Executive Care* (EC) is a curatorial initiative whose mission is to revolutionize arts patronage for early-career artists, curbing exploitation and stimulating the growth of a supportive arts community that shares its resources with those who have historically been denied them. Having worked within the nonprofit art sector in varying capacities for almost a decade, Isis Awad founded EC in New York in 2020 to address what she felt pre-existing structures of support were currently lacking. EC is a labor of love guided by the core principles of care, trust, slowness, and mutual aid. It serves marginalized and under-valued artists with a special focus on trans and queer artists of color from underground and nightlife communities whose work is often overlooked or tokenized by mainstream art institutions.
MARTA: Could you tell me a bit more about how Executive Care* emerged, and what this project means to you?
ISIS: EC emerged at a point in my career where I was severely disillusioned by the art world. I wanted to imagine how care could be implemented and instituted as a practice and core value within art organizations, as opposed to a flat concept that is unanimously agreed upon. Care is such a hot topic in the arts right now, especially within the nonprofit sector. I am interested in moving beyond performativity, and deeply thinking about how we can actually implement care as a day-to-day practice.
The founding of EC also concretizes a shift in my own perspective from curator as instigator and project proposer, to curator as caretaker and assistant. Personally, it marks my own awareness and acceptance of service-oriented labor as primary labor. Practically, EC began by serving as a sort of agent to my friends who are artists: helping them navigate proposals they received from curators and galleries; assisting them with writing and editing grant and residency applications; and advising them curatorially with ongoing projects.
MARTA: There’s something about the way you describe Executive Care* that highlights how language plays a key part in its formation. How can language be grounded in care?
ISIS: Language is integral to EC’s mission and operation. Since EC’s projects are heavily reliant on long-term collaboration and trust, contracts, or Consensual Agreements, become EC’s love-language, as we call it. The unfortunate reality is that artists are often the ones left to bear the consequences of abrupt changes in plans or budgets. This is especially true in nonprofit art contexts where a desire to be non-hierarchical is not always met with a functional alternative, leading to ad hoc solutions that only cause artists and art workers more stress. EC is my effort to bring some executive realness to curatorial practice. Not only do these Consensual Agreements outline EC’s responsibilities and, in turn, what we expect from the artists and organizations we partner up with, but they also function to instate and legitimize our core values as professional working standards. Consensual Agreements perform a coalition-building function as well, by serving as mediums to spread EC’s Care Standard.
MARTA: When did you come to realize the importance of contracts?
ISIS: For artists, there’s no real training on how to function within the art industry. Even graduate schools don’t necessarily teach artists how to deal with an institution who has approached them to show their work in a group exhibition, for example. Especially when you’re an artist in the early stages of your career, it’s difficult not to say “yes” to offers before getting a complete picture of the situation for fear of missing out on any opportunities. We don’t talk enough about the social pressures of “quietly” agreeing to things which unfortunately end up being exploitative situations. Exposure does not pay bills. EC is trying to curb all these potential pitfalls through our Consensual Agreements and by holding space for open communication with our collaborators way beyond a project’s timeline.
MARTA: It’s the language of the art world, made of half spoken, half written proposals that somehow, we end up signing off on. This is an embedded exploitation mechanism, and it is done on purpose.
ISIS: I think it is also fueled by the shunning of corporate language or anything perceived to be slightly akin to corporate behavior by art institutions, under the guise that arts and culture work is radically above that. Why is it rare for nonprofit art organizations or galleries to have functional HR departments? As we all know, structures already exist, commonly adopted by other industries, that were created precisely to curb exploitation. This is not to say that having an HR department is the only solution, and maybe the answer to that question is rooted in a lack of funding. But then again, I believe that it is the art institution’s responsibility to be aware of those needs and to communicate them with their funders. This “better than” mentality is what ends up mystifying the labor of artists and art workers under the belief that art work is “for the betterment of society,” when the reality is that the people doing the work often feel overworked and underpaid. But I do believe that a shift toward creating more caring structures within art institutions is slowly approaching. You see it now with museums like The Met hiring their first Chief Diversity Officer, for example, and more funders adopting a basic income model. As our manifesto says, EC registers how the intentions of such structures could be applied to our purpose, our goals, and our operations.
MARTA: How would you describe arts patronage in relation to Executive Care*?
ISIS: EC’s main mission is to revolutionize the way that artists, especially those in early stages of their careers, who don’t have access to generational wealth, are supported. Our goal is to offer artists production support in the form of monthly unrestricted stipends, curatorial guidance, and access to mentorship over an extended period of time, which leads up to public exhibitions of their work. Based on the grants I have helped my friends apply for and my own experiences applying to grants for institutions in different contexts, I find that funding comes too late. There is this working assumption that the artwork has already been made, which is not always the case. Of course there are grants which support artistic production, but a lot of them, if not all of them, don’t cover expenses retroactively, which leaves many artists in debt. Moreover, grants are often merit-based and expect artists to upload multiple samples of their work in order to qualify. What about artists who do not have the generational wealth or the support to make art consistently, or on a scale that makes them competitive for these opportunities? How, as an artist, is one expected to have work samples to upload in support of a production grant application, when one needs the production grant to make that work in the first place? EC also suffers from the same paradox. As an art organization, we are expected to have an ongoing program of exhibitions and events in order to attract and secure support from foundations and funders, yet without that support, how are we expected to produce programs and exhibitions? This speaks to the glaring lack of arts and culture organizations founded and run by marginalized people of color.
MARTA: It’s a system built to support people that already have a certain security and have access either to wealth or have a solid network within the art world.
ISIS: And if you look around that’s really it. The artists that are able to continuously make new work, invest in their practice, and create a succinct body of work are artists that have some kind of support because the fact is making art requires a lot of time and money, and artwork has historically always been patron-supported.
MARTA: Especially if you are living in a city like New York, which is extremely expensive.
ISIS: And add to that, the structures that exist privilege those who already have access to space and visibility. It becomes extremely hard, if not impossible, for artists who have historically been denied equal access to employment and housing because of their marginalized identities to take advantage of the existing arts patronage system.
MARTA: The question of accessibility is one that is most urgent, yet the most enduring, within the arts sphere. What models of support, financial and institutional, have you set up to tackle accessibility? How does EC differentiate itself from other nonprofit arts organizations that might share, at least in their mission statements, similar notions of support and care in regards to artists?
ISIS: I think what makes EC’s model slightly unique is its focus on serving queer and trans artists of color from performance and nightlife communities. By offering access to monthly monetary and mentorship support over an extended period of time, we hope that this will enable these artists to have the freedom to experiment, make artwork, and survive. It is ironic and sad how we as queer and trans people are often met with rejection and a withdrawal of care from our immediate families and the support systems we were born into, even though we are the groups who need that unconditional love and support the most. Our goal, for starters, is to be able to provide ongoing support for two artists per year in the form of monthly unrestricted stipends of $1000; and to support the public dissemination of their work at the end of that year through exhibitions, programs, and publishing. These stipends can be used to cover any kind of cost, and artists would not be asked to report back on what they were put toward. The hope is that this model will supplement income, or lack thereof, allowing artists to dedicate more time and energy to their art practice.
MARTA: Safe spaces for queer, marginalized communities are needed now more than ever. Historically, underground nightlife has always been at the center of it. What’s the potential that nighttime holds for you?
ISIS: For myself and many members of the trans and queer community, nightlife is just life. Night time and night spaces are often the only options for us to exist together in space, somewhat freely. And to be honest, even within queer-run, or “queer-friendly” parties and spaces, safety is never guaranteed. The reason why EC focuses on supporting artists from performance and nightlife communities is because these are the communities that I myself am enmeshed in and who need support the most. And although I believe in the generative and revolutionary potential of the party and nightlife, I am aware of how disruptive and isolating working in nightlife can be, especially for those who depend on nightlife work as their only income.
