Editor’s Note: While ArtMuseumTeaching.com does not frequently republish posts from other sites, there are interesting and urgent issues raised periodically that, I feel, could spark productive conversations, exchange, and potentially even change in our field. The provocative post below published at Opine Season has already sparked lots of thinking and questioning, and I’d like to utilize the online space and community of ArtMuseumTeaching.com to allow for an OpenThink on these meaningful issues of diversity, audience, community, and social responsibility. As the letter’s authors state below, “we write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service.” I invite everyone to share thoughts, questions, and experiences below.
Written by Chaun Webster, Jeremiah Bey Ellison, Arianna Genis, Shannon Gibney and Valerie Deus
Originally posted at Opine Season on October 29, 2013.
To Whom It May Concern at The Walker Art Center,
We have learned that on October 30, The Walker Art Center will be showing the film, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and followed by a talk with the director on Nov 9. This film is perhaps one of the most honest and visceral visual representations of the horrors that were part and parcel of the institution of slavery. Furthermore from the beginning, 12 Years a Slave has been, from its firsthand account, to the writer, to the director and leading actor, one of the most highly recognized, fully Black cinematic collaborations in the history of film.
We are concerned that though this film is being shown, that peoples of African descent, whose ancestors’ lives and histories were disrupted by the slaveocracy, will be largely underrepresented in the audience. Our position is that equity is not just about the diversity in the art being shown but the material work of creating greater access to exhibitions to ensure that audiences are representative of the subject matter.
We understand that these events were publicized to members of The Walker and on The Walker’s website. As you may or may not know, when marketing strategies are limited in media and points of origin, the race, class, gender and other layers of social location are also limited.
Within the Walker Art Center’s Mission Statement the institution is described as “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences” and having programs which “examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures and communities.” Which communities do you seek to inspire and what questions do you seek to examine with the creative expression of artists?
Over the years we have become acutely aware of the way that art institutions are guided by an exceptionalism that will welcome works of art by select artists of African descent and other historically marginalized groups but will largely have little to no relationship with members of those communities. This in no small way contributes to the issue of representative audiences.
Representative audiences insure that narratives are not placed in a vacuum where art institutions can be absolved of responsibility to the cultures and traditions that those stories come from. When white-dominated spaces, often of a homogenous class, bring work like McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in, they in many ways manage the narrative and the way that it gets interpreted. In these spaces the participant/viewers are freed of any responsibility, social or otherwise, to historically marginalized groups and in so doing re-inscribe the roles of colonialism in art production, distribution, and consumption. In other words, in this case, African art can be present and maybe even a few “exceptional” African artists, but by and large African bodies are unwelcome.
In light of all of this we are calling on The Walker Arts Center to recognize their exclusive practice of not intentionally involving historically marginalized groups at the table for this occasion. This recognition can in part take the form of publishing this letter as an addendum to the material circulated at the screening of 12 Years a Slave and director talk.
We urge The Walker to open up more ticket space for both the screening and the discussion with Steve McQueen. This ticket space would be freely given to reputable organizations of our choice that work with underrepresented youth.
We urge The Walker to arrange another screening and talk with the director that we would host in a community space of our choosing.
Lastly we are calling on The Walker to host a panel discussion at The Walker where we can convene a public conversation on art and social responsibility as it relates to the artist and art institutions.
The tremendous contributions of Africans, on the continent, in the United States, and other parts of the diaspora cannot be understated. These contributions stand in chorus with that of other historically marginalized groups whose communities continue to be denied access to tables carved from their own wood.
The Walker can serve a role in equity as it relates to the production, distribution, and consumption of art in the Twin Cities, but that will require a resolve to listen to its diverse constituents who represent a variety of cultural and ideological perspectives. We write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service. It is our belief that this is not only possible but imperative as we move forward.
