Lost in the Forest of Arden

Disrupting gender expectations would seem to be an easy task for a play like As You Like It. Reveling in the language of love and flirtation, the action covers secret identities, power grabs, bold set-ups, and dramatic reveals. There is much to be explored here: women disguised as men, courtly denizens presenting as shepherds, conflicted rulers and heirs, strong female bonds, fights, music, poetry, and a forest where exiles leave behind the demands of their former lives.

This year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included all of these things, but also offered an expanded interpretation of many roles. The director, Rosa Joshi, has described her interest in the play as centered around the hopefulness it provides in dark times.

With the Forest of Arden as a place of transformation through female leadership, Joshi sees the character of Rosalind as finding her true self through her performance of gender. Describing herself as “text-driven,” by honoring the text but approaching the play with a healthy dose of irreverence, Joshi mentions in an online interview that she is interested in “losing some of the preciousness” in her approach to classical texts. 

I am a fan of approachable Shakespeare. American Players Theater, among others, have been digging into this territory for many years. Unfortunately for the production in Ashland, the “preciousness” is not only lost, but the play is gutted with poorly chopped text, making for awkward passages and non-sensical sequences. An introductory chorus has been inserted to provide background from deleted scenes, and conversations have been cut short or omitted altogether. 

Especially disorienting was the displacement of a key text from relatively early in the play to the conclusion of the performance. Despite a visually stunning presentation, the new placement strips “All the world’s a stage…” of its context and meaning. Although the famous words were beautifully delivered in this production by a group of women, the text is ascribed to a male character. Relocating this passage robbed Rosalind, the main female character, of the play’s closing entreaty, one of the few epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays that is delivered by a woman. This was a confusing choice for a director who is interested in expanding women’s roles in theater.

The casting was fun–finally introducing gay love!–but other than a couple of standout performances, the changes did not add any nuance to the story. Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior was a highlight, presenting a leader who, with grace and generosity, deftly anchored the exiles of the forest. Kate Hurster glowed as Celia, echoing a similar sincerity and generous spirit. Sadly, other characters were difficult to appreciate. The text was so disjointed that many roles were robbed of the words and interactions that usually provide complexity and subtlety for actors to mine. Jaques felt out of context without the lengthy banter around the character’s melancholy state, and Rosalind–a great character with much charismatic potential–was all boldness and bluster, with little variation. As Taylor Leigh Ciambra has described elsewhere, all of the excitement about a gender-bending approach is lost when the production still ends with straight weddings, resolving itself as “another story for the cis/hetero canon.”

I agree with David Templeton that the director’s alterations were “actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity.” This is a play with a frothy storyline, but it is ripe below the surface, filled with gorgeous language and stinging wit. Some of the pleasure was present in this production, but most was sadly tossed off as sarcasm or edited into oblivion.

Was this a more accessible version, less “precious,” easier to understand for viewers who are new to Shakespeare? Maybe, and I hope seeing it will embolden these fresh viewers to try out another. But I adore this play, and this production put me to sleep. Despite the director’s intentions–including some really interesting ideas about transformational space, female leadership, and power–the end result was a playful romp, sans bite, sans focus, sans beautiful language, sans interest. 

Moving Beyond the Boy’s Club (with the help of two Lindas)

Almost two years ago Linda Nochlin passed away. Soon it will have been 50 years since she helped to birth the field of feminist art history with the publication of her ground-breaking essay. Introduced to her work through classes with Whitney Chadwick at San Francisco State University, Nochlin’s thinking and research broke open my world, revealing a language that felt like my mother tongue.

Dr. Nochlin is one of two Lindas on my mind because within the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure to see a few projects that feature the work of women artists. I wish the best response to this statement was, “so what?” or “who cares?” I wish I didn’t feel the need to highlight work solely because it was made by women. But a study recently released by artnet News concluded that only:

“11 percent of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.”

Frustrating and disappointing news, certainly, but not all that surprising, especially when, within the last year, the decision-making positions in museums have been found to remain mostly white and male. What does this mean, other than systemic change is slow? Of course it means more than that. It means that, 50 years after Nochlin’s essay demonstrated the power of critiquing institutional privilege, women are still dealing with the angry results of challenging institutional privilege. Adrian Piper responded to the artnet News article by pointing out the responsibility of the press:

It is remarkable that your report neglects to examine what is arguably the most significant factor of all in perpetuating the invisibility of art made by women. It says nothing about artnet News’s own role in protecting the status quo.

