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Friday, September 24, 2021

‘Race, Museums, Art History’ speaker event highlights whiteness of museums

The 2021 Templeton Colloquium at UC Davis outlined ways to reframe how museums include non-white art and better understand the role they play in enacting real social change

On Friday, Feb. 19, the Department of Art and Art History presented a lecture over Zoom from Professor Bridget Cooks of UC Irvine and Dr. Susan Mullin Vogel, a curator, filmmaker and founding director of the Museum for African Art in New York. The two speakers discussed the roles of American museums in showcasing culture for the public, and their long history of both under and misrepresenting cultures outside their own. 

Both Cooks and Dr. Vogel spoke on the ways in which museums have consistently displayed art outside of their usual white, American or Eurocentric cultures as “other,” inferior (or primitive) and something to be anthropologically studied rather than appreciated. The separating of the “real” art in a collection from the “outsider” art reinforces a colonial hierarchy in the art world, one of the primary reasons why it feels so out of reach for many. 

How diverse art is presented has detrimental effects beyond the art world, easily illustrated by the framing effect in psychology, where the way in which information is presented can highly influence one’s subsequent decisions and attitudes toward it. If white museum curators are consistently presenting and grouping African-American artists simply by race, rather than by themes of the art or mediums (as is expected for white exhibits), unaware audiences will continue to see “Black art” and the Black experience in America as a monolith. The ways in which American museums have failed Black artists in this country is applicable to countless other non-white groups and cultures and has seriously deterred true understanding and appreciation of them. 

The duty of museums today, in this emerging era of accountability and social justice, is to change their harmful curatorial practices, and to make real, long-term changes to their collections. According to Cooks, this means more than the unsustainable approach that museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art have taken, in which they are selling off portions of their permanent collections in order to fund the purchases of art by Black and/or women artists in the wake of calls for proper representation over the past summer. Cook argues that the only way to fully transform these collections and presentations is through the boards themselves, which are, as the New York Times puts it, “strikingly white.” Museums are technically democratic institutions, but when those who make all the decisions come from one highly privileged group, it is quite unlikely that any big changes will be made. 

The solution here, proposed by both speakers at the event, is to not only diversify the current positions of power within the art world, but to make a real effort in terms of art education and accessibility across divisions of class, race and gender. Allowing students to explore early on about the truth of art and its history—not just that of the white, European narrative—will not only foster a deeper understanding of art, but might encourage those with more varied perspectives to step into what often seems like an untouchable world. 

The loud calls for justice in the art world will not be fully answered until museums and institutions go from spouting mission statements on cultural awareness and diversity to actually being aware and creating diverse environments—both in terms of who holds the power within them, and who is given access to understanding and appreciating their collections. If American museums were to take the steps toward a more inclusive future, they could become spaces from which audiences at large and other institutions outside the art world could really learn about the beauty in all cultures and perspectives. 

Written by: Angie Cummings — arts@theaggie.org


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