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.

 

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

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Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

lyndabarry_syllabus1

It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Notes on working with an artist in 2013

It is a rare thing to encounter another Humboldt State University alum, as I live in Wisconsin. But one week in 2013 was different, when my work at the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actually brought a fellow lumberjack into town.

Michael Lucero (Art, 1976, a solid ten years before me, Art, 1986) lives in Tennessee. His art-making has taken him from California and undergraduate studies at HSU to an MFA at the University of Washington. He has lived in New York and Italy, and has taught as a visiting professor throughout the United States, such as a 1989 summer arts program at HSU (I attended the summer 1988 session, missing Michael’s stint by one year). His ceramic work was featured in a 1996 retrospective exhibition organized by the Mint Museum that traveled to four venues, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art.

Michael was in Madison to install a body of early work in the Chazen’s 5,000 square foot Rowland Galleries. During the installation we had a chance to talk about Humboldt and studying art. I was so pleased to learn that he remembered people I studied with at HSU: Ron Johnson in art history, and Mort Scott who taught sculpture. Michael also had many stories about his experiences in the galleries of New York and his friendships with well-known artists, teachers, and dealers.

During the week we worked with the Chazen preparators to install 17 wire and wood hanging figures, made in 1978-79 after the artist first moved to New York. The works were on loan from a private collector, and two museums that received part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

Reaching 8-13 feet in height, the figures are simultaneously fragile and imposing. Hovering just a few inches from the floor, they hung still when the gallery was empty, but they moved gently, responding to subtle air movement, even when anyone entered the room. They towered over whoever stood near, yet provided a chance for close investigation of their component parts: broken wood, crayon and paint, wire, mop handles, and broken furniture scavenged from the streets of the city.

The artist created new drawings for the exhibition, using sponges, fly swatters, shoes, toilet paper rolls, and foam noodles to stamp images onto cardboard, making bold, weighty figures that reference the hanging sculptures. He was also inspired by the gallery space, at the last minute adding a new work to the exhibition: two monumental figures stamped directly onto a large gallery door that had been painted to mimic the cardboard of the drawings. At first seeming so large, the drawings on cardboard were dwarfed by the newly painted wall figures, yet their textured surfaces demanded close looking. This was an installation both overwhelming and intimate, it played with scale and had so much to experience: subtle movement, shifting light, interesting textures, and spatial displacement.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

In the re-purposed wood and furniture fragments, in the drawings made from available materials, is Humboldt evident in this work, or is it all New York City? In the quiet of the towering figures with their slight movements, walking among them all that is missing is the sound of water dripping into the ferns on the floor of the redwood forest. Maybe, or not. But it was fun, for one week in 2013, to conjure a connection between Arcata and NYC, to swap art world stories with another far-flung HSU alum, and participate in the installation and documentation of a truly wonderful body of work.

Michael Lucero Installation was on view May 11 to August 18, 2013 at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Photos by Eric Tadsen.

 

Music and Art, Chicano and Not

Los Lobos played my local neighborhood festival this past weekend. Listening to the music almost drowned me in nostalgia and sadness, while at the same time smacked me with joy. Let’s just say it was a confusing weekend.

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La Fete de Marquette 2018, from the ferris wheel

I help to run the merch booth at La Fete de Marquette, an eastside Madison music festival that just completed its 18th year. Held around the same time as Bastille Day, Fete has focused on music from the French diaspora. France being an old colonial power, this means that—lucky for Madison–the music featured has generally been from many parts of the world: Africa, the Caribbean, France, Louisiana. But this year that francophone emphasis was tossed like a head from a guillotine when the venerable band from East LA gloriously took the main stage on Sunday night.

Despite the white women who, in the close crowd at the front of the stage, bounced and happily flailed their arms to songs like Carabina .30-30, the tall white dudes who cut in front of me and the short couple next to me, filling in the small breathing space we had amid the hot humid air and blocking our view, or the drunk white woman who spilled beer on me while trying to squeeze past then wiped my breast in a failed attempt at drying me (and maybe apologizing?), I had a good time. Really. The music was, well, these guys know what they’re doing. Steve Berlin played with the really compelling opening band, Making Movies, and still withstood the sweltering heat to play the main set. David Hidalgo, Louie, and Cesar delivered their powerhouse sound sans probleme, and the young drummers kept everything moving, even putting on a water show that thrilled the crowd.