Women ride motorcycles, weld metal, lead bands, serve in public office, and write plays. Women make art, too, and their work needs to be supported and critiqued and celebrated.

Following are a few of the projects that I’ve seen lately.

10 Wisconsin Sculptors: Not Just A Boy’s Club is an exhibition currently on view at the UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery. Featuring artists working in Wisconsin–most with ties to UW-M, UW-Madison, or MIAD–the show is thoughtfully curated and beautifully installed.

Although only on view through October 11, 2109, the artists are all worthy of additional attention: Emily Belknap, Prithika Deivasigamani, Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Katie Martin Meurer, Nirmal Raja, Mary Roley, Jill Sebastian, Valaria Tatera, and Kristin Thielking and Lisa Beth Robinson.

Earlier this month, Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations performed Precession of a Day: The World of Mary Nohl, a work that was commissioned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Milwaukee Film, Wisconsin Union Theater/UW Madison, and the Cedar Cultural Center. Celebrating the life and work of a legendary Wisconsin artist, the performance was a mix of music and video. Not presented as documentation, the imagery, words, and sound explored the artist’s vision as life-long inspiration. The project is accompanied by a gorgeous vinyl production with extensive notes (sadly my last turntable was dorm-room compatible and given away in the 1990s). One more performance is yet to be scheduled, it will happen in Minneapolis sometime this winter.

Another artist who takes inspiration from earlier works is Lauren Gunderson, a playwright whose 2017 The Book of Will was the only play by a woman presented at APT this season. Maybe this play was so powerful, or there were such riveting female protagonists in other plays on the schedule (A Doll’s House, for example), that other women playwrights weren’t considered? I don’t know the reason, but this is a spectacular work, performed in Spring Green by a deeply talented company.

(This play is about the first printing of the collected works of Shakespeare. The performance struck me intensely, not only because of my lifelong interest in these plays. In 2016 I had the opportunity to be part of the team that brought an actual First Folio to Wisconsin when the Folger Shakespeare Library organized a traveling exhibition. The book, and the play, captivated me. As I watched the actors on the stage, I recalled the first folio in its crate, in the gallery, in my hands. I installed one of the books that the actors talked about, that the play was written about, that is the legacy of that late-16th century playwright. Now three years after the exhibition, watching this play, I understand it in very different terms).

Another touchstone for me (and maybe for my generation?) is the music of a second, latina Linda: Linda Ronstadt. The documentary about the singer’s life that was just released reveled in her powerhouse voice, but also revealed the influence she wielded in the music industry of the 1970s. Despite a sexy, cute public persona, this is an artist who encouraged careers, supported other women artists, put up with harassment and verbal abuse, and ultimately performed and recorded the music that she wanted.

And that’s what Linda Nochlin was writing about: the ability of women to pursue their work, and the roadblocks that they have encountered throughout history. Ronstadt was singing and recording at the time that Nochlin was writing her essay. After almost 50 years, when we look back over the careers of these two Lindas, what can be considered “great?” To pursue your vision, to do your work, to receive recognition, to be inspirational.

Gracias, Lindas, we are in your debt.

No sound? No fury. And no signifying of any kind.

Last night I heard a performance in an outdoor theater. What I mean is, I actually heard it. Thanks to the magic of technology my theater experience has been transformed.

It was only last week that, after a few years of declining hearing and a recent check-in that documented new loss in the mid-range, I finally plunked down the funds and acquired hearing aids. I’ve been told my type of hearing loss is fairly common and that I’m brave for dismissing vanity and using devices. But there is more behind this decision that just being happy to hear again. I’m also hoping to help my long-term brain health. When hearing loss in middle age has been linked to dementia in later life, I’m definitely open to any potential improvement in the aural-processing department.

the newly acquired devices

My hearing (or lack thereof) has been on my mind recently due to a job change. I’ve moved from having my own office–with a door that could be shut–to working in an open plan office. I sit with 3 other people in a group of work spaces around a shared table; four other people sit in a  similar arrangement in the same room; three more will join in another “pod” very soon. It is a social group with lots of casual meetings and chatting amidst phone calls, keyboard clacking, and photocopier noise. I knew it would be a difficult transition for someone like me, who prefers a quiet working style. What I did not expect was my inability to participate in conversations that are layered on top of the background noise. It’s not that it’s difficult to hear people, it is just impossible to focus on their words with all of the other noise. 