Nightlife was hit very hard by the pandemic. The whole industry—venue owners, tech crews, artists, performers—are just starting to slowly recover from the incredible loss of the past two years. From a trans perspective in particular, the club or the party also provide a necessary sense of belonging and validation for us. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of spaces for us to go where we can feel a sense of belonging and just be.
MARTA: Can you tell me a bit more about how you’ve built your relationship with the artists EC has collaborated with so far?
ISIS: Last summer EC launched with Brooklyn-based performance artist (and current EC board member) Keioui Keijaun Thomas’s first solo exhibition, Hands Up, Ass Out, which was hosted and supported by Participant Inc. The exhibition was the result of a two-year collaboration, showcasing a body of work spanning the last six years of the artist’s career, and included archival material from past performances as well as sculptures and prints. Thomas and I actually met at a bar and club in Ridgewood, Queens, called Nowadays, where Keioui was working the door and where I recently started operating the lights. Parties there or like the ones at The Spectrum/Dreamhouse live up to the name of a party as a community space as well as a performance art space since they have a lot of performances programmed into their party night. Since working together, Keioui has become like a sister to me, and that model of reliability and friendship is what I aim to bring to all levels of EC’s operations.
MARTA: …one of the last times I saw you was on a dance floor at The Spectrum/Dreamhouse, just before I left New York. And now, three years later, I think you have successfully translated into the art context what has always felt vital for you—in the literal sense, in the way that it makes you feel alive—by creating a curatorial platform that allows you to work with people that you care for. In a way that, unfortunately, is very rare to encounter. Making an artist feel protected, taken care of, and giving them the freedom to experiment is essential work.
ISIS: I haven’t really thought about it like that, but, yes, I guess that’s true. The same values that I respect, honor, and cherish about and from nightlife, are what I am emulating curatorially through EC. By hosting EC’s programming at and with partnering art spaces and venues, my hope is to also stimulate the growth of a supportive arts community here in New York.
MARTA: Friendship, as an essential supportive care structure, could be used here as it seems to sit at the core of this project. How would you define it and what does this word mean to you?
ISIS: I love that you bring up friendship because I was thinking about that a lot while formulating EC’s language. I thought a lot about care workers, counselors, therapists; services embedded in care that we pay money to access. I asked myself, does paying for those services demonize that care? Does monetizing care affect how genuine it is? We tend to think that things are less genuine when they are paid for and transactional, especially when it comes to love and friendship. But neglecting the time, energy, and resources needed to maintain basic survival—so that we can have the energy and capacity it takes to care for ourselves and each other—can also inhibit these relationships from ever forming. The idea of forever and unconditionality are just false notions stemming from patriarchy that in my opinion end up draining relationships. It took me reevaluating how I perceived friendship within my own life to understand that structure, order, and limitations are not detrimental to love—they could be helpful, and essential for a long-lasting, and fruitful relationship to thrive.
MARTA: The illusion that the nonprofit art world is somehow above capital, at least at a moral or ethical level, while it functions in a hyper-capitalist configuration, spreads like poison. There is this complete rupture between what you want people to think about your institution (idealistic statements), holding certain principles, and the reality of the day-to-day management operations within it.
ISIS: Exactly. We need to debunk the harmful notion that struggle breeds creativity. Instituting care functions then as an antidote against the exploitation of artists, and to dismantle the shadowy figure of the precarious art worker, suffering in the background.
MARTA: Slowness as a methodology is definitely something that we both embrace. How can we support this model of working against the grain of capitalist models to allow for a more thoughtful, responsible, and liberating way of working? What does this model need in order to thrive?
ISIS: Firstly, by understanding that art making is not a solitary occupation. It requires long-term access to time, money, space, and community guidance. What EC is offering is an artist-centered support model. The inspiration for this model actually comes from the so-called Golden Age of film, where production studios would contract actors for five to seven years at a time, and, regardless of whether they were in a production or not, they would receive monthly salaries, just like regular employees.
I want to invest in artists who are my kin, whose work I might have seen at the club, or that I know have a painting practice but don’t have the time or money to rent a studio and pay for art supplies because they are working all the time to cover bills. I am deeply invested in them not as content producers, but as people, as peers, as sisters. Right now, I am working toward incorporating EC as a nonprofit in order to gain access to more government and foundation funding, but at the same time, I could totally see EC evolving into a different kind of model. Perhaps in the future, it could embody a for-profit gallery model, with a roster of artists that receive a monthly salary no matter if they have a show on or not, and when they have one, they get extra support.
MARTA: Hence the asterisk?
ISIS: The asterisk in Executive Care* is a reflection of how mutable EC is in form and model. It signals its identity both visually and textually. I think the asterisk can become a tool to queer and redefine language, and EC’s mission is to redefine what it means to be caring in a professional context.
MARTA: Talking about physical shows—EC does not have a space, right?
ISIS: As of now, no. Being tied to renting out a space and having it empty because of COVID, or whatever else the future will hold for us, seems an unnecessary risk to take. It also allows EC to funnel more resources directly to the artists. Exhibitions and programs are hosted with partnering institutions. This collaborative exhibition model also creates space for slowness and flexibility to guide EC’s programming structure as we navigate our current precarious reality. Besides, being a space-less institution also holds multiple coalition-building functions. By connecting artists to other like-minded art organizations, we provide them with a larger network while simultaneously building a system of support between different art spaces, which are truly connected to each other and not just temporarily collaborating together in order to share funds for a specific project. As such, EC is not a monolithic tree trunk, but a catalyst stimulating the growth of different root systems and providing the infrastructure for them to communicate and feed one another.
MARTA: It strikes me that you describe EC through the use of ecology.
ISIS: There is a principle within ecology that says that the more diverse an ecosystem is the more it is able to survive disruptions. This model supports diversity not just in terms of leadership—myself and the board that I am working with—but also the artists and the spaces I will be working with in the future. I am trying to enrich and diversify the parties that have a stake in this model.
MARTA: But this is also the challenge, right? How can you make sure that an institution actually cares and shares your core values?
ISIS: I believe there are already institutions that care for the artists they work with in a way that aligns with EC’s standards. For example, Participant Inc., where we hosted our first exhibition, is an extremely supportive life system for us. Lia Gangitano, Participant’s founder, is now a member of the board and they are also our fiscal sponsor until we achieve our own nonprofit status. Another example is Visual AIDS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving artists who are living with HIV or have passed due to HIV-related complications. They are the only organization in New York doing this essential work. They also don’t have an exhibition space of their own, but still support guest-curated exhibitions and host their programming at different venues. These are just two examples of art organizations that EC would love to continue working with.
MARTA: What’s next then for EC?
ISIS: I’m very excited about the upcoming programming we have in store. I am focusing all my efforts on fundraising and development at the moment. And toward incorporating EC as a nonprofit. However, until that point and as I previously mentioned, we are thankful to have the fiscal sponsorship of Participant Inc., which means that we can currently receive tax-deductible donations from foundations and individuals interested in supporting our mission and programming. As much as we need diversity in arts programming, there is a real need to invest in organizations managed and led by diverse arts workers, supporting different kinds of leadership that do not quite exist in the arts yet, like ours. I’m the only one working at the moment. I myself need to be mindful of supporting myself in order to continue building a foundation for EC, as I myself don’t have access to generational wealth but I’m choosing to invest in myself and this so that I can continue and be compensated for my labor. I’m going to keep on going, things are happening regardless and are going to keep happening. I’m not going to let anything stop me. If anything, I’m motivated by feeling I need to knock louder.
