It started with a share.
I shared a link I saw on another artist's social media page that was prefaced with a call for people of color to become institutional stakeholders. Or at least, that's what caught my attention--the appeal that we need more curators and art historians of color. I was on the 30-minute commute to my own arts institutional job and my impulse is to use the time to daydream. This time it was to imagine a world that is peopled by experts that might intervene against the established curatorial logics that have and currently rule the institutions we know as art museums. So recognizing the URL of a blog that belonged to a poet I respected immensely I clicked on the link. I read it and immediately shared with my own preface: OMG Sesshu Foster. As in Sesshu went there and called out the white boxiness of a Los Angeles art museum and its second biennial exhibition "Made in L.A. 2014," featuring 35 Los Angeles-based artists. And the institutional critique as a poem was achieved with the phrase "It's OK" as a repetitive meditative utterance that implies the resignation of a spectator engaged with the historiographies of Los Angeles and very much expecting to see a set of visual complements to those historiographies that contain people of color. I only gleaned the critique lodged at the institution itself and didn’t hover as much over the terrain that rhetorically elided the artists of color though it was harsh. I cringed. I didn't in the moment between reading and re-sharing let that sink in deep enough. As presented artists their roles as people who index the multiplicity of racialized and ethnic histories and realities abstracted as they may be in their work become absorbed into the abyss of whiteness undergirding Foster’s poetic call-out. Many of my peers felt this was a violent erasure in the poem. Many others thought it was making visible the implicit mandate to create the kind of works that get presented in spaces such as Made In L.A.*
I appreciate the singling out of that moment by my peers and colleagues as much as I do the ability to calmly and respectfully discuss the pendulum of these issues in the field that we as arts administrators, cultural conveners and curators navigate daily. The conversation amassed a robust thread of thought that Jennifer Doyle, current managing director for Human Resources Los Angeles (HRLA) came forward and proposed a series of townhall meetings to discuss these issues in public. I offered to moderate and together, along with HRLA program committee member Oscar Santos, came up with the program mission. The title Decolonizing the White Box was my contribution.
On the evening of Monday, October 27, HRLA hosts its largest gathering to date. We had over 150 people in the space, a space we joked as being the ultimate white box though saddled with an infestation of black mold. HRLA though is the ideal venue as a newly institutionalized entity, an artist-centered incubator space that operates as a consensus in service to both emerging and career artists. A space that does what an institution often fails to do which is center the voice of the artist and to take risks.*
As Phillip Kenicott recently writes “Art museums emerged more than a century ago as a ruling-class strategy to civilize and educate the masses and make them more deferential to the leadership of polite society. That pretty much failed everywhere, and no serious museum today wants any connection to the arrogance of that old mission.” Or so we hope though Kenicott’s assertion can be read as some kind of utopic longing from the positionality of a privileged individual (the critic) who gets paid to say “I called it.” The critic like a radio disc jockey has power in the determinacy of your playlist, or in this case making careers. However, Kenicott’s other recent memorable citing involved a review of the Smithsonian’s “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” a show that I haven’t seen per se but I work in the arts and don’t necessarily find the phrase “Latino art, today, is a meaningless category” productive in my tenacious attempts to get artists that speak and complicate these kinds of experiences in through institutional doors. Thanks to Alexis Rivera for sparking the dialogue with Kenicott here, a rare treat to see the artist and critic go toe to toe in public. However, for Kenicott to make the former claim in recent days signals a shift if you're listening hard enough.
I entered the arts institution through the doors often available to people like me. Make your mind up about whatever that may mean to you but people like me often come in to the arts institutional context through Education and Public Programs.* These are the departments in service to Curatorial; creating publics and providing context in our social milieu where arts education no longer exists. So the last 15 to 20 years of my various organic, community and institutional labors I have tenaciously attempted to position everyone in the room in relation to one another as an expert. This helps in trying to bridge the gap between a populist receiver of art that comes from the same Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood as I. My job is essentially to invite said receive to trust what she sees.
The night of October 27 was no different and my mission there was to create a cross hatch of radical collegiality. Everyone in the room has had an experience or a set of experiences pursuing a tenuous arts professionalization under various capitalist rubrics. As various as the roles we inhabit (artist, scholar, activist, organizer, curator) in the creative ecosystem perpetually at risk of obsolescence. Decolonizing, as I understand it, means to resist fully enjoying the spoils of institutionality. A space like HRLA could possibly be a site where our respective hierarchies get the necessary critical battering before we return to them the next morning.*
I offered to moderate because in the many arts institutions I’ve inhabited in a range of roles, I have developed the skill to facilitate difficult conversations. However, it wasn’t just one conversation. It was over 100 micro-conversations over the course of 45 minutes. We started with 150 and maybe 75 stayed until the end of Decolonizing the White Box 1. We could have had hundreds of micro-conversations however many left when the format revealed itself to be not a panel of experts, but a decentralized presentation that focused everyone in the room as an expert. As a facilitator, I get that it’s not an ideal mode of creating dialogue for everyone. But as a facilitator, and with my own reservations about being facilitated, it’s my job to push back and invite people to step outside of the comfort zone. A cliché? Maybe and one amongst many (building community is another favorite of mine). But isn’t the artistic role there to create opportunities to generate ideas away from the barren and privileged realm that comfort often resides in? *
*to be further developed in the larger piece that this essay aims to become