The daily office environment is just one problem I’ve experienced. In the last couple of weeks I have attended three presentations that, despite their similar structures, have provided very different sound environments:

  • The first: a talk presented by a local art organization. Situated in an echoey room with stone walls and few attendees, in the introduction of the low-voiced speaker, it was also mentioned that no microphone would be provided. I made sure to sit near the front so there would be at least some possibility of hearing something. When the speaker faced the audience–perfect! I could hear everything that was said. When the speaker faced the screen, or when an audience member asked a question? I got maybe 25%. And when people in the audience whispered to each other during the presentation? Nothing. The room was so acoustically bad that I was unable to differentiate sounds. 
  • The second: a training at work, held in a large, high-ceilinged room with multiple tables that each sat 6-8 attendees. Despite having a fantastic tech setup, the presenters decided not to use microphones. Again, when they faced me I could hear everything. If they faced the other side of the room, or the screen, I’d say 25% comprehension was a stretch. When the presenter, finally with mic in hand, asked questions of the attendees but neglected to hand the mic to the person answering? Well, I don’t think anyone heard.
  • The last: another talk at a local gallery. The presenter used a microphone! The room was right-sized for the audience and acoustically appropriate for the activity! Could I hear? Yes, of course, everyone heard!

The theater experience was a bonus. I had forgotten about it at the initial appointment when tasked with imagining how the hearing-aid adventure was going to work. It was only at the fitting that I thought about my regular ushering commitment. I had one play the coming weekend and two more within a couple of weeks. Having directed many audience members to the venue’s free hearing-assistance devices over the years, I remembered that a recent renovation at the theater included an induction loop system that works with T-coil devices.

I asked my audiologist about it. I was in luck. The hearing aids I selected include an option for T-coil. I was instructed to turn on the T-coil when I got to the theater (press a button, super easy) and see how it worked. Would it work for me? Would it be an improvement on the crackly headphone devices that are available at the theater? Or would I sit through yet another play missing words whenever an actor turns away, or having the device cutout if I shifted in my seat?

Good news (great news): the T-coil hearing aid is amazing. Easy. Seamless. Non-intrusive and discrete. I heard every word from the stage: beautiful, whispered, shouted, sung, gut-wrenching, gentle, or gleeful, I heard them all. 

I am so grateful for an organization that seriously considers the needs of their fans. Theater has an aging audience, but hearing loss happens throughout life. How incredible to have the plays more accessible to a larger number of the attendees.

For more everyday situations, improvement doesn’t seem so impossible to accomplish. Sure, induction loop systems are great if attendees have the appropriate devices, but scheduling right-sized rooms and using microphones for large meetings are not that difficult. And luckily the hearing aids are already helping with my open office environment (although I still miss my office). Related, although it deserves a dedicated post of its own, #nomorecraptions is providing great info (and a much-needed kick in the ass) about closed captions for online videos.

Basically, if you can’t hear the sound, then you don’t get the fury, and it does indeed, signify nothing. Enable your audience to make sense of your activity. Make use of available technology. 

The Importance of Small Moments (revisited)

The New Art Examiner just published my review of the exhibition, Nares: Moves, which is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October. With this publication I am now a contributing editor with journal. It’s a small moment maybe, but a really nice one!

My original post on this exhibition includes the text of the review. I am revisiting the material here for the chance to consider some of the work that was omitted from the publication. The exhibition is a complicated mixture of ideas and objects–too much to fit comfortably into 900 words. Following is some of what was left out.

Two rooms in the gallery space are devoted to items from the artist’s studio. Included are homemade brushes, sketchbooks and casting experiments, short videos, and a variety of objects.

Also located here are a number of works: sculptural arrangements of pigmented hydrostone, photographic series, and projected light drawings. In showing the experiments and objects of interest, the combination of works in such diverse materials and the studio items, the exhibition provides a view into the artistic process. The studio is not all completed work; there is much musing and playing and thinking and making of things.

