From Center to Middle and Back Again
The prompt has a lot of moving parts. I’ll pick a few aspects to elaborate on, or diverge from.
Chicago has a relatively limited commercial gallery system compared to other major national and global metropolitan areas, which has contributed to an overall context that doesn’t strictly center the commercial gallery as the sole path to a long-term, rigorous practice. This seems to be true even with the semi-recent reanimation of Chicago EXPO. Clearly the fair draws large crowds of elite art tourists, critics, interested locals, collectors, press agents, and, of course, those galleries and artists that are seen to bring the right kind of cultural prestige to the city as a commercial center. And while a handful of local artists benefit in classic trickle-down fashion from the grand art event, it tends to be those artists who are either already established at the international level or poised on its cusp. More than mid-tier galleries departing, I worry when non-profit and no-profit exhibition or project spaces vanish, places that create opportunities for local artists to develop projects without the direct duress or influence of commercial market concerns, and without the direct duress or influence of some pre-given/personal curatorial agenda. One bygone example of such a space is the Chicago non-profit gallery ThreeWalls, which, after undergoing a rather blunt dismantling and reconfiguring several years ago, has been reduced to facilitation as opposed to spatialization. I find this kind of move troubling, supplanting the providing of opportunity with the providing of facilitation. The empty area this transition left might not be noticeable to newcomers, but artists, patrons, and the arts community who have made Chicago their home easily comprehend the void.
It might also be relevant to note how the museum has steadily taken on the role of the mid-tier, non-profit gallery through the implementation of various artist projects and the ramping up of community- and education-based programming—both of which are generally activated in relation to larger blockbuster exhibitions (traveling or permanent). One way to describe this using economic language is to say that the museum has become more and more vertically integrated, absorbing the role of independent, mid-size spaces that historically served as experimental zones for artists to stretch without the anxiety of public success or failure grimacing on the horizon. The museum, by feeding whatever community outreach is activated and whatever artist project is on display through the thematic structure of its schedule of major exhibitions, consolidates and capitalizes on a variety of art worlds and a variety of art contexts without having to examine its cozy sense of museological self. Now that the museum’s hallways, lobbies, gift shops, food courts, and staircases double as the sites of various artist projects, the museum can have this emergent localized middle without any change to its powerful national and international centers.
In the end I am more interested in the changing middle over its vanishing. One example I want to discuss, which has received little attention beyond the specific communities it supposedly touches directly, is the Field Museum’s rethinking of the notoriously racist Hall of Native North Americans. The Hall, in classic ethnographic, imperial, and anthropologic style, has remained unchanged since its creation in the 1950s. In fact, the era-specific chemicals used to treat the artifacts, which are locked away behind air-tight glass, are both symbolically and physically toxic. They will require special treatment as the Hall is dismantled and reassembled, as fresh air is breathed into its logics and methodologies. A series of taxonomic displays, the Hall, without question, reflects a long legacy of annihilating unwanted people while trafficking in their cultural objects—a forte of Western colonial practices that has special resonance in relation to settler colonialism. Of course, I can hardly think of a grander image of what we might think of as “a middle” than the broad audiences the Field Museum caters to. It is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, after all, and reported almost 2 million visitors in 2017.
I say the Field Museum has been rethinking, but really it is the hard work of several key figures, starting with Alaka Wali, the Curator of North American Anthropology, and Debra Yepa-Pappan, the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Native American Exhibit Hall renovation project. A long-term and ongoing process, the reimagining of the Hall actually involves a variety of folks: indigenous artists (Chris Pappan has made several interventions into the Hall in a long-term solo exhibition), general museum administrators, history scholars, and a rather robust advisory committee made up of tribal activists, professors of Native American Studies, and members of various cultural preservation offices and the Indian Arts Research Center, to name a few. The new stewards and advisors of this antiquated Hall are clearly taking the grand (perhaps “middle”) narrative of US settler colonial history in a direction that is substantively transformative—there are real effects to be had—especially as the displays will not necessarily be aimed at cultural elites or indoctrinated specialists, although one imagines the displays and attendant discourse would be useful to anyone willing to engage them. In my estimation, the anti-colonial counter-narration doesn’t describe the vanishing of some hallowed middle (some grand narrative), but suggests the middle can be moved, shifted, and transmuted according to different criteria, but only if we want it and are willing to do the work. The question to ask might be not so much about vanishing middles, but who is seen as occupying the middle and who is seen as occupying a center, and what it means when the people who used to occupy a center are no longer alone in their occupation.