The nostalgia for me was overwhelming. I have seen this band in Detroit, when the Bad Livers opened for them in what might have been the strangest billing ever. The crowd was a mixture of bluegrass punk hipsters and extended Latino families, all waiting for hours on a cement floor for a show that started very late but enthralled everyone in attendance. I have also danced to their music at the now defunct Frog Island Festival in a small city park in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the pouring rain, drenched but dreading the time when the band finally called the show when they felt endangered by the lightning and the water cascading off of the tent around them. The last time I saw them was at the classist disaster that is Ravinia, where I sat behind a wealthy white family and watched the mother text on her oversized iPhone that “these beaners really can rock.” The white season ticket-holders left early, and with all of the rules of the place, none of the many enthusiastic fans on the distant grass were able to take the empty seats or dance nearer to the stage. The show rocked, but also sucked, for the audience as well as (I am certain) for the band.

Being in the crowd at the stage this weekend made me think of Old Town in San Diego, where, so close to la linea, Mexicanidad is made safe for consumption. It’s all chimichangas and paper flowers, margaritas and flounced skirts. It’s the table of gringos who jump up and chase down the mariachis in the middle of their meal, leaving their open wallets on the table and their leather jackets hanging on their chairs. My latinidad is some of these things (I like a nice margarita, I’ve shopped and lunched at Old Town), but it’s also much more. It’s bad spanish, great food, unruly hair, a vague sense of exclusion, but an innate understanding of mestiza; it’s a confusing place.

Which shouldn’t bring me to Gronk, but it does. A few weeks ago I worked with a colleague to host a group of Latino middle school students for an hour at the museum. Because there are works by two—two!–Latino artists on view in the entire museum, I chose Gronk’s painting as the focus of our visit. The painting by Gronk that is in the galleries is on Spanish bark paper, which may be similar to the traditional bark papers of Mexico that, you know, held written histories in codex form, but were burned during the conquest, leaving only a handful still in existence. Gronk’s choice of material may make reference to this ancient process, but his imagery captures more recent developments in its vocabulary that riffs off of the murals and graffiti of LA.

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GRONK (GLUGIO GRONK NICANDRO) (American, b. 1954) Fragments of a Landscape 1994 Acrylic on Spanish bark paper 78 x 78 in. Chazen Museum of Art, Harry and Margaret P. Glicksman Endowment Fund, Juli Plant Grainger Endowment Fund, and Cyril W. Nave Endowment Fund purchase, 1995.4

My intention was to make a connection between ancient archaeology and Gronk’s notion of “street archaeology,” how, in his wandering around his city, he is looking, seeing, sketching, and incorporating his visual experience into his work. I pretty much failed at achieving my goal of elaborating on this idea of archaeology with middle school students, but I was able to introduce them to a contemporary artist’s work and his observational practice as an example of a latino artist in this world who has been making art every day for a long time (starting with morning coffee; see @elgronk on Instagram for some examples of his visual finds).

Why write about Los Lobos, the Chicano band from East LA, and Gronk, the Chicano painter and conceptual/performance artist? Two experiences of Mexicanidad, both from Los Angeles, each very different. I don’t know LA, and it has taken my entire life to overcome the anti-LA bias that comes with growing up in San Diego. I am also not Chicano—with an Anglo-American father and a Mexican-American mother, we were raised in a white suburb and only visited our Mexican-American family in Arizona on weekends or holidays. I do not know details of these artists’ lives, but I understand there are important differences–gay, straight, extended families, neighborhoods, studio practices, fame, industry biases, communities, histories.

But Los Lobos, their sound and their music, is intertwined with my mid-western experience, and that close relationship makes me think of Gronk’s daily drawing, how this life-long activity of playing music or making art—of developing a practice–enables the creation of a world. Los Lobos, through many years of music-making, have carved out genre-breaking careers that have made them undefinable—rock? Latin? Blues, jazz, jam-band?–and taken them from weddings to neighborhood festivals to the White House and around the world. And Gronk, through his art practice that incorporates drawing, painting, and performance, has made art on street corners, in university museums, galleries, private collections, and on opera stages.

The daily experience of making or listening to music, of making or looking at art—how does it influence our lives? Is it an escape, a luxury, or is it the basic rhythm, the pulse, the bass that moves us forward and provides the structure that underlies everything? I imagine the band members of Los Lobos play music every day, like Gronk and his daily coffee drawings. I am no musician and not much of an artist, but I think about both and interact with both just about every day.