The idea of experimenting and playing that is so evident in the studio section is also clear in the single-stroke paintings and those made with street-marking paint. The contrast between these ways of working could not be more pronounced. Nares has created luscious, monumental works with very different methods.

The thick, lumbering, thermoplastic “paint,” applied with a street-marking machine, has hundreds of tiny glass beads scattered in its surface. The works are stark but richly textured and reminiscent of (Motherwell’s) abstract expressionist strokes. Here though, the paint has been applied via a flaming, hot machine, by an operator swathed in protective gear. The stroke is not a brush in the hand of the artist, but the spewing dragon of a machine that lays down the rough lines.

White on black ground, covered with sparkling light, the works are non-functional crosswalks, street-markings gone wild. Chaotic and dangerous, they are contained and controlled when transferred in their rectilinear forms onto the gallery wall. They are confusing and gorgeous at the same time.

As the main image used in the marketing surrounding the exhibition, the single stroke paintings should take center stage in the exhibition. The fact that they don’t is mainly due to the richness of this artist’s practice. These works are amazingly delicate and graceful. In a demanding process that requires the artist to be suspended over the horizontal canvas, the works are made with elaborate, homemade brushes, and sometimes multiple attempts at accomplishing an acceptable single-stroke. Some include interference pigments that reflect and transmit light, creating color that shifts during the process of viewing. Even here, in what seems to be such simple imagery, the artist’s process and viewer’s experience is complicated.

These approaches to making paintings have some commonality, despite their dramatically different visual conclusions. Whether the artist’s activity involves a machine and protective gear, or the performance of a brushstroke that is tried and wiped away repeatedly, both groups of works have at their foundation the idea of gesture or movement. The artist’s body in deeply engaged by each process, there is an intense physicality required in each making.

One of the many works in the exhibition where movement of the artist’s body is at the core is the Giotto Circle. Can this be considered as one work? Maybe better thought of as a series, there are two iterations represented in the exhibition: Giotto Circle #1 and Giotto Circle (Tooled), both from 1975. Originally Super8 films, they show the artist’s body transformed into a mark-making tool. The artist, of tall and narrow frame, with arms outstretched, in circular movements, makes marks on a wall. A study in anatomy and engineering, the movements are quick and graceful, the marks are simple yet visually powerful.

The two films, made very early in the artist’s career, are supplemented elsewhere in the museum by Giotto Circle #4. Created onsite in a 2019 performance by the artist (start video at 6:50 for the artist’s entrance), this Circle is different than the first works, which is appropriate to the over 40-year distance of its making. It is acrylic and graphite on canvas, and will exist in physical form beyond the video documenting its creation. For now, the work occupies a beautiful spot, at the museum’s lakefront second entrance.

Giotto Circle #4 (2019)
Giotto Circle #4 (2019)

This artist’s long career has included much experimenting and play with different media. The threads of inquiry are consistent through the work and over the years. Movement and gesture, exploring materials and forms, this is intriguing and beautiful work.

Nares: Moves is on view from June 14 to October 6, 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Importance of Small Moments

The New Art Examiner just published my review of the exhibition, Nares: Moves, which is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October. The text to the article is below, and the images here are mine. See the online article for the higher-quality images provided by the museum for press-use.

With this article I am now a contributing editor with the New Art Examiner. It’s a small moment maybe, but a really nice one!


20190612_104546.jpgThe new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, featuring the work of Jamie Nares (formerly James), is an intriguing retrospective covering five decades work by an experimental, playful, curious and inventive artist. It also marks the first MAM exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Dr. Marcelle Polednik.

In the accompanying catalogue introduction, Polednik defines the challenge of presenting a retrospective of Nares’ work. “These objects,” she writes, “have little to suggest that they are the works of a single artist, much less that they are connected to a sequential biographical or art historical narrative.” Her solution is to present the works, not in strict chronological order, but rather in thematic sections.

Polednik’s curatorial approach emphasizes three concepts–gesture, time, and movement—which are interwoven throughout nine sections of the exhibition. These nine “chapters” are also explored in an accompanying catalogue and a gallery guide. Additional programming—film screenings, a dance performance and discussions with the artist, collector Julian Schnabel, and musical collaborator Thurston Moore–will expand upon the gallery experience.