* * * * *
About the Author
Chaun Webster is a Twin Cities activist, publisher, and poet in the Black radical tradition. Founding Free Poet’s Press in 2009 with the intention of empowering Black and Brown artists to control their own images, Webster is a 2011 Verve Grant recipient and is preparing for the release of HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics. More information about Chaun Webster and Free Poet’s Press can be found at www.freepoetspress.com.
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9 thoughts on “Open Letter to The Walker Art Center”
I am curious about the Walkers response. This is sharply critical of the institution. I make the assumption that the Walker Art Center has made education programs available to all groups of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. That the institution is hosting this event for the public, and marketing beyond its “membership” base would lead me to assume it wants more participation. This powerful film will hopefully have many venues, not just the Museum. I would also imagine that there are many opportunities for community organizations like the one writing this letter have opportunities to make partnerships and cultivate conversations that are inclusive of a variety of groups including this museum. I would be SHOCKED if the Walker does not have many outreach programs to diverse communities living in and around the Twin Cities-their moves to be more inclusive and bring the art outside the museum walls have been huge examples for the field. I will not argue that some of these accusations can be leveled at primary cultural institutions in every city/state across the US, but to point fingers and demand that the institution present a specific opportunity for this one groups to identify other “worthy” groups seems a little disingenuous, and unfair. Please post the Walker’s response if any.
I have not yet seen a response from the Walker, but I wanted to share a few excerpts from other comments at Opine Season that keep us from pointing fingers at the Walker:
Marcus McGillicutty: “Do Twin Cities institutions like The Walker need to do a better job of reaching out to the people of color in our community? Absolutely. Would they like to do a better job of reaching out? I’m sure of it. Is this a missed opportunity? Probably. Does the blame lay solely at the feet of the Walker’s staff? Absolutely not. Difficult situations rarely yield perfect results.”
Shannon Gibney: “What else can we imagine, what other structures and approaches to programming and artistic production from these communities might be possible, so that more folks have access?”
UPDATE from Opine Season: “The director of the Walker just emailed us to set up a meeting to discuss these issues, probably sometime next week. They have also contacted Steve McQueen’s people, to see if he might be interested in scheduling a community talk while he is here…obviously no guarantee on that one, though.
“The Walker sent their official response to the Star Tribune earlier this afternoon, and then the director emailed us this evening. Although I personally think that the order should have been reversed, I was happy to see that in the end they did the right thing and responded to us directly.”
When speaking to students each semester in an Intro to Art Education course, I often explain art museum educators as exhibiting a “missionary zeal,” with a passion for art, rather than a particular religion, as the motivation for their work. The content of this blog post problematizes that metaphor for me in some rather profound ways, most notably in that it reifies a relationship model that I am not particularly interested in or comfortable with. As an educator, it is my responsibility to engage in critical reflection of my philosophy and practice fairly frequently and to adjust accordingly. This is not possible without listening to the thoughts and opinions of others.
Rather than seeking to figure out who is at fault (or not) for the series of events that engendered Mr. Webster’s post and it’s subsequent re-blogging here, I hope that it can instead be a catalyst for reflection, dialogue, and introspection for all of us who work in art museums and seek to create opportunities for learning within them.
Art museum educators, in general, engage in the type of work that they do because they care deeply about their communities and are committed to creating a space where myriad voices are heard and respected. Sometimes those voices remind us to check our privilege. We would do well to heed them.
As promised, I’m posting the Walker Art Center’s official response to the Star Tribune:
“The Walker’s retrospective of the film works of Steve McQueen launches October 30 with the first regional screening of 12 Years a Slave. This viewing will be followed by additional screenings of McQueen’s previous films Shame and Hunger and will culminate with a dialogue between McQueen and Stuart Comer, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on November 9 addressing McQueen’s renowned visual arts practice and his more recent feature films.