Executive Care*’s non-commercial operations and programming rely solely on generous gifts from friends, and foundations. All donations to EC are fully tax-deductible, and fiscally sponsored by Participant Inc., a registered 501(c)(3) educational corporation in New York. If you want to make a donation, visit www.executivecare.art/support.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
– Lilla Watson
In 2017, a group of curators and I initiated the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit. It was an attempt to reorient the imperialist and inherently colonial forms and functions of cartography by establishing a participatory digital platform through which various stakeholders—from residents to teachers, students and artists, to architects and urban planners—could learn and acknowledge the overlapping colonial histories of the land they were on, reconceive urban social configurations in the present, and effect emergent visions of a decolonized future. The project began with a series of workshops initially intended to get feedback on ideas, which eventually became the meeting space of a core collective of students, architects, artists, and educators who would weave in and out of the project team.
This group of people invested in the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit helped to conceptualize, curate, and lead a day-long public program of participant-led walks through Lower Manhattan that reoriented our understanding of the city’s multi-layered past. The walks situated histories of oppression in-situ, helping us understand the fracturing of the Indigenous community, extraction of labor from enslaved Black people, and displacement of what was once a thriving Arab neighborhood by generations of colonizers. The overall program was named by the collective, Faultlining New York. Walks were led by artist Moira William, and historian and educator Rebecca Manski. Both walks were structured to be reliant on participant leadership: Moira’s included exercises in which we guided each other in movements to reframe our bodily relationship to Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan; later, Rebecca led discussions around the histories of oppression and displacement deeply embedded in and beneath the streets and buildings of the neighborhood.
Our curatorial methods were continuously evolving in response to collectively built and shared knowledge and effort. Two concepts in the Filipino language might help describe this process: kasaysayan (Baybayin: ᜃᜐᜌ᜔ ᜐᜌᜈ᜔ , literally, significance, or a story that contains meaning) and bayanihan (Baybayin: ᜊᜌᜈᜒ ᜑᜈ᜔ , the active practice of being in community). Each is dependent upon the other: kasaysayan prioritizes the perspective of the community as crucial to overall understanding, and, I argue, can function through mediums of collaboration such as bayanihan. Applying this interpretive framework, the possibility of decoupling curatorial practice from institutional labor emerges, posing methodologies for collective, liberatory, and truly revolutionary creative work.
Kasaysayan is a Filipino word indicating a significant or meaningful narrative. In contrast to Western modes of history writing, kasaysayan is a form of knowledge sharing traditionally practiced in the form of myth, song, and other oral traditions. While the translation of kasaysayan most closely approximates to the English word “history,” its genealogy is tied to specific narratives of colonization, erasure, and more recently, the resurgence of a bagong (new) kasaysayan. A 2002 doctoral dissertation by Portia L. Reyes provides an overview of historiography in the Philippines, tracking the moves from kasaysayan (collective knowledge transmitted in community spaces in Tagalog or indigenous Filipino languages) to historia/history (narratives dominated by Western historical frameworks, reified by Spanish-/English-speaking universities and other dominant cultural spaces of the colonized archipelago) to, now, the movement for a bagong kasaysayan. The bagong kasaysayan provides a useful contemporary framework for, and may be used in service to, the identity-building and liberation of Filipinos from imperialist, feudal, and bureaucrat capitalist systems of oppression embedded in the Filipino political economy after centuries of occupation by Spain and then the United States. The bagong kasaysayan framework was proposed in a 1997 essay by University of the Philippines-Diliman scholar Zeus Salazar, who championed the notion of pantayong pananaw, literally meaning “from-us-for-us perspective.” The fundamental traits of pantayong pananaw, or PP as it is often referred to, are that it centers Filipino experience and ideas over colonial narratives and perspectives; considers the deep-seated linguistic implications of telling Filipino history in the Pilipino language; and “exhibit[s] a certain style of thought and way of speaking based largely on a critique of colonial discursive strategies” (e.g. “discovery” narratives, using Western histories to comparatively explain Filipino histories, etc.). The ultimate goal of PP, then, is to provide a framework for historical description that prioritizes a sense of unity in history, existence, and liberatory purpose for the Filipino people.
While these terms are specific to Filipino movements, this historiographical turn could be seen as foundational to “radical” thought, from Joma Sison’s Marxist-Leninist analysis of Philippine history and society, Philippine Society and Revolution, to Frantz Fanon’s psychological narratives of the colonized. Both detail the post-colonial nature of revolutionary struggle in the 20th century and the necessity of reconsidering both the histories that we are taught and our own position in relation to their perspectives. White supremacy—specifically, the imperialist and neoliberal socioeconomic processes that continuously reinforce global racial capitalism—ends up being the core force at work in many, if not all, such lines of inquiry.
Patrick Wolfe’s critical 2016 assessment of race in Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, provides an analysis of settler society—and, consequently, a blueprint for White supremacy—through comparative settler histories and mechanisms of race worldwide. He posits that race is not merely a social construct, but also a specific product of historical political relations of conquest and empire, ultimately serving to uphold racialized power structures. Poignantly, he notes:
Race…is a process, not an ontology, its varying modalities so many dialectical symptoms of the ever-shifting hegemonic balance between those with a will to colonise and those with a will to be free, severally racialised in relation to each other. Race registers the state of colonial hostilities. The common factor is Whiteness. Amidst all the differences distinguishing the various regimes of race that we shall examine, the overriding goal is White supremacy.
In addressing frameworks of Whiteness as a channel for the construction of race, Wolfe counters typical anthropological and historical methods of writing the history of Black and brown “Others,” instead focusing on the comparative specifics of their oppression by White society.
The battle against White imperialist power, its specific systems and processes, and its pervasive cultural narratives thus continues to unite our international struggles. Understanding the mechanisms of race that compose structures to uphold White supremacy illuminates important solidarities in a study of oppression. As Wolfe points to the individualist mechanisms of Whiteness, one path forward in joining a united decolonial struggle lies in collective inquiry, organizing, and knowledge production that creates significant historical meaning by centering the experiences of those “with a will to be free.” Again, our liberation struggles are bound together.
ᜊᜌᜈᜒ ᜑᜈ᜔ (BAYANIHAN)
adrienne maree brown, in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, highlights one of her favorite questions of our time: “How do we turn our collective full-bodied intelligence towards collaboration, if that is the way we will survive?” One answer, complementary and in service to her proposed “emergent strategy,” is in the creation of collectively-sourced, self- determined narratives. Here, the Filipino tradition of bayanihan can be looked to as a specific form of community labor performed in solidarity with and in service to collective freedom, serving as one conceptual and, perhaps, curatorial model for the labor involved in getting free.
The bayanihan tradition connotes collective labor for the achievement of tasks and efforts too great for a single person to take on alone. It is a pre-colonial, pre-capitalist necessity for community life, and ensures that individual needs are met so that the collective can thrive. The bayanihan spirit itself has been assessed as a phenomenon that has been affected by the rise of racialized Western economics in the archipelago. Prior to the 1970s, “transferring a house within the barrio was the most common bayanihan activity. It was an ordinary project because many residents did not own the lot where their house stood. When a better location was available, it was not a difficult task to transfer for there were many ready to help.” From the late 1970s onward, with the rise of global capitalism and the Philippines’ growing import/export market, elevated costs of living and the wage economy led to the decline of bayanihan mutual aid. Still, bayanihan traditions and activities persist today, pervading, as some argue, Filipino culture at large. I look to the physical act of collectively moving one’s house for this essay’s understanding of bayanihan as a medium and metaphor for building the unities, organizing power, and collective life around the creative “lift” of a project.
If kasaysayan requires telling the complex, intertwining stories of systemic disenfranchisement of BIPOC communities by White supremacist states, the lift of sharing the full story from within the belly of the beast is indeed a heavy one. Yet bayanihan is, essentially, the labor of community care. If curatorial work is, similarly, care—of spaces, of objects, of histories, of people—then it has the potential to function collectively, in the spirit of bayanihan, as a counter to the individualizing mechanisms of White supremacy (including individual accomplishment, displacement, criminalization, and extraction of labor).
