Monday, November 09, 2020

What now?

When my father was born, he wasn’t a human. It was the last days of the British empire and his family lived on land they’d been on since 1500 BCE. He was not really a citizen of anything. He was a colonial subject, less than on his own land. To put it in context, my daughter just turned 11. 

If that is not your family story, think about that. I’m in between the long arm of colonialism and the future. And I’m not close to being alone, or even close to being the most marginalized. My father might not have been considered a human by the British, but he was born to a financially privileged family. He was not only high cast but privileged. His grandfather owned the first car in their city. And, it’s no accident that I became an American. Privilege celebrates privilege. I might be an immigrant’s kid, but like my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother, I went to private school and then to a career. There was no Faisal-like bootstrap pulling in my family. My successes were on the backs of many. My father showed up here on a TWA plane. My struggles as a brown woman in this country are minimal. 

Many, many peoples struggles are much greater than mine. Many American Blacks have been here long enough to be in DAR, but cannot travel freely in America. Race stacks people against each other, creating hierarchy born of bias. 

What does this have to do with museums? Here’s the thing. Everything we think about collecting, exhibiting, and sharing is predicated in white supremacy and its handmaidens, classism and masculinity as power. There is nothing our field does that is independent of this pervasive world view. It is why “Women artists” are “finally getting their due.” It is why Jackson Pollacks are worth more than Lee Krasners. It is why in the great museum upheavals of 2020 no white male director of import ended up getting toppled. It is why academia requires only academically trained artists succeed. It is why art museums have greater financial resources than other ones. 

The big next step for most museum professionals will be the hardest. If you want this field to grow with our society, you will need to reckon with the culture of white supremacy. This whole mess is not going away. There is no way to make museums better and not tackle white fragility. White people in museums can post black lives matter on social media, but if they still feel too fragile to talk about race, we’re still where we were before. You will need to think hard about why you do what you do. White or not, you will need to be pretty unsparing in your focus. You’ll need to be truthful with yourself about our failings as a field, and how our training has bound us as much as empowered us. 

When I was first starting out, I remember having to teach a Robert Colescott painting. African-American artist Colescott showed race in America in unsparing detail tinged with the kind of acerbic humor that brings discomfort to liberals and conservatives alike. As a new gallery teacher, armed with works like heterogeneity and hegemonic paradigms, I felt ready to engage visitors in the critical race theory required to appreciate Colescott’s work. Then I started to teach the painting. Well, everyone was less than happy. The patrons were stunned into silence, gagged by their propriety. I was unable to turn my theory into constructive action. I did in the end learn how to teach that object after many uncomfortable tours. But the experience stuck with me. It seems an apt metaphor for the state of museums. We have plenty of solid theoretical ideas. We have visitors who want to enjoy seeing collections. We as practitioners stand in-between this experience. We can make choices that will allow everyone to enjoy the museum experience, and by that I mean anyone and everyone. To do that, we’ll have to compromise. We might need to change our language or our approach. To get to that compromise, we’ll need to see what’s holding us back. I assure you race and class will be at the top of that list. And, then we’ll need to find an approach that helps us breakthrough. But, we won’t be able to skirt these issues. We won’t be able to whisper about them or use coded language to hide them. What happens if we ignore them? Society will have to deal with this. We’re in the pressure cooker right now. And, if museums don’t, we’ll become obsolete. 

So, are you ready? 

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