“These programs were announced broadly, and after a short presale to Walker members, the dialogue and 12 Years a Slave sold out to the general public in a matter of days. Tickets to Hunger and Shame are still available. Unfortunately the Walker’s agreement with the film distributor prohibits additional screenings of 12 Years a Slave since it will be released in commercial theaters in the Twin Cities two days later, on November 1.
“The Walker appreciates and respects the voices of concern expressed by members of our community regarding questions of access to and representation of diverse audiences. We agree that this is a worthy and important topic for broader discussion within our arts community and we welcome this dialogue.”
The Walker works with the African American community, among other communities, all the time, most notably in bringing artists including Julie Mehretu, Bill T. Jones, Glenn Ligon, and Ralph Lemon for exhibitions, performances, and residencies. The letter writers ignore this, instead focusing on a film (which hits Minneapolis theaters two days after its Walker premiere) and a talk (which is specifically about how McQueen’s visual arts practice interfaces with his film work; it’s not about slavery). I’m part of a mixed-race family, I live in Minneapolis, and I work in the arts, but I don’t see their specific concerns about access to these events as having merit. I do, however, welcome a dialogue on access in the arts in general.
I believe the question of “who bears the blame?”, in this context is fairly moot. The broader, more meaningful question, which the writer asks, “Which communities do you seek to inspire and what questions do you seek to examine with the creative expression of artists?”, provides an opportunity to the Walker to examine their motives, priorities and strategies as a means to reach those “ends”. The writer wisely points to the Walker art Museum’s mission statement to create a foundation for this discussion. I would think the Walker administration would be proud to engage in this topic of discussion in order to fulfill their mission statement.
The reality is, institutions, individuals, cultures and administrative bodies are imperfect. Understanding that reality takes a bit of humility and conscious pride in that reflective process; knowing this in no way diminishes the necessity and responsibility of community members holding Arts, or any other institutions accountable.
This exchange keeps reminding me of a powerful essay that bell hooks published in 1995 entitled “Art is for Everybody.” So I dug it out from my bookshelf, and I share a few excerpts here (apologies for the length, but I fear that editing and cropping her text too much removes her voice). In that essay, she writes:
“Without a doubt, if all black children were daily growing up in an environment where they learned the importance of art and saw artists that were black, our collective black experience of art would be transformed. However, we know that, in the segregated world of recent African-American history, for years black folks created and displayed their art in segregated black communities, and this effort was not enough to make intervention that revolutionized our collective experience of art.
“Two central factors that help us to understand black folks’ collective response to art in the United States are, first, recognition of the familiar — that is, we see in art something that resembles what we know — and, second, that we look with the received understanding that art is necessarily a terrain of defamiliarization: it may take what we see/know and make us look at it in a new way….
“For more black folks to identify with art, we must shift conventional ways of thinking about the function of art. There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look. Such a revolution would necessarily begin with diverse programs of critical education that would stimulate collective awareness that the creation and public sharing of art is essential to any practice of freedom.”
She concludes the essay with the following paragraph:
“Art constitutes one of the rare locations where acts of transcendence can take place and have a wide-ranging transformative impact. Indeed, mainstream white art circles are acted upon in radical ways by the work of black artists. It is part of the contemporary tragedy of racism and white supremacy that white folks often have greater access to the work of black artists and to the critical apparatus that allows for understanding and appreciation of the work…. These circumstances will change only as African-Americans and our new allies renew the progressive black liberation struggle — re-envisioning black revolution in such a way that we create collective awareness of the radical place that art occupies within the freedom struggle and of the way in which experiencing art can enhance our understanding of what it means to live as free subjects in an unfree world.”
Hi, Mike, thanks for bringing this important discussion to the attention of a wider audience. I have visited The Walker but don’t know it well at all. I wonder if this post I wrote on June 29, 2013 about Institutional Body Language has any relevance. It discusses not so much the overt actions museums take regarding diversity but rather unspoken messages they may be communicating unintentionally. I’d be interested to know what you and your readers think. http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-empathetic-museum-institutional.html?m=1