—which also received static for opting to post a black artist’s work (Glenn Ligon’s “We’re Black and Strong”) instead of issuing a museum response—was additionally accused of “weaponizing their own black employees” and being “profiters of racism” by former marketing associate Taylor Brandon.
The Guggenheim came under fire for performing alliance on Blackout Tuesday without giving proper credit to Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black woman to curate an exhibition for the museum. Last year, following the opening of her “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” La Bouvier was left out of the Basquiat exhibition panel, the design process for the digital guide, and the deinstallation process.
Get the entire fuck out of here. I am Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator in your 80 year history & you refused to acknowledge that while also allowing Nancy Spector to host a panel about my work w/o inviting me
Erase this shit.
Please RT. https://t.co/LH7YYWcLT5
— No Quarter Will Be Given (@chaedria) June 2, 2020
The Palm Springs Art Museum waited until June 3rd to respond to current events, finally issuing a bland statement about “the power and possibility of art” alongside a photo of Alison Saar’s “Tobacco” sculpture. In protest, former curatorial assistant Andrea Romero wrote a letter decrying the museum’s belated and inadequate response, which has, so far, garnered over 250 signatures.
As art museums continue to offer late, insensitive, and mealy-mouthed responses to an urgent matter of violence against the communities they claim to show and serve, people continue to sound off.
In response to the NMA’s latest June 16 statement (a letter titled “A Reopening Message from our CEO,” where David Walker addresses Black Lives Matter in the sixth paragraph by way of announcing an extension to “The World Stage” exhibition), Instagram user @sarajeanpb (a former NMA employee) questioned how artists of color benefit specifically from the show, critiquing its wealthy, white collection ties, and going on to challenge the museum to “post the percentage of BIPOC they have on their staff and board” as a part of the current #pulluporshutup campaign.
As of the time of publication, the NMA has not given a response to Double Scoop’s request for these figures, and since their website does not post photos of staff and board members, I turned to Google to confirm that there are three, maybe four, people of color on the NMA staff and board.
Not exactly the gold standard for research, but enough information to conclude that the number is inadequate.
To be clear, my criticism comes from a place of loving the museum. From what I have observed over the years, the NMA is a lot more conscientious in their approach to exhibiting BIPOC work than other institutions. There have only been a few occasions—the gun show and the Bank of America-sponsored “Miradas”—where I have come away shaking my head.
In my view—and I should mention here that my view is white—colonial sensibilities have to rise to a certain level of obviousness for me to see them. It is on me to change this about myself. And it is on the NMA to be both surgical and broadly destructive when it comes to tackling racism in their own house. Messaging problems and bad optics always sit on top of bigger blind spots.
This is better said by Sumaya Kassim, one of Shaheen Kasmani’s “The Past is Present” co-curators in her essay, “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized.”
“When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Rather than place the onus on people of colour—either as facilitators or as an audience for the museum—we need to flip the narrative and ask how the museum can facilitate the decolonial process for its majority white audience in a way that does not continue to exploit people of colour. Key to this is accepting that the museum needs us; we do not need the museum.”
Obsolescence is certainly on the table for museums that continue to think that their position in culture is—or has ever been—neutral, that their role as “interpreter” doesn’t come with a mandate to do the difficult work of dismantling, too.
It’s not enough to put on a good show. We can do much, much better.
Cover photo borrowed from yarngurl’s Instagram page. The Nevada Museum of Art reopens this Saturday, June 20. Reservations are required, and new procedures will be in place to help mitigate COVID risks. Details here.