Why do I put up with white women who flail their arms and bounce, blocking my view? Because of the music, man. Because there needs to be more than just two works by Latino artists on view in the galleries. Because those students still don’t see themselves represented in the museum.

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Los Lobos on stage at La Fete de Marquette, 2018

Represent

My project from last fall, in conjunction with planning for some upcoming exhibitions, is making me think more about abstraction and representation: if these terms are useful and where they are relevant. Complicated words, they each have multiple layers and definitions that vary by context.

Chloë Bass has considered abstraction, wondering if it is a privilege, but concluding instead that it is essential for bringing people together. This approach is relevant, not only to my exhibition of Dan Ramirez’ work, but it speaks to many other recent exhibitions that focus on or unearth or explore the work of artists of color working in abstract, minimalist, or non-representational visual styles. How are these approaches interpreted by museums?

That is, of course, if there is actually any work by artists of color in the museum to be interpreted. It seems that some museums have finally caught on to the imbalance of their collections. But what will they do with the work once it has been purchased and accessioned? Will it go into storage with the other 92-98% of the collection? Will it stay there for 20 years without being researched or interpreted?

(When I say “interpret,” I mean display. When a museum displays a work of art it is interpreted: selected, installed with other works within a larger scheme or organizational structure, lit and labeled, accessible during open hours, for an admission fee or not, under electronic or human surveillance, climate controlled, documented, stanchioned, managed by museum etiquette like do not touch or no flash photography please, hash-tagged, pictured on posters and greeting cards in the shop, nicknamed, examined, and seen by hopefully very many people. Adding text in the form of a label or a docent tour or a curator talk or an audio file or a web exhibition is an additional layer of interpretation. The museum identifies the work with artist, title, date, medium, and credit line, which is interpretation. If you don’t agree, have you ever asked an artist about the date when a work was completed, the title of a work, or whether they used graphite or pencil? The answers that make it onto the label are interpretation).

Rashid Johnson has talked about how representation of the Black body has offered a way into museum spaces for Black artists. (I would say this goes for Latinx artists too. Figurative work by artists of color is easier for white curators because it is clearly identifiable as culturally-specific. Maybe images of cholos, madonnas, or sharecroppers are easier for marketing teams, too?) But what about artists who do not work in representational modes? If Sam Gilliam’s detachment of canvas from stretcher can be understood within a history of protest–in Johnson’s words, as “emancipation”–is this dichotomy, representational and abstract, useful at all?

Such limited terms obscure similarities and suggests a non-existent conflict. For example, when artists are interested in perception, in creating work that unsettles our understanding of what we see, is there only one path available? Is it either, or? Of course not. Both Dan Ramirez and Faisal Abdu’Allah make art work that questions how we make sense of what we see, and their work and practices could not be more different.

Ramirez’s approach is unapologetic. He is not interested in discussing his latinidad, damn it, he is applying paint to canvas or graphite to wood, and thinking about our ability to understand the world. He plays perceptual games using geometry and light, surface and depth. The play is deeply connected to philosophical pursuits, along with his considerations of belief and doubt. His work makes you question what you see.

Abdu-Allah’s approach is figurative and community-based; he uses photography, printmaking, weaving, and other media to represent gatherings of people. FauHaus and Visage were collaborative projects, developed in partnership with groups of students. But his objects also refer to groups of people: a gold barber’s chair standing in for the important sociality of the barber shop.

His two Last Supper tapestries picture groups of people also, but what is represented is not easily read. The iconography has been mixed up—the typical Eurocentric Christian Last Supper is transformed here with women and Muslims, or contemporary dress and a display of weapons. Not only is the imagery changed, but the medium has undergone an alchemical transformation from photograph to Jacquard tapestry, playing again with the Eurocentrism of the title. These works make you question what you see.

If the display of Ramirez’ Aletheia: Scribe’s Reveal was a dramatic statement about the artist’s career and aesthetic vision, Duppy Conquerer is Faisal’s own coming out. Using imagery that is forthright and insistent, this is a loud and clear assertion of himself as an independent artist within an international art world. With a nod to his Jamaican heritage and an I-don’t-have-time-for-your-shit stance, in black clothing and mask, he is a story-teller and magician, mentor and scholar. He represents. And yet, with photograph transformed into tapestry, individual into icon, the work makes you question what you see.

