How Do You Talk Productively About the Whiteness of Art Institutions?

Last night's event "decolonizing the white box," before the chairs got put to the sideEXPAND
Last night's event "decolonizing the white box," before the chairs got put to the side
Catherine Wagley

By ten minutes after eight o’ clock last night, there were already no chairs left at Human Resources. About 150 people had shown up for “decolonizing the white box,” a discussion of racial and ethnic diversity or the lack thereof in art institutions.

But the lack of chairs would become a non-issue pretty quickly, since Raquel Gutierrez, the moderator, would ask everyone to put their chairs up against the wall and move en masse into the room’s middle for a series of group activities in which the main goal seemed to be making sure everyone, not just the self-selected talkative few, participated.

The evening had a few impetuses, two of which related to recent biennials. At the Whitney Biennial in New York this past winter, a group called the Yams collective had withdrawn. They cited as a reason their objection to the inclusion of Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Wolford,” a project for which the white Scanlan, a professor at Princeton, hires black women to play a female black artist.

“It kind of negates our presence there, our collaborative identity as representing the African diaspora,” Maureen Catbagan, a member of Yams, told the website Hyperallergic. (Carolina Miranda also wrote a helpful piece on the controversy for the L.A. Times.)

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Then there was the poem by Sesshu Foster, published as a blog post in response to the "Made in L.A." biennial on view at the Hammer this summer: “it’s okay that the artists are all white, even the nonwhite artists (2?) are kind of white," it read in part.

The poem was shared widely. Some people agreed with its sentiments. Others wondered, among other things, whether it was at all helpful to hypothesize on how “white” the art of other nonwhite artists is. Hence, the event at Human Resources.

Writer-performer Gutierrez, whose ability to assert authority in a calming kind of way makes her an ideal moderator, started out the evening with a few activities. First, all in attendance were asked to line up horizontally between two imaginary poles — the aesthetics pole and the social justice pole. Which did you identify with more and why? Then the room’s corners four corners were labeled sound, text, image and movement, and we were asked to pick the one that most compelled us.

It was when we paired off and answered questions Gutierrez posed — When has an institution made you feel invisible? When have you experienced racial tension? — that conversation started to relate more clearly related to evening’s overarching topic.

It was a long hour-and-a-half lead-up to the point where those of us who had remained (some people left) found spots on the floor or in chairs along the floor’s periphery. Gutierrez invited people to come up to a mic at the front and share what they’d discussed in their groups of two, and the range of people that shared was probably more diverse than it would have been had the one-on-one conversations not happened.

“One of the questions I have as a creator is, is it worthy?” said an artist who said she had been forced out of an institution where she was working after pointing to the racial inequality present. “It feels like having integrity is a liability. “

“In the great decolonized box we’re inhabiting, there is racial tension here,” said an academic who wanted to know from anyone who had participated in the Hammer’s biennial “what being 'Made in L.A.' means in relation to race.”

One "Made in L.A." artist, not an artist of color but one whose work grapples with gender and sexual identity, volunteered to respond in the way that she could, citing discomfort with the “Biennial Industrial Complex” and the idea that one show could give a cultural portrait of a city like L.A.

One artist asked, “If you know that you are black or brown, why do you need the approval of the institution?“ Why wouldn’t you find your own spaces outside white-run institutions, where you know you have allied?

A Getty Research Institute curator countered that it’s “up to us” — “us” being people of color — “to change these institutions.” But an Asian-American arts administrator noted how, “through the process of infiltration, it's very difficult to forget where you came from.”

One woman got up and asked if we could propose strategies for countering the “white supremacy” of institutions. What kind of action could we take?

An artist from Northeast L.A. who prefers the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she” cited a direct action they had tried to take at an exhibition at this very space. A white male artist had hung sweaters and tapestries that this artist felt was uncritical or oppressive. “A direct action for me was to put on the sweater,” they said. When asked to leave, they complied, then reentered later, unsuccessfully trying to engage in a conversation about gentrification. Finally, they protested by peeing outside the building.

Two Human Resources board members got up next to say they had probably had a hand in cleaning up that pee. The interaction raised the question, not quite articulated and definitely left open, of what kind of strategies seem productive to whom.

“This is only the first of many,” said event co-organizer and Human Resources board member Jennifer Doyle as the evening ended, meaning there should and will be more such conversations. 


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