Embedding the display within such rich programming and publications is an important choice for this material, as there is not much explanatory text within the gallery. It is helpful, for example, to more fully understand the impact of defining personal experiences, such as the artist’s youthful move to New York City in the 1970s. Details about unusual methods and materials are also informative and lead to a fuller appreciation of the works. The deeper dive not only provides more opportunity to grapple with the complexity of this work, but also provides strong reinforcement of the exhibition’s premise, that the lines of exploration threading through Nares’ long career are consistent across surprisingly varied media.

The exhibition’s organizational scheme is successful in demonstrating visual and conceptual relationships between works in disparate media from different periods of the artist’s life.

The introductory room, which also serves as the exhibit’s conclusion, presents a pair of works: the 2008 video, Riding with Michaux, and an untitled high-speed drawing from 2014. Although not far separated in time, the works intersect in multiple ways. The video’s imagery of sunlight on water has visual similarities to the linear forms of the untitled drawing but, more importantly, they share process. A relationship is made here between the artist filming with a camera on a moving train, and the artist holding a brush to a rotating sheet of paper. Motion, not only in the visual field, but as part of the making, is central to the artist’s practice.

Film and video have a strong presence throughout the galleries. From early works like Giotto Circle #1 or Game, shot in TriBeCa of 1970s New York, to Element #1 (2009) and a series of Portraits (2016), Nares’ long-standing passion for moving images is clearly evident. The subjects may seem at first unrelated—the artist drawing a circle on a wall, small hand movements, a heavy ball swinging over an empty street, the slow eruption of bubbling mixture—but all have important elements in common.

Pendulum (1976), with its groaning sound and almost dizzying, hazardous motion, explores the movement of an object through an eerily empty urban space. In the luminous Street (2011), made with a high-speed camera, scenes of now-occupied city streets have been slowed to a glacial pace. The camera, instead of focusing on moving objects, is here itself in motion, driven along city blocks, capturing unstaged images of people, the details of Manhattan daily life, made graceful and dramatic via slowed
motion. Both works chart time and movement to very different ends. Nares’ innovative use of a high-speed camera is only one example of the artist’s intellectual curiosity.

The monumental paintings presented in the exhibition fully display the artist’s capacity for invention. Nares has created luscious works with various strokes: thick and lumbering, made from tiny glass beads, thermoplastic “paint,” and a street-marking machine; or the single stroke paintings, delicate and graceful, made with elaborate, homemade brushes and, at times, interference pigments. At first glance, they bear no relation to each other—heavy, textured, black and white or gorgeous, delicate, ribbons of color–yet all refract light, suggest motion, and basically disrupt the expected experience of looking.

The show’s most recent works are a series of large-scale images with gold leaf. Originating as rubbings of cut-stone street surfaces in the artist’s old New York neighborhood of Tribeca, the works incorporate both a technological interest—with Evolon, a non-woven, high-tech microfiber paper—and a social acknowledgement unusual for this artist. The stone surfaces are described as having been cut by immigrant labor in the city’s early days. When thermoplastic street markings become abstract paintings, and 19th-century street stone is transformed into shimmering gold, the artist is not only an inventor but also earns the title of alchemist.

It is clear that Nares has been grappling with movement for a long time. A note from a sketchbook captures the artist’s interest in a playful way:

things in motion; motion in things

The phrase provides an opportunity for exchange, a back and forth, a circular form that is mirrored in the intentionally circular path within the gallery. The exhibition ends where it begins: with a video and a drawing, both exploring motion and time, with directness and grace. Nares celebrates small moments in her work, transforming simple gestures into fascinating experiences worthy of our time and consideration.

Giotto Circle #4 (2019)
Giotto Circle #4 (2019)

Nares: Moves is on view from June 14 to October 6, 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

An Ocean Spilling Over the Floor

Sarah FitzSimons is showing her magnificent Pacific Quilt at Hawthorn Contemporary here in Milwaukee. The exhibition is called Ocean Object, and features the enormous textile, in addition to related drawings and smaller sewn works by this Madison-based artist.