Perception is a tricky thing. Michelle M. Wright calls this interaction between work and viewer the “physics of Blackness”:

In any given moment, when the spectator engages a work of art, different valences of Blackness may formulate, expand, or multiply, qualitatively and quantitatively. What is Black art? That may very well depend on the time and the space of the moment.

So, how do museums interpret the work of Black or Latinx artists? Representation and abstraction are complex terms that indicate what happens when the viewer is engaged. What is it that you think you see? That’s the question.

 

Celebrating Connection

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Lucas Koehler Combo, Union Hair Parlor, ALL Jazz Fest 2018, Schenk’s Corners.

On top of a recent realization about some professional fails, mostly surrounding communication and an inability to see clearly, the other day I took 10 minutes and three trips down the hall to print one shipping label. This was yet another clear failure: too much time to complete a (usually) simple task.

As failures go–especially when compared to the rest of the day’s realizations–the label printing was relatively low-impact: a time-waster and frustrating, but that’s about the extent of the damage. Luckily the day ended with some local jazz: #thebestjazzisinhairsalons fully expresses the restorative, rejuvenating, community experience that provided me with much-needed perspective and release after a difficult week.

Of course there are other failures, some of remarkable scale, with a much much larger impact that can’t be remedied by jazz, no matter how awesome the music. A highlight of my difficult week was the opportunity to hear from someone who headed up one such spectacle, Jim Lasko of the now-closed RedMoon Theater. In a conversation with the Chazen’s director, Amy Gilman, Jim talked about the social impulse of his theater work which, at RedMoon, took the form of taking theater into the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago, in his words, “engineering new ways of being together.” The motivation was to make theater more accessible and bring performance to bigger, different audiences.

But Jim was not at the art museum to talk about street theater. He was invited because of what has been identified as a massive fail: the Great Chicago Fire Festival of 2014. I won’t rehash the story here, as it has been amply covered elsewhere–Jim has even talked and written about the event and the aftermath. I am more interested in his process of recovery, how he moved forward, and his perspective on creative work.

Jim talked of theater as a living activity, he compared it to a group jumping out of an airplane. With opening night the equivalent of the ground quickly approaching, the group has to work together intensely, and fast, to prevent disaster. The joy and excitement is in that process of making, of attempting and failing and trying again. It is thrilling, it is inspirational. We make art because we have to, we are driven to keep attempting it over and over. We fail every day, which is an important thing to remember as we get up and try again. But aside from the daily face-plants, in the wake of massive fail, what makes us pick up the pieces and try it again?

After the closure of RedMoon, Jim says he talked to many people about his next steps. He talked about failure to corporate groups, and he returned to work on an unfinished PhD. Recently he teamed up to open a new maker and gathering space called GuildRow.

After the presentation I was able to ask Jim about the recovery, the aftermath. He had talked about it in personal terms in the conversation on stage, but I wanted to know how his team responded, and how they, as a group, recovered after hitting the ground so hard. After some thought he revealed something about the theater company that was striking: he said they worked through the difficulties because they loved each other. A company like RedMoon that was dedicated to bringing theater outside, into neighborhoods, and making it participatory, this company was comprised of intensely committed individuals who fiercely loved their work. They ran on a personal devotion to shared goals and to each other. This is not, of course, every organization. But it seems completely reasonable, maybe even necessary, for a non-profit street theater group.

I am intrigued that Jim emphasized the personal in his presentation. He was not there to talk about failure. His comprehension is contrary to the corporate lingo approach to failure which, through it’s focus on venture capital, minimizes and even erases the personal–the pain and suffering, the lived experience, the frustration, anger, and confusion. But in Jim’s telling was a sense of a community, not only within the active theater company, but following the disaster. He described turning to his personal community to assess and advise, to consider and imagine. This was a way of doing important individual work, human work. It is restorative, it is personal, and it is vitally important.

Which takes me to a different theater project that I was lucky to witness recently, here in Madison. Lines: A Theatre LILA Invention is a collaboratively written play that gives voice to five female playwrights of color. The play was a complex intertwining of stories, with actors playing multiple roles. The beauty of the play was not only in the acting, the staging, and the direction, but in the stories that were told. These are voices that are rarely heard in theater: beauty shop conversations, playground interactions, hopscotch, hope for the future, lovers’ arguments, the daily dangers of being a woman, black, lesbian, latina, muslim, young, or even middle-aged.