With the goal of parsing out community kasaysayan in order to push forward as a society, curators who create situations of bayanihan collectivity (see, for example, Shifter magazine’s “Learning and Unlearning” series [2017–19]; Imagining De-Gentrified Futures  at Apex Art, curated by artist and activist Betty Yu; Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Mirror Shield Project , and the creative work of water protectors more broadly) might also create pathways to the decolonization of our spaces and communities. If the role of the curator has historically been to organize exhibitions and programs as tools for education (“art history”) for “the public,” why not now organize from “the public” for the liberation of us all? And, if that liberation is independent from (but not excluding) institutional art spaces, why must curatorial work—even so-called “independent” curatorship—rely on institutional space, especially if those institutions extract labor and life from the very people and communities they purport to champion?
If the curator is only one of many crucial actors, they might work primarily as a facilitator for collective generation and interpretation of kasaysayan. They might create formations and situations on-site, as in the first Decolonial Mapping Toolkit program, in which community members, artists, designers, scholars, and other arts and cultural workers collaborate on drafting and re-drafting the multi-layered histories of the land on which we live. We must here remember that colonization is a physical, spatial phenomenon, and that oppressed communities face erasure through colonial processes of gentrification, displacement, policing, and other forms of spatial oppression. To counter these histories, the telling of our kasaysayan must also include and enact the emergent hopes, dreams, and possibilities for the future. This mode of curatorial work might draw ideas from aesthetic and critical theory, decolonization, and even recent art history (and it should), but its practice is far from merely theoretical. Rather, this kind of curatorial labor sees success in the mobilisation of people (bayanihan) toward the active creation of stories (kasaysayan) in order to better understand the simple, crucial fact that we struggle together, and that we are only a few of many whose liberations are deeply connected. In this sense, “the arts” cease to be some abstracted and professionalized “art world,” instead functioning in service to “the people” more broadly as a set of creative opportunities for revolutionary struggle.
The annual Indigenous People’s Day Tours organized by Decolonize This Place on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York have embodied this critical spatial practice, particularly during their 2019 tour that ventured outside of the museum. After a set of performances and speeches on the Museum steps acknowledging the space as Native land, we marched through Central Park to the site of what once was the African free community, Seneca Village, then to the obelisk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour formation included Indigenous Kinship Collective, No New Jails NY, Chinatown Art Brigade, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, and Art Space Sanctuary, who all held space for each others’ stories and collectively led the march through the park in an effort to reclaim the narratives lost to the toxic hands of White supremacy, and to reframe public spaces in the city as sites of oppression. The resulting kasaysayan was multi-layered, with speakers all fighting for not only their own liberation, but for that of others as well.
This, at its core, is the real nature of bayanihan: if we act for one oppressed community, we act for all our communities. Applied to curatorial work, we might understand this skillset as one practice in a broad spectrum of tactics and modes of struggle—one that need not only exist in cultural spaces guided by the interests of capital, but also in ever-evolving formation and collaboration with diverse projects, activist spaces, and collectives. There is another Pilipino phrase often chanted at Filipino protests: Makibaka! Huwag matakot! The unity inherent to makibaka (its root word, pagbaka, meaning “to struggle against”; its prefix maki- indicating an invitation to do together) ends up being a powerful gesture of comradeship, contained in its translation: “Join in the struggle! Don’t be afraid!”
María Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Feminist Constructions) (Washington, D.C: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003).
I have this habit of reading in English while listening to music in Spanish. It helps focus my attention by keeping out any environmental distraction. While one part of my brain is concentrated on the automatic comprehension of the Spanish language, the other is devoted to understanding and analyzing words in English with all the thoughts and associations they ignite. In a way, this exercise has kept me grounded in my mother tongue, the language that formed me and still connects me to teachers, friends, sisters, mothers. These women have shown me that being a feminist is not just something that happens through academic texts but through life choices, actions, and affection. Through their voices, I have learned to listen, to pay attention to other languages, to learn from differences and grow with them.
One of the women that has greatly shaped my thinking has been the late Argentinian philosopher María Lugones. Her idea of coalitional praxis—operating together to reach a joint goal—has defined the way I want to move with colleagues, friends, collaborators, and partners in the journey, momentary and long-term, to organize the world around us.
The etymological origin of the word coalition in Latin is co- (together) and -lescere (grow). As a curator, it is my intention to look for forms of growing together through exhibition-making. What does a curatorial practice that creates and exemplifies an enduring partnership of differences based in multiple understandings of oppressions and resistances look like? How can Lugones’ ideas help me take on this task?
It is not easy to forge the type of relationships required for such cooperation. To develop her ideas, Lugones heeds to Audre Lorde’s notion of interdependency, and establishes that all parties in the coalition need to be motivated and defined by a deep sense of solidarity between them. We have to be ready to sustain a “disintegration of one’s unified sense of being central, being a being in the foreground.” Decentralizing oneself is a difficult process we all need to be prepared for in coalitional work.
To achieve this level of solidarity and interdependency in an unrelenting manner, Lugones demands we engage in the labor of “coalitional consciousness-building.” With this strategy, we create environments that support self-reflection instead of looking for commonalities among participants and “safe spaces.” By keeping the focus on possibilities for collective action and its transformative power, the involved parties are given the support required to bear the inherent risks of the process.
From coalitional praxis, “active subjectivity” emerges. The essence of this wide-eyed perspective is contingent, influenced by moving together with people, never fixed and always open to the contamination and volatility of working with others. Realizing this subjectivity through deep coalition-building exceeds affinity groups, Lugones “calls on us to see ourselves reflected back by those differently oppressed than us, […] to expand the eye that privilege constricts and to see how our relatively privileged selves remain wired to act in complicity with oppression.” This operation is necessarily a challenge to our subjectivity. Being honest with ourselves will require witnessing and confronting our individual position within the network of oppression; working against the grain of power, we side with the resistance.
In 2018 I had the honor of partially restaging the germinal group exhibition, Dialectics of Isolation: an Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States (September 2–20, 1980), at A.I.R. Gallery in New York. A curatorial collaboration with Patricia M. Hernandez, my colleague and friend, this project began as a consideration of the shortcomings of the American feminist movement in relation to artists from the “Third World.” It is especially close to my heart.
Some of the A.I.R. Gallery members in 1979.
Top row from left to right: Mary Beth Edelson, Sarah Draney, Nancy Spero, Donna Byars. Middle row from left to right: Rach Bas-Cohain, Dottie Attie, Anne Healy. Front row from left to right: Pat Lasch, Clover Vail, Ana Mendieta, Daria Dorosh.
A.I.R. Gallery was established in 1972 as the first not-for-profit, artist-directed gallery for women artists in the United States. The organization was founded by a group of twenty female artists, and early members included Judith Bernstein, Agnes Denes, Harmony Hammond, Ana Mendieta, Howardena Pindell, and Nancy Spero, among many others. Today, A.I.R. functions as a cooperative for women and non-binary artists through which resources are shared. For the past five years, I have been the Executive Director of the organization. I have developed relationships with the artists and supporters, past and present, that have maintained the foundation of this community. It is a community with a rich past, fluctuating between the center and the margins of the contemporary art world in New York City, that is now reckoning with its own historical and contemporary biases, aiming to shape a different future. For the celebration of its 45th anniversary in 2017, I started to work on the restaging of Dialectics of Isolation as part of this ongoing effort.
Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States was organized by artists Ana Mendieta and Kazuko Miyamoto (A.I.R. Gallery members) with the artist Zarina (Zarina Hashmi). It took place at A.I.R. Gallery’s first space at 97 Wooster Street, and included works by Judith Baca, Beverly Buchanan, Janet Henry, Senga Nengudi, Lydia Okumura, Howardena Pindell, Selena W. Persico and Zarina herself. In the accompanying catalogue, Mendieta states that the aim of the exhibition is to comment on the erasure of women of color in the American feminist movement that they have helped build. Mainstream American feminism at that time was predominantly white. It created a hierarchy that mimicked the very patriarchal structure it sought to dismantle. Rather than focusing on the injustices of a racist society or a feminist movement that she believed had only served the white middle class, Mendieta pointed “towards a personal will to continue being ‘other.’” The curators acknowledged A.I.R.’s deficiencies and the failures of the feminist movement, while demonstrating their desire to support A.I.R.’s project overall. The initial proposal for Dialectics of Isolation was embraced by the collective: its members understood themselves to be a political microcosm, a space grounded in collaboration that allowed things to happen within the gallery that could not occur elsewhere.
