Designing racial justice at the intersection of art, history, and the imagination
Posted August 2020
How an art museum is shaping the nexus of culture and racial equity in this country.
Art, artists, and the institutions and places that bridge them with society have a profound role in accelerating cultural change and movement building. The human experience with art is one that engages the mind and ignites the heart. And that is precisely why art in this nation—through institutions and systems that support its creation and representation—has also been leveraged to perpetuate a cultural status quo, by maintaining a visual environment that preserves a particular American narrative, emptied of our country’s complex history with race.
Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem Thelma Golden sat down recently with Jennifer Arceneaux, Emerson Collective’s Director of Strategy Integration, Culture Council, to discuss that dual role of art in light of our present social moment.
They explore key historical points and societal systems in this nation that have shaped a cultural landscape that marginalizes Black artists and artists of color—and how The Studio Museum continues to respond to that very history of exclusion and underrepresentation to help reimagine a nation grounded by creative access and racial equity for all.
What has been on your mind—both personally and professionally—as you think about this moment precipitated by the murder of George Floyd?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the past and the future. The past, because so much of what I know about it—my history and my family history—gives me strength to lean into the significance of this moment and my sense of purpose and leadership in it. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the future, and how this convulsive moment of necessary reckoning is about creating a new, better, more beautiful, more just future.
What is giving you strength and inspiration as this reckoning continues?
Speaking with artists is so invigorating because, through their eyes, I'm seeing where we are—our collective perception. Artists have been deeply important to me in this moment because they provide room where I find respite and restoration. Thinking about, talking about, engaging with their ideas has allowed me to live in a space of imagination; and I think deep movement work, deep societal change requires imagination on every level.
How do you see the work of the Studio Museum in conversation with this moment, and the larger history of systematic racism in the American art ecosystem?
In so many ways, the Studio Museum was born in a moment that is very much like the moment we are in now. The Studio Museum was founded in 1968 during a time when many museums across the country, but particularly in New York, were protested by artists and activists demanding more representation of Black artists.
And the historical grounds for these protests were real. FDR’s Works Progress Administration’s art programs barred Black artists from leadership roles until the Harlem Artist Guild worked to overturn the policy. One could count fewer than a dozen national museum exhibitions that featured the work of Black artists prior to 1967. And in 1971, White curators of the Whitney Museum’s “Contemporary Black Artists in America” exhibition refused to partner with Black artists or even an expert on Black art. The book, Mounting Frustration, by Dr. Susan Kahan documents these moments and others like them.
So, the idea of opening up a museum like the Studio Museum was one that really came about through this important moment in the ‘60s, compounded by a legacy of racial injustice in the American art world. The underpinning idea was to challenge the exclusion of Black artists in museums and in the larger canon of art history.
The Studio Museum, which was at the time of its founding named, The Harlem Museum, was really focused on how to protect and preserve space for Black art and artists, now, and into the future, and that’s been our vision ever since.
How will The Studio Museum build upon this vision “to protect and preserve” space in the future?
We exist in a cultural world where the voices of Black artists, Black cultural producers, Black people are still marginal. And so, the Studio Museum’s founding mission to create an institution that is singularly focused on Black artists and Black culture—a museum with cultural specificity as its foundation—is still our call to action as we look to the future. Culture-shifting work is intentional and specific work.
In Black culture, our art—our music, our dance, our literature, our song—is our capital. We are a rich people, and that is evident in the history that comes through our artistic expression—and the history being made each new day.
What are the interventions and new ways of thinking that artistic and cultural institutions can adopt to help drive this nation forward in racial equity and justice?
It is impossible to imagine a world where we are asking ourselves to think broadly and to think deeply—with power and possibility—which is what racial equity and justice require, without the arts. Therefore, it’s impossible to not imagine that cultural institutions have to answer the call to be present and to show up boldly for this work.
Museums and institutions must begin to systematize equity beyond the important work of representation; they must be contributors to true cultural equity. Yes, representation is important—the visual representation of artists and artworks in collections of museums matters.
It’s also about the distribution of power: how are Black people, indigenous people, and people of color represented and supported in leadership and governance roles throughout the institution? How representative and inclusive are institutional practices so that they respectfully engage audiences from all communities? Responses to these questions help build the cultural equity this nation needs to shape a cultural ecosystem that is accessible to all communities and restorative of the historical systems that were designed to close off that access.
I see the opportunity for art and exhibitions to give us the important space to reckon deeply with our culture and with our past and our present, but also to imagine a future we have yet to see.