Since I took on the role of Executive Director of Daily Serving and Art Practical, working with an administrative staff of four fierce, intersectional, women-identified cultural producers, I have been asked to think and rethink what it means to work. Whom do we work for? What is our work, and most importantly, what world does it create?
In the past month, I have witnessed the erasure of Black and Brown bodies in acceleration, actively vanishing within the walls of art institutions and in the streets of our cities—at times, because of misguided good intentions, and at others, with a terrifying disregard. Whose body matters is a painful and exhausting question. On a basic level, all human life matters, but as a society, we demonstrate over and over that some lives matter more than others. When I consider the art world of the past three weeks, I see the world in which it is made mirrored back. And I am afraid.
In Seattle, the collaborative work of Christopher Paul Jordan and Jaleesa Trapp was de-installed and ultimately removed without the artists’ consent, guidance, or warning. The administrative chaos surrounding Art Hack Day: Erasure was its inevitable undoing. In an exhibition on the theme of erasure, Jordan and Trapp were the only two Black artists out of forty, and ironically, their work—a vigil that included images of loved ones contributed from a cross-section of their community—was literally erased.
At the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, artist Kelley Walker and curator Jeffrey Uslip—both white men—dismissed a frustrated audience when questioned about Walker’s use of the Black body in his work or the role of CAM in creating more problems. The resulting public outcry, calling for a boycott and the dismissal of museum staff, should not be of surprise when considering that only two years ago, Michael Brown was killed nearby in Ferguson, or that St. Louis has been the battleground of the fight for Black lives and the struggle against police brutality. Paula Cooper Gallery, which represents Walker, issued a statement, noting, “The role of the artist, it has been said, is to ask questions, not answer them.” Perhaps this is true, but shouldn’t artists be expected to pose questions with a responsible criticality and a basic care for the lives they have borrowed for their work? Images became weapons, and the institution’s (I include Walker, here) flagrant disregard for the community’s grief reinforced neoliberal and institutional racism, even if this was not the intention.
In San Francisco, at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, David Hammons’s voice spoke from an audio recording of a talk he did in 1994. Physically absent, Hammons’s body was replaced by French curator Philippe Vergne, who facilitated the night in his stead. An event that was intended to honor Hammons and affectionately acknowledge his disinterest in public talks effectively erased him. Considered within the context of today’s sociopolitical climate, Vergne became a startling indexical gesture toward the current practice of erasing the Black body.
Earlier this year, in the largely Latino working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the nonprofit, artist-run organization PSSST came under significant public scrutiny despite, and in spite, of an inclusive mission and early programming. Good intentions aside, PSSST placed its newly remodeled 5,000-square-foot space directly in the middle of a long-running complex struggle around Los Angeles’s ongoing gentrification, displacement of communities of color, and histories of socioeconomic violence. In this case, PSSST and similar galleries are agents of gentrification, even if they are also an emerging artist-run or nonprofit arts organization with a scrappy budget and legitimately inclusive programming. Similar to Walker, PSSST failed to consider earlier on that their actions would not be read within the isolation of their own intentions, practice, or even the art world, but against an ongoing history of state-sanctioned violence, discrimination, and disenfranchisement—because these are the stakes.
And in this lies the challenge. The situations I have discussed occurred within nonprofits, fiscally sponsored, or artist-run spaces, organizations, and entities, likely fueled by a staff and volunteer labor force that works to the bone for far less money than they should earn or deserve, if they are paid at all—fighting for pennies with earnestness and a belief that one day, the struggle will be operationalized. Art. Change. These describe Daily Serving and Art Practical, and so many other arts organizations that struggle to survive in the face of engorged capitalism. This is the lived experience of being in the arts. It is our burden to bear. The stakes are greater than the next artwork or exhibition. Just because we are scraping by or believe we are doing the right work doesn’t mean we are exempt or off the hook from daring to recognize the art world is intimately tied to the world from which it is made. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
I know this because in the past weeks, I have also seen the tears of my students, soaking with the disbelief that in fifty-four years, only 18 percent of Artforum covers have ever featured a woman, let alone artists of color. Or that the majority of major museum exhibitions, gallery representation, awards, executive directorships, and tenured teaching jobs are still reserved for white men, and then white women, unless they are designated for culturally specific individuals and largely at culturally specific institutions. People of color are constantly asked to make impossible decisions in support of a society that systemically disregards their safety, care, and advancement.
I fear this world. I choke for air when thinking—knowing—that my work happens in the very spaces where a young artist might come to class feeling that the safety of their work—and therefore their body—is not valued in this art world. Or that their body—and therefore, their work—is not valued in our everyday world. I have learned, heartbreakingly from my students, that to be an artist of color is to be a maker at risk. How do I teach this safety?
Here at Daily Serving and Art Practical, we have spent much time reflecting on what world we are making. We are pleased with what we have built, but nevertheless, we are gravely reflexive about how we, reluctantly, serve as agents for the institution and how we can do better. The heightened visibility around the lives of queer, Black, and Brown bodies has real-world effects (since I began writing this essay, Uslip resigned his position at CAM because of the public backlash), but this does not mean that power has effectively shifted. That is the long, grueling work of real social justice: building access to power, or redefining it with the knowledge that you might have to give up yours. We know we have a responsibility to continue this endless fight to work harder at creating an art world that reflects the world we want to live in—a space where no one fears that their safety or their work is at risk. Privilege regarding identities, institutional mobility, and access to funding needs to be constantly interrogated. We should be held at a higher standard, even if we feel as though we are playing for the right team, doing “the work,” fighting for the same tiny pool of funding, and living the grueling life of nonprofit cultural workers within a for-profit world. Instead of asking questions, perhaps it’s time for the art world to start showing up with some answers. We can do better. So can you.