It was a play that conveyed the personal, but also emphasized the importance of connections and the potential of community, not only in how the play was created or what was represented on stage, but in the conversations with the audience that followed. This is the same force behind Jim Lasko’s theatrical efforts: a desire to connect. In moving performance outside into the street, or by collaboratively developing a script with other writers of color, these efforts expand the reach of theater. They breathe in deeply and open their arms, inviting more people into their embrace. They grow the audience.

Although connections can be uncomfortable, as with some of the questions that were asked during the talkback after the Lines performance, or in the direct personal challenges that were issued during the play, they are essential for the success of art making. I imagine that for some people, like those who enjoy the anonymity of a dark theater, RedMoon’s street performances would have been quite difficult. But connection takes many shapes. Engagement may be a buzzword, but we use it for a reason. Lasting impressions–wonder–happens when people are able to connect, with each other, with art, with music, with something outside of themselves.

These theater efforts are so different, yet both relied on the very personal dedication of their members. Understanding this devotion and commitment transforms notions of success and failure. A fizzled public art event is insignificant when the connections created through it, or the exhibition of an artist’s work, a collaborative theater event, or even a jazz celebration (pictured above), are prioritized. Instead of focusing on failure, maybe it’s is more important to foreground engagement and connection, and their restorative, sustaining potential. Who did you connect with today? We fail daily, but so do we achieve. Connecting every day, staying engaged, that’s the hard part. But when it happens? Wow.

 

All Quiet in Austin, Despite the Noise of Color

Dan Ramirez has ruined how I look at art. And by “ruined,” I mean “demolished.” How could I have known that working with him would lead me to this embarrassing point where I find myself saying, aloud, “I love minimalism.” It’s horrifying.

Just look at the exhibition currently on view the Blanton Museum of Art, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin (February 18, 2018 – April 29, 2018). Organized in support of the opening of Austin, Kelly’s building/installation on the UT campus, the exhibition is all of the things a university art museum exhibition should be: informative, interesting, nicely installed, well-researched, etc. It is also astoundingly beautiful.

Yes, gorgeous. Which I didn’t expect. And although this is probably a career-killing thing to admit, I was not mesmerized by the color in the exhibition (I know, it’s Ellsworth Kelly! How can anyone not be astounded by his exploration of color?). Instead, it was the black and white prints and sketches that took away my ability to think clearly.

The prints are large, and in a brave and aggressive decision, hung 3-high by 8-across. Although this arrangement makes them nearly impossible to see individually, and difficult to appropriately light, it does emphasize the expressive power of the group as a whole. The repetition of the black and white forms, with such a deep blackness of the ink on the paper, along with the scale of their printing, makes the group quietly coercive (I could go on about the prints, but it would be far better to look to the important work done for a 2013 exhibition and publication at MMOCA here in Madison). Then there are sketches of the stations of the cross, all black and white, all concentrated power in a small format.

This force is continued by the upright sculptural totems that are grouped nearby. Towering and simple in form, their differing media (redwood, metal) make no difference in their individual ability to convey solemnity and presence.

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The meditative and quiet are continuous throughout the exhibition and–outside, down the path, through the enormous wood doors–into the work Austin, where the black and white forms are softened as they are translated into marble, and color becomes light that falls over the walls of the building. A redwood totem stands over the space, not lit but still dominating from one of the alcoves. The quiet, the repeated forms, the simplicity of shape, all create a foundation to support all of that color play. It’s a completely mesmerizing structure.

(My images here are terrible. For better views see articles in the NYT, Architectural Digest, Texas Monthly, or ArtNet News. Or, for a more in-depth discussion about the background of the structure, see the 2012 lecture–from before the work was realized in Texas–at the Haus der Kunst by Carter Foster, then at the Whitney, now at the Blanton).

Of course I think of Dan Ramirez’ Twenty Contemplations prints. The repeated black and white, the sense of space and depth that each artist captured using a restricted palette and carefully honed forms, the feel of the paper saturated in ink. I’m skipping over the subject matter here—stations of the cross, devotional music—but I’m less interested in the specific iconography. It’s a very noisy world, and to be in a place where the mind quiets and the world opens, well, it’s just doesn’t happen very often.

Get yourself to Austin.