The exhibition at Hawthorn is an unusual opportunity to see this work. It flows over the floor, filling up the center space of a fairly large room. Basically a quilted bathometric map, the gallery describes the work as:

Pacific Quilt spans 21 ft x 24 ft with one inch representing 25 miles. In translation from ocean to quilt, varying shades of blue fabric convey underwater topography and sewn quilt lines extend out in organic swirls to describe surface currents.

The quilt can be seen in its entirety, as it is laid out on the gallery floor. It is envisioned by the artist as useable, despite being distinctly non-utilitarian, as it is very big (my museum background sent cascades of red flags: it will get dirty! how could such a large textile be cleaned! would it fit in my car?). Too large to be easily transported, too immense for any bed, and indeed most rooms. What would it be like to be wrapped in such a vast sea?

The Pacific Ocean defined my childhood and my young adulthood. A transplanted Californian, I still retain the (now problematic) habit of assuming that large water indicates a westerly direction. I played in that ocean, looked out over it, turned green with seasickness while out on it, almost drowned in it (saved by an unknown surfer), and have wandered along its wet sand from San Diego to Arcata. I have also sat on one of its beaches and looked east, towards a very distant home, marveling at the circuit my life had made, from conception to adulthood, across that expanse of water.

Maybe due to the recent disruption of moving to a new job and a new city, I wanted to locate something of me, of my experience, in this blue expanse on the gallery floor. I found myself walking around the Pacific Quilt looking for familiar spots–San Francisco Bay and Baja California—which are geographically distinct and turn out to be identifiable even at this scale. I walked around the entire blue, undulating ocean, from the Arctic, along Asia, to the Antarctic and up along the Americas. And on a quilted map of the Pacific floor, on the floor of a gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was able to find something known, a small connection to home, a confirmation of myself.

Vast, unimaginable, powerful, beautiful. Bathometry to bedroom, ocean floor on gallery floor. Traveling the circumference of the Pacific Rim, gazing over the depths and islands, bays and continents. Imagine wrapping yourself in the ocean blue. Pacific Quilt is on view from June 8 – August 23, 2019 at Hawthorn Contemporary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Diversity Funding and Collaborations: Signs of Change?

The following article was published (with some revisions) in the March/April 2019 issue of the New Art Examiner.


It’s been a busy few years for large initiatives within the art museum field around efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. This January alone saw three major announcements addressing these issues. The efforts included survey reports, substantially funded programs, and collaborative projects with resource toolkits. There has also been important social media participation and less formal group efforts from within museums and other supportive communities.

The efforts are welcome signs. Let’s review a few of these efforts from a museum worker’s perspective. It is important for museum insiders to consider the potential impacts of these efforts, as they are related to two recent realizations within the field: first, museums are not inherently equitable places and, second, museums need to reconsider their practices if they want to survive within dramatically changing
funding structures and cultural demographics.

My focus here is on hiring practices because, ultimately, museums change or remain the same because of the people who lead them and who work in them. Funding and external efforts of course impact museums, for example, women have finally been hired to lead two national museums: the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. These hires happened for many reasons, including perhaps the attention brought by #MeToo, but ultimately it was insiders who made decisions. Are these hires inspiring for the field? Of course! Will they impact the fight for equity within museums in this country? This is yet to be seen.

Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the 2015 Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. This project put numbers to what many museum workers already knew: with 84% of museum leadership positions occupied by “White (Not Hispanic)” individuals, the stark reality is that there are very few people of color in influential positions at this country’s art museums. The more important finding of the survey related not to the current situation, but to potential opportunities for change. The data portrayed a depressing future, with consistently low numbers of people of color stretching across all generations of museum staffing. The result? There was no large, developing cohort of emerging museum leaders of color. The numbers were the same in the younger and older generations.

In response to the demoralizing news of the 2015 Mellon survey, some large funders and professional organizations stepped up to partner on a variety of attempts to change the course of the #MuseumsSoWhite leviathan:

