Three years ago I made the move from Washington, DC to New York City with the intent of being a part of the city’s arts and culture scene. I’m originally from Brooklyn, and thanks to my parents, grew up exploring the city’s museums, libraries and theaters. Perhaps it was just their way of keeping my constantly moving mind stimulated or my constantly moving mouth shut for a few hours, but no matter the impetus behind their commitment to exposing me to the arts, my love for it never left.
As an adult, I’ve sought and found ways to stay engaged in and support the arts community. The creativity, ideas, and stories told through the hands, words, voices of artists remind me of our shared humanity and inspire me to see myself, our world and our work in new ways. Many people ask why I made the professional shift from politics to culture, and it’s because I feel one currently focuses on emphasizing and exploiting our differences, while the other attempts to highlight that we’re really all confused humans trying to figure this life thing out and make meaning from it together. I’ll let you decide which applies to what.
Nonetheless, as I’ve entered this field as a professional and as a student (LOVING my current Arts & Social Justice course), I’ve noticed how the pervasive problems of our society continue to suck the joy out of my utopic vision of what the arts have been or rather, can be.
The systemic challenges of authentic inclusion internally at cultural institutions and externally with engaging diverse audiences, or truly embracing a culture of constructive confrontation within this sector are reaching a fever pitch. Given the current socio-political environment, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is catching lots of folks off guard. For far too long, leaders within the arts and culture community have had the privilege of keeping their eyes on the hanging canvas and their focus on the final curtain call, rather than feeling the pressure of individuals and communities discontent with the state of the world — and that arts and culture are a part of it. Alas, that’s all over.
It seems obvious to me, but just in case you haven’t noticed, information, news, fake news and memes are moving through society faster than you can blink. This means that at one wrong move or lack of thoughtful preparedness, any institution is bound to feel the wrath of Twitter; the latest target and culprit, the Brooklyn Museum.
Now, I’m not here to argue the merits of the museum’s latest hires, but what I am concerned with is what appears to be the lack of cultural and environmental awareness as to what the optics would be to a rapidly-gentrifying community with whom the Brooklyn Museum has worked so hard to engage and build trust. Overall, it just wasn’t a good look — nor was this announcement well thought out.
And this friends, is a classic case of living in the cultural-world bubble.
Yes, the new curator of African Art has seemed to concentrate her work on changing the narrative on African Art and has earned her credentials far beyond most. But the problem internal staff seemingly overlooked is the very real frustrations people of color have within the Brooklyn community and with the arts and culture community in general — both that appear to be painted with and over in whiteness. This is a case of perception clashing with reality and vice versa.
With all the criticisms and news, the Brooklyn Museum has yet to respond. They could release a statement standing behind their hiring decision and sharing the work they have done to offer and authentically engage the communities of Brooklyn, and their commitment to continue doing so. Instead, we are feeling a tone-deafening silence. Perhaps they are working on it, but the Twitterverse doesn’t know that — and therefore the story with their no-response keeps spreading. In 24-hours there has been a significant blow to the BK museum’s reputation with communities of color that will take more than a day to repair — as the issues this case study has brought to the art-world surface will take more than a day to address.
I recently discussed the topics of diversity and inclusion within the cultural community on a panel at the ArtsReach marketing conference with a group of leaders far more qualified than me (scroll down to the Brown people section). For the most part, we warned our audience that without doing the very real internal and institutional work needed to confront their own biases and omissions, controversies like these would be quickly knocking on their front doors. I don’t think any of us thought the next one would be visiting Brooklyn.
Nonetheless, this crisis — and it is a communications crisis — is just another example of what happens when internal cultures don’t allow for or fully conduct the boundary spanning necessary before going public. It also surfaces and reinforces the long-held belief that cultural spaces or those who curate cultural narratives are not for people of color, even if the narratives being curated are reflective of their stories.
So how do we solve this? It certainly can start with a well thought out, culturally responsive and reviewed statement by the BK Museum. But on a more meaningful level, it truly begins with cultural institutions making the commitment to reflect on how and why things like this keep happening, and legit DO something about it. If they don’t, I can pretty much guarantee the very audible social media backlash and resulting reputational damage will continue; and what can be opportunities to become more reflective of the communities in which we live and the societal changes we’ll have to confront will only be hot-button crises, with the next bubbling underneath another poorly-executed decision in the staff decision-making chain.
It also continues with a commitment from communities of color to doing more to include ourselves in these overwhelmingly white spaces — not only as consumers of the culture but as creators, curators, conversation starters and leaders in it. We have to speak up, show up and lend our social and economic support. We also have to learn what it takes to build and lead sustainable institutions. It is true that the majority of administrative and decision-making positions in any sector are not held by people of color, and that is blindingly true in cultural institutions. But we have to find and engage each other and build the networks among cultural workers of color that lend us the credence to also build relationships with the decision-makers of this sector. It ain’t easy, but we have to and will continue doing it (See here, here and here). These institutions are the keepers and presenters of our histories and our creativity. If we aren’t in them and helping to shape them, we have even more of an uphill battle to deconstructing the myths or partial-truths they can perpetuate.
Just so we all don’t feel completely hopeless, here is a list of cultural leaders and institutions engaging communities of color you can support today:
· Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — I’m biased because I work here, but legit this place is amazing. Close to 100-years-old and home to millions of books, artifacts, art on the self-expression of Black folk worldwide, all free to access with your library card. We also have dope programming. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
· The Amistad Research Center — Another archive capturing the history of Black people worldwide, our nation’s ethnic and racial history, and the history of human relations. A gem in the heart of New Orleans.
· Walker Communications Group — Donna Walker-Kuhne has been advocating for audience diversity in the arts for YEARS. Support her and the institutions who understand and take this work seriously by working with her.
· The Laundromat Project — Community driven and engaging, these folks trust and elevate the brilliance of local artists and communities around them.
· Jenkins Johnson Gallery — Black-owned, they just opened a new gallery in Brooklyn featuring artists of color.
Definitely missing everyone here, but this will get you started. I’ve got more on this on the way, and it's coming soon. So stay tuned by connecting with me on Twitter or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re on it.