The curators used the term “Third World” to strategically align themselves within a growing political movement to unify peoples and countries that did not belong to either side of the Cold War narrative, and that had been historically ravaged by colonial practices. This strong decolonial stance, per New York-based writer Aruna D’Souza:
…was an oppositional gesture, one that grew out of a contemporary and widespread critique of A.I.R. Gallery […]. The challenge Mendieta and her co-curators posed to their peers at A.I.R. and other feminist art spaces in New York was contained in the title of the show, referring as it did to the idea of “Third World women.”[…] The embrace of the idea of a Third World feminism came as Black, Chicanx, Indigenous, and other feminists of color in the United States recognized the importance of seeing their own liberation as part of larger, global processes of decolonization, linked to anti-imperialist struggles such as the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, independence movements in former colonies, and antipoverty activism.
This curatorial gesture would be characterized as coalitional-consciousness building which bears faithful witness to resistance. This show subverted the hierarchical structure of mainstream feminism, locating A.I.R. Gallery as a site of exclusion and a site of difference. Creating a portal to this larger coalition of women artists, Dialectics of Isolation simultaneously performed a critique of the mainstream’s (and A.I.R.’s) flattened female perspective.
Dialectics of Isolation was accused of being “incongruous,” with artworks not relating to one another aesthetically or stylistically. Howardena Pindell debuted Free, White and 21 (1980), a conversational video work in which the artist recounts personal experiences of sexism and racism to a white-face version of herself—performing the role of a middle-class white woman who gaslights the artist and claims she is “paranoid” and “ungrateful.” Janet Henry exhibited a piece titled Juju Box for a White Protestant Male (1979–80) from her diorama-like spiritual box series. Selena W. Persico presented a collection of slides that depicted plants and trees native to what we now call the American Northeast. Zarina, who equated paper to human skin, introduced a piece of her cast paper series titled Corners. Judith Baca’s figurative mural was made the year before at Taller Siqueiros in Mexico, a workshop sustained by muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lydia Okumura’s minimalist drawing played with illusions of perception and expanded the gallery space. Beverly Buchanan’s wall column, a three-piece cast cement sculpture, connected the fragility of human constructions to the physical properties of her medium. Senga Nengudi’s fibrous sculptures, made of found materials that remain dormant until activated by performers, also explored a dialogue between skin, movement, and her physicality.
The abundance of mediums and styles clearly reflected the practices of the three organizers: the minimalist interventions synced with Kazuko and Zarina, while the performative elements aligned with Mendieta’s interests. Each artist, however, embraced the fact that their identities and life experiences affected their work. They explain this explicitly in their statements included in the catalogue, but this intentional personalization and assortment spurred critique. We can recognize such criticism, per Lugones, as the inability of the oppressor to see resistance. Critics of the exhibition could not contemplate artistic gestures separate from the dominant patriarchal vantage point that aimed to extricate emotional content from art-making. This limitation sees acts of resistance as incompetence rather than strength—subscribing to such simplifications identifies the ubiquity of the oppressor’s subversion.
The show was certainly a challenge to the members of A.I.R. It confronted the organization with the ongoing criticism about lack of stylistic unity that it has faced since its inception. Reading the reviews, it was difficult for critics to recognize the intersectional nature of the struggle and see beyond “women’s work.” The artists in this exhibition engaged with materiality and process in idiosyncratic ways, looking beyond material affinities to make claims about the interconnectedness of their identities. Dialectics of Isolation demonstrated the impossibility of existing within a system that does not recognize interdependence—the ability to exist as individuals and the necessary attention to disparate perspectives that make up our society. Thinking about Dialectics of Isolation in contemporary terms, D’Souza notes that the exhibition is “a reminder to mainstream feminist organizers that models for intersectional feminism have long existed within the spheres of Black and woman of color feminisms, most pertinently as Third World feminism.”
Dialectics of Isolation operated from a place of risk, reaching beyond immediate affinity groups to challenge the viewers, organizers, artists, and the institution that housed them. It followed the logic of what Lugones referred to as “witnessing faithfully” where:
[O]ne must be able to sense resistance, to interpret behavior as resistant even when it is dangerous, when that interpretation places one psychologically against common sense, or when one is moved to act in collision with common sense, with oppression. Faithful witnessing leads one away from a monosensical life. One ceases to have expectations, desires, and beliefs that fit one for a life in allegiance with oppression.
Although nobody put their lives in danger to organize the restaging of Dialectics of Isolation, it enabled us to see resistance within and outside the art world, to recognize it and make it visible for others. The restaging of this project helped me realize, for example, that exhibitions constructed in a collaborative coalitional praxis take time. Their processes take longer to digest and they do not respond to the rhythm of fast production assumed in the contemporary art world. Absorbing these elements of resistance that may seem counterintuitive can propel actions, alter expectations, and be a hearty tool for coalitional consciousness-building.
Our restaging at A.I.R. and the content produced is akin to what Gloria Anzaldúa describes as mestiza consciousness, flagging the importance of the collective nature of the feminist statement and the multiple perspectives contained beneath the wide umbrella of feminism. As a coalitional exhibition, it copes with the incongruous identities presented as it also unifies the struggles they bring forth. It creates a precedent for “developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity,” and fosters the ability to decenter hegemonic voices in order to share resistance. If such actions are successful, an audience can participate in that dialogue (a requirement for coalitional exhibitions). As author adrienne maree brown asserts, this is not “a master’s tool,” because conversations are intimate circles that allow for non-hierarchical thinking and shared growth.
In the last year and a half, amidst intense pain and suffering, we were given the opportunity to rethink our models of working together, of understanding ourselves in connection with others, and the permeability of influence. For me, this project is a model for intersectional feminism. Historical initiatives and our foremothers exposed a multitude of mechanisms through which coalitions can be created with methods that are not mutually exclusive. By interrogating these projects without demanding clear-cut conclusions, we can embrace and operate within that ambiguity and contradiction. It is my sincere hope that we can continue to activate slow, contaminated, complex exhibition-making.
Thank you, María Lugones.
The union brought us together. In January 2019, my fellow organizers and I took our campaign to unionize the New Museum public. I volunteered to speak to the press and so did my comrade Alicia Graziano. I was the senior editor and publications coordinator at the Museum and had worked there for almost three years; Alicia was a development assistant and worked in the offices one floor above mine. We didn’t know each other until we started trying to unionize. Sometimes, that January, we would take press calls together—I remember the two of us stepping out of an organizing committee meeting one day and sitting on the floor in front of the elevators in the UAW’s Midtown office building, talking to a reporter on speakerphone—and when we did, we would describe our new friendship as another positive effect of the unionization campaign. The New Museum siloed departments, pitted their lowest-paid employees against each other when they gave us a chance to talk to each other at all. As always, if the bosses can make us think our enemies are each other, we won’t realize that they’re exploiting all of us.
I don’t want to say the best thing about the union is the friends we made along the way. The best thing about the union is a lot of things. It’s the fact that nobody in our unit gets hired full-time at $35,000 or $40,000 a year anymore, truly unlivable salaries in New York City. It’s the fact that workers in visitor services and the store got their first raises in over three years from just above minimum wage to $18 per hour. It’s the fact that after years of preventable accidents among art handlers, we can now go to management and hold them accountable to better health and safety standards. It’s the fact that part-timers now get a stipend for healthcare—not nearly enough, but a step towards acknowledging that all of us deserve health coverage. But it’s also the solidarity we built with each other throughout the process. And while solidarity doesn’t require friendship—you can be someone’s comrade if you’re fighting with them for the same things, if you’re willing to do what you can to keep them safe, even if you’re not friends—in my experience with the New Museum Union, solidarity and friendship have been inextricably linked.
