On May 1, 1970, 4,000 Army National Guardsmen and 2,000 Connecticut state troopers were deployed to New Haven Green by the FBI. 15,000 people had gathered there that day in support of Ericka Huggins, Bobby Seale and seven other members of New Haven’s Black Panther Party, in custody on charges including conspiracy to commit murder. Businesses boarded up storefronts and paratroopers in neighboring states were put on standby, but the day passed peacefully, in large part due to the efforts of the local Panthers chapter and Black students from Yale University, who worked together with the school’s administration, to help maintain peace. The importance of that work was made clear two days later, when the National Guard killed four students at Kent State University during a similarly peaceful protest.
Now, half a century on, co-curators LaTanya Autry and Sarah Fritchey have honored that gathering with the exhibition Revolution on Trial: May Day and the People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50 at Artspace New Haven, where I serve as executive director. While the exhibition was not conceived under my watch, some days I feel as if their work called me to action. The privilege of leading an organization that is willing to put this conversation front and center was only enhanced by the thousands of people who’ve taken to the streets again, all over the country, since the murder of George Floyd. Artspace and many other nonprofit cultural institutions exist to provide a space for artists to challenge our ideas about the world, Black liberation included. But while we look back on the history of the movement for Black lives, we are also looking to the future, and the hurdles these institutions face to maintain their independence and challenge the powers that be.
30 years ago, after the National Endowment for the Arts decided to no longer fund individual artist projects, many non-profit arts organizations in the U.S. decided to harness the power of individuals and private foundations to provide their funding. Due to unprecedented wealth and Reagan-era tax changes, private foundations’ support for art organizations in the 1990s rose by 115%. This charitable giving helped stabilize U.S. arts organizations, and for some it came to provide more than half their annual revenue. While executive directors of these arts organizations tried to prioritize the goals and ideas of artists, individual donors began to believe they had greater ownership over the content and character of cultural organizations. In the 21st century, individual donors take up the majority of financial support for the creation of new work by living artists, often allowing them to have a greater stake in, and influence over, the participation of artists in the economy.
As someone who has earned my income from the cultural system for 30 years, I’ve watched as these changes impacted the work I performed. I made changes in my professional work as I came to understand my education, privilege, power and the possibilities within various sectors. So, I have experienced the questions and conflicts of the nonprofit arts sector in small, midsize and large organizations. Curators (including myself) created diverse artist lists and educators welcomed public school city children into the museum to ensure us that everyone was being given an opportunity to learn about the world’s cultural heritage. The programming and support of BIPOC, queer and disabled artists, however, often mask the toxic workplaces of these organizations, where the desires of white, wealthy, heterosexual colleagues and benefactors have been prioritized over the safety and care of core staff who represent oppressed, intersectional communities. A Council on Foundations report found that from 2006 to 2015 the number of people of color in full-time positions had risen by only 1.68%. While considerations of diversity, equity and inclusion has permeated the sector, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations noted that less than half of respondents had success in these efforts, including lack of leadership that exemplify those values.
I could not be more enthusiastic about the work younger colleagues are doing today to challenge the system and decolonize museums. The personal stories captured in the press and on social media are shockingly close to what I experienced long ago. Once again, the quiet, daily work of my courageous colleagues are being given national platforms, available in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and use of digital applications by cultural institutions for their public programming. Will audiences, particularly donors and board members, show up for these programs? Could it change support for museums in the future? Decades of dismissal and oppression, hidden behind looks of pity or confusion by co-workers, may finally be in the past, and I can’t wait for the future.
Lisa Dent is the Executive Director of Artspace New Haven.