I’ve been thinking a lot about new worlds recently, and how to build a career that is deeply aligned with people and organizations actively engaged with sustainable, caring, supportive, expansive, collaborative practices. As I pen this essay, I’m on my way to installation for Counterpublic Triennial 2023. Had I not been working as a co-curator of the 2023 iteration during the past two-plus years, I might have begun to question my place in the art world. I doubt that I’m alone in this introspection.
The art world positions itself as a field open to a wide range of ideas, and three years ago, many arts institutions and organizations across the US and Canada, including museums, galleries, and non-profit arts organizations, were actively engaged in deep reflection of their practices. Within the thralls of global crises, we were able to come together to have delicate yet deliberate conversations on how we wanted to approach our work in the field. The question of “how?” posed the most generative dialogues and plausible outcomes. This included co-building best practices around how to continue our mission-driven work amidst ever-changing restrictions on gathering. There were moments where I wondered if we would ever emerge from the pandemic, and how we would emerge.
In many conversations with colleagues across the industry, the necessity to respond to, and show up for, the calls for deep cultural shifts awakened a willingness to examine our organizational systems and operational structures more closely (although some of us entered the field with this need for change driving our desires to participate). From the depths of uncertainty, discourse blossomed into actionable steps. At many points along the way, beyond the statements and new DEI initiatives, it seemed entirely possible to change not just the face of museums, galleries, and non-profit arts organizations, but the structures and systems, too.
Let’s remember that organizations are made of people. What are the necessary conditions that need to be put in place to support and sustain this growth? As we work to create spaces for those not historically invited into the dialogue, let’s commit to understanding what that actually means. Equitable systems are a dream, but it's not likely they can comfortably rest on the shoulders of outdated organizational approaches. Consistently doing things the same way with new faces is not radical, or even progressive. It can be unbearable, and many of us have felt those tensions.
Two years ago, amidst this turmoil, we opened Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Museum, a project that—from the onset—was about non-traditional curatorial work within an extremely traditional museum space. My role as curator on this exhibition required me to share my ideas often and be open to rigorous feedback on how they might be received in Louisville in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Breonna Taylor. I learned to lean into the vulnerability of not being the expert in the room, and relied on multiple advisory committees, staff, and family members to guide the development of my thinking. This opportunity will forever be remembered as a moment marked by the privilege to co-develop a radical approach to collaborative exhibition making. This experience showed me that the practice of centering artists and publics in authentic ways was possible and could provide the freedom to build curatorial methodologies and exhibitions strategies that departed from traditional museological approaches. Our impact was only as great as it was because we consistently, insistently came together time and again to discuss, debate, disagree, and decide on a way forward that was best suited to the mission of the museum, the scope of the exhibition, and the reception that it could have locally. It meant we all had to be willing to have difficult conversations and accept decisions that we may not have made in a silo.
It’s my hope that, as a field, we can move into spaces where multiple, diverse experiences are centered in authentic ways, where we can move beyond binaries, and beyond essentialized notions of how someone might show up in the world based on their racial identity or background. This work is not always easy. It requires an ability to have real, honest dialogues about the pressing issues, concerns, and questions, and at times, for some of us, to take an honest look at biases and privileges, while acknowledging that each person sitting around the table brings a unique, and valuable, perspective that is a combination of lived experience and professional skills and deserves to be heard. Let’s start from this place and agree upon an objective that allows us to decenter the normative approaches that have become the cornerstone of the field. A part of this work requires us to really accept how preconceived notions of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. have been deeply ingrained into the ideologies of this country, and work to effectively shift trends in hiring, employment, leadership, promotion, compensation, pay equity, museum acquisitions, gallery representation, and more. I now live in New York, but the middle of the country is where I have witnessed, and participated in, very progressive work. Let’s reframe the notion that the center is the periphery, and the periphery is the center. Spring calendars are filling up with event after event, and it’s evident that we are returning to the fast pace that the field was known for pre-pandemic. As we swiftly move through this ever-changing time, let’s not lose the momentum of the past few years.
Amidst my own professional soul searching, I’ve turned toward the work of a handful of the most thoughtful, brilliant leaders in the field, who, when faced with similar questions about the art worlds they want to inhabit, chose to build something radically different. On the pages that follow, these leaders will explain how they have charted new paths in this industry or worked within already existing systems to shift their forms, a reminder that, when the systems are in place, we can begin to engage from a place of authenticity, experimentation, and transformation.