A union is by nature a collective project. Our union represents office staff, front-facing staff in visitor services and the store, and part-time art handlers and registrars. We voted to form a union in January 2019, and won our vote by a huge margin. This made us the first major US museum to unionize since the 1970s, when workers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) in California formed their unions. Even before we made the decision to unionize, we met together regularly over lunch or after-work drinks to discuss the changes we wanted to see at the Museum. We started each of these meetings with a salary share, a powerful organizing tool that has gained traction in the art world recently with Kimberly Drew’s 2019 keynote presentation at the American Alliance of Museums and the museum salary spreadsheet started by Art + Museum Transparency.
We decided to unionize for a confluence of reasons, some of them specific to the New Museum: egregiously low pay and a huge disparity between executive and low-level salaries; a culture of disposability that resulted in massive turnover; and a real gap between the Museum’s outward-facing progressive politics and its internal dynamics. The New Museum was founded in a one-room office in 1977 by Marcia Tucker, who had been a curator at the Whitney Museum until she was fired. She formed the New Museum not only to show new art—including the postminimal work that many other museums were still hostile to at the time—but also to reimagine what a museum is, what it should do, and who it should serve. At the Museum’s founding, she proposed paying all staff the same salary and forgoing hierarchies by having everyone rotate jobs (this approach didn’t last long, unfortunately, for reasons I haven’t been able to discover but can only assume have to do with the pressures of capitalist funders and museum board members).
Looking back at that history, and at organizing by groups like the Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s and early ’70s, it’s jarring to see how many of their demands—like free admission for all or involving museum workers and artists in museum policy decisions—are still relevant today. Some of their demands even feel far beyond what we can call for now, when low pay and prestige-as-compensation prevent people without outside sources of financial support from getting a foothold in the art world to begin with. Our horizon of possibility has been so limited by increasingly corporate museum leadership that we’re expected to just be grateful to have a museum job in the first place.
Since our unionization, I’ve spoken to a lot of people working at other institutions and it’s surprising to see how many of these issues impact workers across the art world. We wanted to change the landscape, not just our own conditions. Improving conditions at the New Museum through our contract—higher wages, greater access to healthcare, an effective procedure for handling grievances with management—was also a way for us to set higher standards for museum workers elsewhere, to shift the sense of what’s possible and what workers deserve. I also want to acknowledge that art workers are not a homogenous group: people come from different conditions and have different needs and expectations. Certain forms of labor within the museum are racialized, classed, and gendered: at the New Museum, as at most art institutions in the US, the lowest-paid, most precarious workers are concentrated in departments like maintenance, security, and visitor services, which also represent the majority of employees of color. In our contract negotiations, which began in March 2019 and resulted in our first contract in October, we prioritized bringing the bottom up, making sure we won real improvements for the lowest-paid people in our unit, those who work in visitor services and the museum store.
In June, we held an action outside the Museum during exhibition openings in which more than a hundred union members and supporters rallied to pressure the Museum to negotiate more fairly with us. And ultimately we had to call a strike vote and prepare to go on strike in order to create enough pressure to win a fair contract. There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a major museum strike in the US since MoMA workers went on strike for more than four months in 2000. As a result, they won a contract with substantial pay increases and a closed shop—meaning that everyone in union positions is automatically in the union, which makes the union stronger. Our own strike preparations revealed the tensions of such collective actions, which often prompt employers to threaten workers’ wages, healthcare, and survival. Solidarity isn’t just mutual support and care for each other, it’s care in the face of real risk.
Already, the landscape is changing for art workers: since we unionized, workers at the Tenement Museum and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City have voted to join our union, UAW Local 2110. Workers at the Marciano Art Foundation, a private institution in Los Angeles, were laid off because they tried to unionize—this is illegal, though the Marcianos have claimed they chose to close because of low visitor traffic—but management at the Museum of Contemporary Art, also in LA, decided to voluntarily recognize their workers’ union. I’ve been heartened by the real solidarity I’ve seen and experienced among members of different museum unions and art workers trying to unionize: we’ve shared knowledge, offered encouragement, shown up to rallies, and made public statements of support. Art workers are coming to recognize themselves as workers, and that makes all of us stronger in the fight for our rights at work.
This is a moment of reckoning for museums, particularly modern and contemporary art museums—though not the first. Many of these museums now profit from a veneer of progressive politics and a surface-level commitment to representation but actually function according to capitalist principles of profit and growth rather than any sort of ethics or drive toward justice. I’ve seen this contradiction firsthand at the New Museum, but it’s also emerged in crisis moments including the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which prompted the eventual removal of Warren Kanders, CEO of the tear gas manufacturer Safariland, from the Whitney’s board; and the campaign to get Larry Fink, MoMA trustee and CEO of BlackRock, to divest from prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group, which together are responsible for 70 percent of immigrant detention. What does representation actually do if it’s funded by brutality toward activists and protesters in Ferguson, in Standing Rock, at the US border, in Palestine, in Hong Kong? What does representation do when it’s made possible by keeping people in cages and workers in poverty? As Aria Dean writes in her review of the Whitney Biennial for X-TRA, “Representation is betrayed by its own nomenclature, which alerts us to the fact that it is not real and it does not make it its business to intervene into material conditions. Representation is a gloss.”
Unfortunately, the mass layoffs and furloughs that have swept museums in response to the coronavirus crisis only reinforce this disparity between public-facing and internal—or, I would say, actual—politics. So far, over sixteen thousand museum workers in the US have lost their jobs, most of them in lower-paid positions, while executives take small, symbolic pay cuts that preserve their own jobs and their power. At the New Museum, 94 people have now been laid off or furloughed, including all but seven members of our 84-person union. I was furloughed at the start of April 2020 and laid off at the end of June. Lisa Phillips, the Museum’s director, took a 30 percent pay cut, which is to say that she now earns around $550,000 while the majority of her staff relies on unemployment benefits to survive.
Suhail Malik has argued that contemporary art as a genre of art production and circulation is incapable of effecting political change—despite the fact that so much contemporary art engages with a sort of left politics in its content—in part because it depends on or valorizes openness to a multiplicity of meanings, an indeterminacy that’s antithetical, he suggests, to concrete political intervention. In a recent essay on police violence and the uprisings that have followed the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis, Blair McClendon makes a similar point, connecting his consideration of recent Black liberation struggles to a critique of narrative indeterminacy in the ways those struggles are discussed: “The total willingness to leave stories or films ‘open’ to all available readings for the sake of nuance assumes a viewer who was not already subjected to rigorous ideological formation. We are taught that the police help people, black people hurt people; the police do not lie, black people do. The open ‘text’ has already begun to close before the viewer sees a frame.”
In a field that emphasizes, even fetishizes, criticality and self-reflexivity—and in a field in which Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube (1976) (to name just one text on the subject) has been read for decades—we should know better than to think of the museum as a space without ideology. Malik’s critique of contemporary art echoes, for me, art institutions’ self-conception as “open,” “flexible” spaces that invite “diverse voices”—until, of course, those voices demand to be paid fairly for their labor. When the New Museum Union voted to authorize a strike in late September 2019, we as organizers had to explain to our colleagues—and to exhibiting artists, museum visitors, and so on—that you either stand with workers and support our fight for a fair contract or you cross the picket line and side with management, with the exploitation and abuse they perpetuate. There is no middle ground in a strike.
There are larger questions about how art works and what it should do, which I don’t have the space to get into here, but I have been thinking more about instrumentalization and militancy as counters to the surface-level, representation-only progressivism that so many museums put forward and profit from. Representing left politics isn’t the same as enacting them, though both can happen at once. And openness to various interpretations—which easily falls into a kind of liberal both-sides-ism, especially when it’s propagated by neoliberal arts institutions—isn’t accessibility or equity or justice. What kinds of interventions, artistic and otherwise, do we need in order to transform the (art) world, to fight for our shared liberation? What would it look like if we treated art as propaganda, with a definitive viewpoint and political goals? Would it cease to be what we call “contemporary art” at all?
The gap between what museums do representationally, or what they say they’re doing, and how they function internally, at the level of material conditions and geopolitical impact, is a space in which unions can intervene: to improve conditions for workers within the museum but also to hold museum management accountable and to set higher standards and better ethics for art institutions more broadly. Unions are not the endpoint, but they are a crucial means of advocating effectively for workers’ rights and a useful model for collective action and building solidarity. This is the solidarity I’ve learned and encountered over the past two years and, if we keep fighting, I hope this solidarity can remake the (art) world as we know it.
We all grow up and inherit certain vocabulary. We then have got to examine this vocabulary.
– Hannah Arendt
On June 10, 2020, I opened a new doc to begin writing and the default font was Liberation Serif. It isn’t my favorite font, or even one I’d ever encountered before—if the word processing ghosts signed up for the revolution, who was I to get in the way? Indeed, liberation is being demanded by protestors on the streets, and by those of us within organizations, and so many in between, seeking to shift culture into more equitable realms. This is the first moment in my lifetime when I feel there is truly an opportunity to make the radical change our society so desperately needs.
The widespread arrival of the COVID-19 virus to the United States in March 2020 brought a great deal into high relief. The primary relationships in our collective lives were immediately comparable to the ills of inequity that separate, with an enormous and increasing gulf, those who are well and those who are sick; those who can work from home and those who cannot; those who can retreat and those who must venture forth; and those who live and those who die. These realities are stark, unfair, and driven by late-capitalism, White supremacy, colonialism, cis/hetero-patriarchy, and discrimination of every variety. They also belie the connectivity and interdependence inherent in the transnational world, an interdependence that the virus’s emergence onto the scene has so dramatized. This period of pandemic has wrought reckonings with inequities on many fronts, particularly in the fight for racial justice in the wake of the murders of too many Black and Brown people by US police departments. Can the activism of 2020 lead to an excising of the beliefs and behaviors that are poison to a culture that is killing itself by perpetrating such egregious harm? Can society recover from the delirium of individualism to recognize the fundamental interconnectivity of humanity? Can cultural spaces, particularly museums, shift to accommodate and support this transformation, and even provide models for its manifestation?
In this moment of pandemic and uprisings, the rules have a heightened potential to be undone and redone. How and whether they will produce a more intense version of our current reality, or a more just one, is up for grabs. On good days, I think the latter is within grasp; on bad days, I see the shadowy, persistent creep of the former. I am certain that it will require our collective desire and creativity for society to become more equitable. And with the presidency of Joe Biden replacing that of Donald Trump, there is a palpable measure of relief that a government is in place which is actually functional. Still, so many of the centrist politics of reform are out of tune with the deep-seated change that is truly necessary. It will take vigilance to locate the new forms White supremacy might take—it took too many years for many people to see the ways in which the brutalities of Jim Crow were reinscribed within the criminal justice system in the US. In response to 2020’s extraordinary and unrelenting expressions of protest and solidarity across the nation, some shifts took place quickly: the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to dismantle the city’s police department and remake it; various localities sought budget cuts to police departments; and New York State abolished section 50a of New York’s civil rights law that protected officers who had been subjected to disciplinary measures for misconduct from public scrutiny. Some of these represent profound shifts, and others are reactive reforms that barely scratch the surface. For what it’s worth, protests even inspired Warren Kanders, former board member of the Whitney Museum who resigned under pressure from artists and activists, to divest his company, Safariland, from its tear gas division (which was used at the border and in Ferguson before it was deployed against 2020 Black Lives Matter protesters). While there seems to be a deossification underway, we must remain vigilant. “Reform” is often a veil for new manifestations of the status quo. And, as was evidenced in the January 6 attacks on the US Capitol, the ideologies of hate and exclusion run deep and prompt violence. Ensuring that profound change is fully realized is the call to action. Otherwise these shifts can be derailed, evolving into yet-new and dehumanizing forms of bias. Further, the pressure to change institutions of all kinds must be heard and implemented, not merely as surface-level reforms but as alterations to institutional structures and operations that afford accountability and transparency.
Given the access and power I have within the cultural realm, this is my chosen space to make change. I strive to have these efforts not only take root, but also provide a model for the ways in which such change can occur more broadly within society.
I have not slept soundly since the health crisis began. Daytime is devoted to supporting my son’s schooling, laundry, housework, museum problem-solving, and Zoom meetings. But by midnight or 3am, the witching hour for my anxiety has begun. A breathing meditation introduced by my friend, artist, healer, and performer, Wendell Cooper, is one of the few things that brings sleep and rest to my addled brain and nervous system. It makes me recognize, with horror, that the flow of breath mirrors viral transmission. Breath, essential to life, introduced COVID into our bodies. Breath was robbed from George Floyd while he was pinned to the ground for an endless eight minutes and forty-six seconds by police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, in broad daylight.
The breath of life, no matter where we live or how, is undoubtedly what connects us. The pandemic allows us to see how the necessity of breath, in fact, makes us profoundly interdependent. My exhale becomes your inhale and vice versa. And yet all breath and all life does not matter equally on this planet—the entirety of society reflects this reality, including museums.
Considering breath and the life it gives is central in confronting both COVID and the ideologies of White supremacy. Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants proposes a set of ideas that convey how the individualism of contemporary society produces a myopically unjust reality, untethered to the truth of interconnectivity. Coccia’s contemplation of the ways in which plants create the atmosphere that is life, for me, dovetails with thinking about interdependence and the ways in which cultural spaces must be reimagined. Culture is, by definition, a collective enterprise; museums are only buildings without the people who open the doors, care for art, make exhibitions, and clean the toilets.
Coccia’s starting point is that life is completely dependent on the existence of other living beings. He writes:
Immersion…is first of all an action of mutual compenetration between subject and environment, body and space, life and medium. It is impossible to distinguish them physically and spatially: for there to be immersion, subject and environment have to actively penetrate each other; otherwise one would speak simply of juxtaposition or contiguity between two bodies touching at their extremities. Subject and environment act on each other and define themselves starting from this reciprocal action…Thus…to act and to be acted upon are formally indistinguishable.
The mission of his book is to shake readers into seeing this interconnectivity and to understand the role of the leaf, the root, and, frankly, every living thing outside of our narcissistic human selves, as necessary for breath and life. The arc of his argument presents the air, plant leaves, roots, flowers, and sex as vital elements of interdependence that life on Earth requires. It decenters the anthropogenic in its conception of planetary function. Although seemingly obvious, such discourse goes against the grain of White supremacist, capitalist, cis/hetero-normative, ableist, patriarchal ideology so intensively that I believe it is profoundly useful in this moment. Coccia suggests a material alternative to the cult of the individual, demonstrating that symbiosis is crucial to all life. Plants and the soil make our existence possible. Reliance on one another—on flora and fauna alike, what we each choose to do or choose not to do—is fundamental to survival and thriving in this world. And this interconnectivity gives rise to questions of care and our investment in the durability of others: will we, for example, wear a mask during a global pandemic, or protest injustice, or make changes within the spheres in which we each have power and influence? Can we think about presenting culture differently, to make museums better for more people?
Protests, whether they are aimed at injustices within cultural spaces or in society at large, are forms of radical care. Despite a guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, we must acknowledge that accountability to the public he served, rather than justice, was won that day. That verdict would not have emerged without one of the largest mobilizations of public protest in human history. Protests are expressions of our deep desire to be together, to acknowledge pain together, to care for one another. In the context of the cultural institution, calls for change require deep listening and engagement, whether they arrive as calls for unionization and anti-racism work, or via external agitations. This is what constitutes care. The inequities in cultural spaces are perfect mirrors to those in society, and enacting new forms of care in museums might help us envision how these methods could be applied to the broader culture.
