Creating a New Culture: Leaders of Color in the Visual Arts Panel Recap
Challenges and Opportunities
As part of an expanding program of offerings, on Monday, May 6 2019, The Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC) Boston hosted Curating A New Culture: Leaders of Color in the Visual Arts, a panel featuring Layla Bermeo, the Kristin and Roger Servison Assistant Curator of Paintings in the Art of the Americas at The Museum of Fine Arts; Cagan Luse, artist and author of LunchTime Comix; Stella Aguirre McGregor, Founder & Director of URBANO Project; and Siddhartha V. Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. The panel was moderated by Maria Garcia, Senior Editor at WBUR’s The ARTery.
Our society is growing in our willingness to unpack our nation’s racial histories and tensions in all sectors, including the visual arts. Art spaces and their curators are increasingly called upon to provide new contexts for both historical and contemporary works; large museums in particular are being pushed to shine a light on how the legacies of colonialism continue to shape them, as well as to explore how they might move away from these frameworks towards inclusivity. As curators of a wide range of collections, our panelists jumped into discussions about expanding the definitions of curation; the roles and responsibilities of museums, galleries, and artist spaces; and how to create more opportunities for artists and administrators of color across the visual arts world.
The discussion began with an exploration of the role of a curator, particularly in venues and collections of different sizes. Our panelists agreed that it is a curator’s role to act as a storyteller, especially to bring out unheard voices and to make an argument for unseen perspectives, be it for contemporary or historical artists. Layla, curator of “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” at the MFA, explained that her intention for the exhibit was to move away from interpreting Kahlo through pop iconography and voyeurism and instead highlight the artist’s emphasis on a non-Eurocentric Mexican history and identity. For Siddhartha, a curator’s actual role is broader than the term would suggest: “While […] I am a curator, I resist being limited by that definition,” he explained, “…for example, I am of South Asian origin and I represent a South Asian collection. I do not think anybody should pat themselves on the back for giving an Indian person the [task] to be a representation of Indian art. So I might be a curator but I’m much more than that, and what I am seeking are spaces in which I can be more than just the label that people are giving me.” Stella and Cagan both agreed that, especially for community-driven spaces, curators play an integral role in convening community and providing a safe space for contemporary artists to express and experiment.
Maria then asked how the panelists position their work within their places of employment. Each agreed that challenges present themselves no matter where one chooses to curate: while community-based spaces provide flexibility to respond to issues affecting the community, the diversity of the community’s needs may make it difficult to represent everyone. In contrast, although large museums provide a wealth of resources and a large platform, they are not typically oriented towards social justice, and it can be challenging to address systems of oppression within historically white institutions. However, opportunities are available in each situation; it simply comes down to personal focus and mission. “There are many different types of institutions, they all do incredible work, often at different scales,” Layla said. “It really is a matter of finding which institution you want to be in.”
With the very concept of “fine arts” coming from a Western construct, the influence of colonialism remains in almost every corner of the visual arts world. However, the panelists left us optimistic that the visual arts realm is shifting and can continue to progress not only through the work of arts administrators but with the help of all of us as arts-viewers. “Support artists of color, buy art, go to events, speak to [artists], share them on social media,” Cagan urged the audience. “Supporting the art so that people have the space to create the art […] is what’s going to create more art that you want to see.” Layla spoke about the need to push institutions to create full-time jobs for professionals of color. “[L]obby for the kind of permanence that jobs can create,” she said, “and also to keep going in this really exciting direction of creating new professions where there were none before.” Siddhartha cautioned against complacency, even our own. “I think what we need is South Asian people fighting against anti-Semitism; we need able-bodied people fighting for the rights of those who are less-abled; we need Latinx people fighting for the rights of other populations; we need to think outside of the communities that we are just a part of and find empathy in all those other communities that need that support as well,” he said. “It’s not enough for me to represent South Asian art, I need a bigger platform, as do all of us.” The audience was eager to continue the conversation in the animated Q & A session and reception that followed.
Go deeper for yourself in the video below: