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How Museums Can Lead the Way for Social Change

Museums and Social Change

As museums reopen their doors after a worldwide pandemic, we reflect on the way in which museum art has been a catalyst for social change. Museums reopening coincides with demonstrations in the streets protesting racial injustice and police shootings. Society is reopening its eyes to the racism that persists. Museum exhibitions such as “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” can lead the way in a reopening to a more just world. Other planned shows, and shows from the past, demonstrate the role that museums have in facilitating social change.

What Is the Main Purpose of a Museum?

Museums inspire creativity and inventiveness. They educate people and enrich their lives. When you visit a museum you learn about well-known artists, such as Raphael and Rembrandt, and lesser-known artists, such as Barbara Jones-Hogu, Elizabeth Catlett, and Marion Tuu’luq.

Marion Tuu'luq Thirty Faces

Marion Tuu’luq, Thirty Faces, 1974. Winnipeg Art Gallery. © Public Trustee for Nunavut, Estate of Marion Tuu’luq.

Museums change your perspective. Whether you are visiting a history, science, or art museum, you come away changed. Museums might seem like a respite from the news, a neutral place to relax, an ivory tower. But in fact museums are never neutral. Whether they choose to show only Western art without any explanation of the racism that excludes other art, or they choose to show racism with a call to action to change it, they aren’t neutral.

Museums by their very nature conserve a society’s heritage, but they also help us see the problems with that heritage (racism, sexism, etc.) Museums also focus on the future. They are preserving their collections so that future audiences can enjoy them. With these two foci, on the past and the future, museums can help shape present-day society.

Museums are part of the community where they are built. During the pandemic, museums have offered numerous ways to interact with their online communities. As museums open up to physical visitors, they need to be active members of those communities as well. Museums who step up to support activist artists during this time are starting a conversation. They are creating a platform for cultural education and understanding that can inspire us to enact real change.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

The opening of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston couldn’t come at a better time. The events of 2020 echo the events of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. “Soul of a Nation” centers on that period, when just like today, we were grappling with racism, violence, and injustice. The exhibit runs from June 27 to August 30, 2020 in Houston.

The Tate museum in London organized the “Soul of a Nation” show in 2017. The fact that it took a British museum to shine light on the art of the American Civil Rights Movement is a sad commentary on the suppression of the past that fuels modern-day racism. Regardless, after the exhibition at the Tate, the show made its stateside debut at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. It then went to the Brooklyn Museum, The Broad in Los Angeles, and the de Young museum in San Francisco, where it got stuck when the pandemic hit. The exhibition pieces were literally stranded at the de Young until recently when they finally shipped to Houston.

“Soul of a Nation” celebrates art made by Black artists during the Civil Rights era. This was a pivotal time in recent history when issues of race and identity dominated public and private discourse. The exhibition is divided into thematic sections which showcase artistic collectives that thrived in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It focuses on art of the Black Power movement. The Black Power movement energized the public to take action against racism, and inspired posters, photography, paintings, abstract art, sculpture, and textile arts. The show includes works by artists Betye Saar, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Roy DeCarava, David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady, and Faith Ringgold.

Each venue adds works from their local Black community. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presentation adds a section on Black American art made in Houston and Texas during the Civil Rights period. Artists represented in this section include John Biggers, Kermit Oliver, and Carroll Harris Simms, all of whom contributed to the dynamic Houston arts scene.

John Thomas Biggers, Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival

John Anansa Thomas Biggers, Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival, 1959-1963. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © Estate of John Biggers/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

As we confront once again the racism that allowed for the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, protests have rocked the streets as they did during the Civil Rights Movement. There have been protests in all 50 states in the U.S., Washington D.C, Puerto Rico and Guam, and around the world. People of all backgrounds have stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement.

When museums showcase art by Black artists as they are doing with “Soul of a Nation,” something wonderful happens. People of color engage with the exhibition in a way that celebrates and explains their identities and realities. Other visitors see the richness of the diverse experiences of Black artists and decide to learn more and to become more active in fighting for racial justice.

1000Museums has been showcasing African American art for many years with our African American Art collection.

Riffs and Relations

Another museum exhibit that showcases Black artists is the “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition” show at the Phillips Collection. This is another exhibition that was affected by the pandemic when the Phillips closed. However the museum has announced that the show will be extended through January 3, 2021 to give more people a chance to see it.

“Riffs and Relations” explores works by 20th and 21st century African American artists together with examples of the early 20th century European artists whom they referenced in their work. The exhibition explores the rich and multifaceted relationships among works by Modernist artists including Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and others.

European artists used themes from African art, such as Picasso’s depiction of African masks in works such as Trois Figures sous un Arbre. African American artists used themes from these European artists, such as Romare Bearden’s Sacrifice painting that references Picasso’s Guernica. Like jazz musicians, the artists riffed off each other. In some cases they unfairly appropriated themes without credit, but at other times they simply showed their admiration of each other’s work. Sometimes they had a little fun at each other’s expense, as in the case of Faith Ringgold’s Picasso’s Studio, where she irreverently places her Willia Marie character in Picasso’s studio.

