Do you love Black artists, or just how their art looks on your walls?

An open letter to fellow white arts administrators in Madison.
An analog photograph of vertical blinds. The blinds take up all the space of the image. While light comes through them, you cannot see beyond them.
Photo by Jennifer Bastian.

An open letter to fellow white arts administrators in Madison.

How do we, as white arts administrators, truly see and value the humanity of Black artists, and demand that others do the same? 

First—let us situate ourselves in time, geography, and identity.

It is July of 2022. A lingering pandemic strains our communities, leaving the immunocompromised and disabled in isolation. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and all People of Color, are assaulted and murdered at the hands of police every day. Our Trans and Nonbinary kin are denied basic rights and care. Gun violence terrorizes us and forced birth dominates the headlines. 

We live in Madison, Wisconsin, known to the Ho-Chunk as Teejop. Our home has the reputation of being a stalwart progressive stronghold in the Midwest. It is not as progressive as it believes itself to be in many, many ways.

I am a 41 year old white cis-het disabled woman; also a mother, an artist, and an arts administrator. I am a prison abolitionist. I strive to be anti-racist. My perspective on arts administration comes from the work I do with the organization I co-founded, Communication.

In a 2019 study, researchers found that just 1.2 percent of pieces held in major U.S. museums were made by Black artists. 

You might be surprised at this number if you’ve paid attention to the increase in retrospectives and other exhibitions by Black artists over the past 20 to 30 years. It is one thing to place Black artists’ work on museum walls. It is an entirely different thing—with greater financial impact to Black artists—to acquire Black art. 

According to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News, only 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.6 percent of all exhibitions at 30 prominent American museums have been of work by African American artists since 2008. 

Why aren’t museums acquiring more art by Black artists, while they benefit from the visibility of the work when it sits in their halls? 

Note—while this piece of writing focuses on the treatment of Black artists in Madison, I want to acknowledge that white supremacy within the art world harms Indigenous, Asian-American, Latiné, and Hispanic artists, and all artists of Color as well.

In 2020, while the fight for racial justice around the country (and world) raged, business owners on State Street in downtown Madison boarded up their shop windows. Dozens of murals were created on the window and door coverings. 

The mural project did not avoid controversy. The mural artists, mostly BIPOC, were not paid as equitably as many would have liked. There were white artists that took opportunities where they could have passed them onto Black artists, and places where the urgency of the moment overtook more well thought out approaches to arts programming and planning. There were also reminders for white folks that the murals do not make up for our racist history.

Currently, many of these murals are stored at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and some can be viewed in a video story, but they are not on display where the community that created them can experience them.

The 2022 Wisconsin Triennial at MMoCA, curated by Milwaukee artist Fatima Laster, includes Black women and femmes from Wisconsin. It is the first Triennial to include only that demographic. This landmark exhibition should have been cause for great celebration, but it has been fraught.

In March of this year, while working on her mural at MMoCA, Triennial artist Lilada Gee was accosted by an Overture Center staff member while trying to enter the building. As reported by Madison365, Gee was verbally assaulted and physically intimidated. The reporting in that piece also details how horrified MMoCA staff member Annik Dupaty was while witnessing the incident. Dupaty, who is also Black, told Madison 365 that the incident “has changed the way that I feel coming in those particular doors… and I do hope that this gets addressed.”

In the weeks following the verbal and physical altercation, no public statement was issued. 

Gee and guest curator Laster executed a brilliant alternative to Gee’s intended mural as a solution to including her work in the Triennial. Unfinished canvases and art supplies lay upon a larger canvas, above a drop cloth with cans of paint placed around. A title card explains the piece, how it was interrupted, and there is a video of Gee reading an open letter during the Triennial reception to all of the “beths” that interrupt Black women and girls in our society.

On June 24, a mother and two children were in the gallery with Gee’s installation for between 30-40 minutes without any security staff present. They defaced Gee’s artwork and walked out the door with multiple canvases from her installation. The artwork was recovered when MMoCA director Christina Brungardt followed the family up to the Capitol Square and retrieved the work.

According to Madison 365, Brungardt called Gee immediately following the vandalism, stating that she promised the family she would ask if they could keep the artwork. Gee was understandably upset by this question, expressed how disrespectful the question was, and told Brungardt not to call her back.

Since their conversation, not much has changed, and no solution has been shared with the public that would move toward healing for Gee and the other Triennial artists. 

MMoCA spokesperson Marni McEntee was quoted in a Wisconsin State Journal article stating, “The museum would like to talk further with Lilada Gee about how to support her, repair the damage to her artwork, and address any other concerns she may have. MMoCA extends a sincere apology to Lilada, the guest curator, and each artist featured in the exhibition.”

Where is the public apology to Gee, to Laster, and every artist in this exhibition for the disrespect they have endured? Why is there not an apology on the homepage of MMoCA’s website, pinned to the top of their social media accounts, and emailed to every newsletter subscriber? 

Apologies are beautiful. They can be kind and useful and they can repair harm. They can work toward anti-racism. White arts administrators must be willing to apologize, and they must be willing to do so without knowing if it will succeed in fixing anything.

It causes further harm to Black artists for them to have to coach us along every step of the way toward healing, toward understanding. It is the action or inaction of white arts administrators that creates the conditions for racist treatment of Black artists and their art.

While systems are more to blame for patterns of harm than individuals, individuals must be willing to be accountable for their actions. The inadequate response to every step of this situation at MMoCA is fundamentally unacceptable, and disrespects Gee, Laster, and all of the Triennial artists. 

The director of an institution with the amount of power and influence MMoCA has in our community must be willing to be accountable. If Brungardt wants to repair the harm caused to Gee, Laster, and every artist in the Triennial, and acknowledge that her actions did not reflect an adequate response to this situation, she should resign from her role as director. This is an opportunity to recognize the magnitude of error in the choices that were made, and to respond to it with equal measure. 

On Angela Russell’s Black Oxygen podcast, Nada Elmikashfi recounted a quote from a discussion she had with her friend Shawn Matson. They were discussing the response of white Wisconsinites following the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. 

“And he said, he texted me, ‘How many Black people do you think these people have loved?’ …and it stopped my world. Because I think the solution—the change in the system—starts with that simple question.”

To love Black people is to value their humanity as much as you value your own. If you love someone, you will fight for them. You will tear down systems of harm and build new ones, and you will demand that others do this work in solidarity with you.

This writing is a call to eradicate a system that perpetuates literal and figurative violence on Black artists and Black art.

I challenge white arts administrators to act. Take accountability for the harm caused to Black artists in our community—which did not begin or end with the issue at hand. Acknowledge that most of the systems we participate in as an arts community are built on white supremacist ideology, and work to literally end those systems. 

Build new systems, new infrastructure for arts education, arts administration, and alternatives to the grant funding system. Aren’t sure what those systems should look like? Pay Black, Indigenous, and other artists of Color as consultants to create new systems that will empower them instead of tokenizing them. 

Ask these artist consultants what repair is needed for them to want to participate in this work with you. Pay them again to answer this question. 

Give up your power. I cannot say this loud enough for myself and for all white artists and arts administrators: GIVE UP YOUR POWER.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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