  • In November of 2017 the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative announced its intention to provide $6 million over 3 years to “support innovative strategies and programs to advance diversity” across the field. Funded by the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, the projects are focused mostly on educational and professional development efforts, and include internships, fellowships, and youth leadership programs at 20 museums across the country.
  • In July of 2018 the Association of Art Museum Directors announced the AAMD College Students from Underrepresented Communities Internship. This is a pilot program intending to “engage undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds and nurture their career opportunities in the art museum field.” With support from the NEA and AAMD, the program will offer paid, project-based internships during the summer of 2019. Including mentoring and attendance at professional conferences, the interns will work in exhibitions, evaluation, programming, communications, curatorial, and outreach at 10 academic and municipal museums. The only Midwestern museum awarded an internship happens to be my former employer, the Chazen Museum of Art, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Announced on January 15, 2019, the American Alliance of Museums’ National Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion Initiative will provide $4 million in grants from three foundations (the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Alice L. Walton Foundation, and Ford Foundation) to “provide the framework, training, and resources for museum leaders to build inclusive cultures within their institutions that more accurately reflect the communities they serve.” Along with offering the usual AAM standards, sample documents, and case studies, the initiative will also provide support to 50 museums for “the development and implementation of sustainable inclusion plans.” Interestingly, also promised is a new tool to connect interested individuals with boards who are expanding their pool of talent.

Two follow-ups to the 2015 survey were also released in January of 2019 by the Mellon Foundation. The first is a series of case studies that demonstrate successful diversity efforts; the second is a 2018 update to the initial survey:

  • Intended to showcase institutions that “have been successful in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” Case Studies in Museum Diversity, by the cultural sector consultant Ithaka S+R, in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors, provides an in-depth consideration of 8 different museums. Based on staff and constituent interviews, observations, and additional outside research, the findings are individualized, but they are also more generally useful. Two notable examples in the report are the MCA Chicago and Spelman College, where efforts to increase collaborations and build curatorial pathways have been developed, prioritized, and most importantly, are receiving funding attention.
  • The Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018 is a progress report that follows up and expands upon the 2015 effort. Although there is much excitement about the changes after only a couple of years, I see the results as mixed: the field remains majority female, yet directors are still mostly male; educators are now 26% people of color and mostly women at all levels of responsibility; people of color have been hired at an increased rate, from 26% in 2015 to 35% in 2018; and although museum staff have become slightly more racially and ethnically diverse—the numbers of people of color increasing by 4% overall, and the number of African American curators doubled, for example—museum leadership, at 88%, is still very white.

These partnership efforts by big funders and professional organizations are significant, because it is clear that knowing about the demographic disparities does not always translate into action. When major funders in the humanities are devoting resources to making change, I am stunned by how long it takes for associated organizations to get the message. For example, a well-known museum leadership training program offers, according to their website, executive education “for the next generation of museum leaders,” but fails to address diversity, inclusion and equity in its curriculum. To provide leadership training that lacks basic DEI concepts is not only short-sighted, it is dangerous. This is an omission that demonstrates a continued willful ignorance of the museum field’s colonial beginnings.

Beyond the data, the inherent inequities in museums are dramatically demonstrated by more localized efforts to making museums responsive to current events. Related to the move to decolonize museums, social media engagements like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral are making the field conscious of its histories and roles. MASS Action is a collaborative project of museum staff (or “museum practitioners” as described on the website) who seek “to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices.” Some of the questions the project pursues include the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting communities, how to align the museum’s internal practices and their public practice, and considerations of how the museum can become a site for social action. It is important to note that this movement is not originating within museum leadership or funders: it is staff and people without much power who are joining together to redefine what their museums do.

Will the recent collaborations between professional organizations and big money affect much change? The 10 interns, 20 museum programs, and 50 museum boards that are seeded with these investments will hopefully see some improvement, and, optimistically, there will be positive, larger impacts as these seeds take root—the 2018 survey already demonstrates some progress. But, for perspective, art museums make up only 4.5% of the over 35,000 museums in the US that employ over 726,000 people. If museums are unable to make their hiring practices more responsive without relying on substantial help from big funders, it’s not clear how leadership, programming, collections, and exhibitions will ever become more inclusive. There is simply not enough philanthropy to support change on such a scale.

Why are museums waiting for big funders to lead the way? Puawai Cairns, Head of the taonga Māori collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, has written, it’s like “throwing fertiliser at our feet–we can grow or we can stand still and wallow in sh*t.” How long will museums stand in place, depending on generous funders to motivate change? Funding creates opportunity, certainly, but it will take more than money to secure sustained movement. Lasting transformations in diversity, equity and inclusion require clear priorities that stretch into all areas of practice. Make it part of the mission, and work to make it happen.