Ringgold, Picasso's Studio

Faith Ringgold, ​Picasso’s Studio​, 1991. Worcester Art Museum. © 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.

Travel Ban Protest

In 2017, museums reacted to President Trump’s travel ban that banned travel to the U.S. by citizens of Muslim-majority nations Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The Guggenheim initiated a nationwide effort to produce amicus briefs in support of legal challenges to the Trump administration’s ban. The briefs were signed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, the College Art Association, and more than a hundred art museums, all in recognition of the dangers of closing borders to the creative talents of other countries.

19th century Iranian Door

Unknown artist, Door, Iran, 19th century. San Antonio Museum of Art.

Wellesley College’s Davis Museum  removed 120 artworks by immigrants in protest of the ban. The Museum of Modern Art in New York updated its permanent collection with works by artists from some of the countries whose citizens were blocked from entering the U.S. In their fifth-floor galleries, MoMA replaced works by Picasso and Matisse, among other Western artists. They replaced them with works by artists such as the Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi, the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, and the Los Angeles-based Iranian video artist Tala Madani.

The Year of the Woman

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in the U.S. Museums are celebrating and 1000Museums is too! 1000Museums has declared 2020 the Year of the Woman. In honor of this, we are featuring a woman artist every month. Although 2020 is a dedicated year of sharing the works of inspiring women artists, every year should be a year for celebrating art of all genders. By showcasing women’s art this year, we hope to inspire change that will last forever.

Women’s suffrage took longer for Black, Indigenous, and immigrant women, and there are still problems with voting rights in the U.S and around the world. By celebrating successful social movements such as women’s suffrage, while also showcasing how much more work we need to do, museums play an important social activist role.

Elizabeth Catlett, Domestic Worker

Elizabeth Catlett, Domestic Worker, 1946. Baltimore Museum of Art © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The Baltimore Museum of Art led the way by declaring in 2019 that 2020 would be a year for women’s art, exhibitions, programs, and acquisitions. The museum announced that it would purchase art only by female-identifying artists and that it has a $2.5 million budget to allow it to do this.

Other venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, are organizing shows, performances, lectures, and symposia. The Museum of the City of New York added a section on the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s to its ongoing, rotating “Activist New York” exhibition.

Highlights of the Baltimore Museum of Art initiative include a large-scale commission by Mickalene Thomas, a survey of Joan Mitchell’s career, an exploration of Candice Breitz’s recent video works, and the reinstallation of several of the museum’s galleries to emphasize the diversity of women’s artistry through time.

The project will also celebrate Adelyn Breeskin who was the director of the museum from 1942-1962 and arranged for the extraordinary Cone Collection of modern French art to be given to the museum by the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone.

Henri Matisse, Dr. Claribel Cone

Henri Matisse, Dr. Claribel Cone (IV/IV), 1933-1934. Baltimore Museum of Art. © 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Baltimore Museum of Art initiative is part of the museum’s broader vision to address race and gender diversity gaps within the museum field. Other shows planned for 2020 include:

  • Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence featuring a selection of beaded works created by 19th-century Lakota women who subversively incorporated the American flag and other patriotic iconography into traditional Native American designs.
  • A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art demonstrating the cultural significance and power of maternal imagery by presenting a range of objects from monumental headdresses of elderly mothers to sculptures representing mythic female ancestors.
  • Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest sharing art and events about female power and protest in European and American art.

Challenges and Opportunities

When political upheaval and current events demand action, museums have shown that they understand the need for activism. The museums need to do much more though. They need to acquire more art created by a diverse set of artists, hire and promote more people of color, and become more involved with community activism. According to Holland Cotter, a distinguished art critic at the New York Times, museums need to restructure from within, recruit nonwhite trustees, hire nonwhite curators (and pay the curators well), and strengthen ties with the communities of color around them. They should listen to what these communities tell them they need and act accordingly. (Source: Holland Cotter, Museums Are Finally Taking a Stand. But Can They Find Their Footing?, New York Times, 6/11/2020.)

As the pandemic spread across the world, museums had to quickly make major changes. They’ve had to change their operating practices, navigate major budget concerns, and plan for future visitors, all in the midst of a lot of unknowns. If museum workers are like the rest of us, they are probably frazzled from all the changes.

People who work at museums are also grieving. We all are. We are grieving the loss of friends, relatives, and coworkers to Coronavirus, while also grieving the loss of normalcy. We no longer have a future that we thought we understood. However, the future can be better than we envisioned! With loss and challenge comes opportunity. We are asking museums to take on an important social activism role, while also recovering from the turbulent past. They can do it… they’ve already started doing it! We are excited to see where they go from here.

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