As a starting point, the imaginary of the museum must change. Rather than buildings with superstar directors and curators making magic happen with artistic masterpieces, museums can function like the networks of flora and fauna Coccia describes. Acknowledging the number of people operating within museums requires a different view of what these institutions must care for. They must care for their people: those who keep the lights on and floors clean; those who care for audiences and art; those whose expertise is required to manage the day-to-day. Each mechanism must be valued. And still, they must also care for the people who comprise their publics. This spectrum and degree of care extends far beyond the traditional meaning ascribed to “curatorial work.” Curare (to care for) is the Latin root for this term—this is what labor should look like within institutional spaces.
Shifting the imaginary of the museum to this polyphonic view requires many things, including redistributing power and agency. In this framework, art workers and the institution’s publics can express their desires for more functional institutions that cater to their needs.
As ever, culture has an enormous role to play in both undoing its own biases that perpetuate conditions of inequity, and creating space for repair. There are many lifetimes of harm to unravel and acknowledge. Museums tell stories via the art on display in the environment they’ve constructed. Each gallery echoes the foundational realities of the institution, which are decidedly not neutral. Such wealth is accumulated, and mirrors the ways in which nations have amassed power and put it on display in a very material sense through museums. Museums are beacons of nation-building, conquest, and colonialism. They fundamentally speak to and of power—the aesthetic power of art, but also its social and political power, its financial power, and its power to shift our notions of history and present.
As institutions within society, museums are a reflection of the structures we encounter every day. They bear the same scars of division and collectivity, joy and pain, power and powerlessness, creativity and oppression. It is therefore useful to look deeply at cultural institutions and identify the ways in which they might be more equitable spaces. By engaging audiences across racial, economic, social, cultural, linguistic, and ideological lines, museums can serve the public more intentionally than they do today.
While many statements have been issued by cultural institutions across the US and the globe in solidarity with Black—and, more recently, Asian—lives, this can only be an initiation of commitments, large and small, to the community. The replication of systematic White supremacy within the infrastructure of culture has, for example, prompted critique of many DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and access) initiatives in cultural institutions. We can only hope such critiques, particularly of institutions led by white people, can make such a tendency more visible. In order to make lasting change, we must recognize that neutrality within culture is impossible. We must undo the structures that surround and protect this mythology by remaking the internal operations, governance, and programming of museums and cultural institutions.
Where white people lead institutions, there is a profound need for self-education and personal work. This can happen in tandem with museum activities, and oftentimes must happen parallel to ongoing work, but sustained change within the institution cannot happen without this commitment. And guidance is available: curator and art historian, La Tanya S. Autry (@artstuffmatters), for example, initiated a profoundly expansive list of resources on racial justice and museums in 2015, available now via the American Alliance for Museums after being augmented by others along the way. And still, organizations are not monolithic entities to be simplified, or provided with a singular drive toward reparations. There are many different registers of social and political engagement among staff. We must recognize this, and commit to developing common languages for addressing inequity and how it materializes specifically within our structures. While this isn’t an easy needle to thread, it is necessary.
The centering of Whiteness needs to be addressed with transparency. In doing so, it is easy to see that neutrality is in fact a veil for elevating Whiteness while excluding and marginalizing everyone else when “everyone else” happens to be the majority of the world. Artist and educator Lisi Raskin has been deeply engaged in anti-racist work for years, including their ambitious initiation of an anti-racist and harm reduction pedagogy at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where they serve as the head of the sculpture department. Recently, they have been posting pointed and useful videos on Instagram (@lisiraskin) that are focused on white behavior and assumptions. While the videos and the resources she shares pull no punches, her words are laced with care. She knows how important it is to do the work of meeting other white people where they are. The point is to build flexibility and understanding into responses of white peers when they approach the realities of their complicity. It is also necessary to create a space where the shame of white complicity is confronted with clarity. After such an encounter, the work begins to radicalize the ways in which white people engage with their networks to actively combat anti-Blackness and promote non-violent communication.
While I have seen evidence of intercultural and transracial solidarity during the protests and the growing movement toward lasting change, I have also witnessed self-preserving apathy that is deeply disappointing amongst white allies. The refusal to act by white people, in many cases among the most privileged, is unacceptable. Some don’t care, others care too much about how they are perceived. They fear making mistakes more than they care about making change. This moment calls upon white people to use their unearned privilege to facilitate massive undertakings and engage their networks. To become vulnerable. To make mistakes and be accountable to them. To apologize without expecting forgiveness, and to make amends. If white people don’t do this, we are not trying hard enough to make things right. This is how care can be enacted: by using positions of power and agency to oppose injustice.
It is also about leadership remaining humble and leading from behind, especially when that leadership is overwhelmingly white. This means holding space for tough conversations; listening acutely to critique from both internal and external sources; stepping back to foreground others; and making personal and financial commitments to do the work themselves. Doing this, as someone who has been in this very position, is a complex dance. The demands on “successful” leadership are often directly in opposition to these methodologies. However, if the possibility of the polyphonic cultural space is to be made manifest it must be done with transparency and care, openness, and humility. Starting points include: making proposals open to staff and the Board of Trustees for feedback; giving space and time for the contemplation of anti-racism work rather than just checking a list of to-do’s; inviting outside facilitation while recognizing the resources embedded within the organization; and, perhaps above all else, slowing down. Radically slowing down will aid in not only providing time and space for reflection, but also for engaging more people in the conversation and decision-making in the first place.
How to map a plan to confront these endemic societal ills within the space of culture is not a question answered simply. If we are striving toward a broader societal shift, then the spaces that center society’s art and creative output are essential places to act. This work must be done collectively, with a spirit of care, vulnerability, exchange, and interrelation. Of course we need to ensure financial viability, as well as the health and safety of staff and publics. It’s also vital to work with Boards of Trustees to affirm ongoing financial and infrastructural change while responding programmatically to the shifting ground beneath our feet. This moment is ripe for the creation of a blueprint, a road map to establish equity within museums and cultural institutions as a whole. The process is the point, and a renewed commitment to these principles is essential. It is the journey that will make us better, not arriving at the destination (which is, in any case, a fiction).
The greatest lesson I’ve taken away from researching and writing about museums and the myth of their neutrality—alongside working my way through some very big feelings of my own—is that the single most important thing is to begin. To begin by looking inward, to accept vulnerability and accountability and what might emerge from the process. This is a journey that requires reading, reflecting, watching films, videos, documentaries, and talking and sharing with friends and strangers alike. The injustices being confronted have been perpetuated for too long to put off taking actions institutionally while this individual interior work is underway. It is never going to be perfect work, but imperfections can be opportunities and can create spaces within which to grow and learn. One must be willing to sit in the spaces of discomfort and accountability as new collaborations and modes of thinking emerge.
The inequities reflected in our systems of culture have been re-inscribed for centuries, alongside the ideologies of White supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, and cis/hetero-patriarchy. They can be undone, collectively, with intention, and with a fearlessness that comes from conviction and commitment—but also with an abundance of love. It is with love that museums might be undone and redone to engender truly equitable cultural spaces: spaces that rely less on oppression and exclusion to declare their excellence, and ones that, rather, invite care, generosity, and action into these spaces for contemplation and connection. And maybe then, some of the methodologies of this shift can spread throughout our ailing society. Perhaps an undone and redone cultural sphere can permeate the other structures that perpetuate injustice.
Can we dream this dream?
Listen to Mirene Arsanios reading her poem How to Be Together.
This text was published by Brief Histories Press in Tame the Wilderness? (2020), edited by Fawz Kabra; and originally printed in the second edition of Echo 2, of Nighboat’s online roundtable resonance.