I was in London to see The Edge Fund two weeks ago for my work as a Program Officer for The Heinz Endowments (I’ve written about the Edge Fund before) and was taken by the fierce Isis Amlak, the chair of Edge, to this art exhibit No Colour Bar: Black British Art In Action at a place called the Guildhall Art Gallery. Now, I don’t always get amped upon hearing “We’re going to a museum” partly because of their general formality and I’ve resisted that part of the arts world since I was a youth, but largely because I associate it with a whiteness and class orientation that has left me feeling othered. So, sometimes the lights in my mind even dim as the generator slows preparing me to feel like an outsider to the style & context of the art. But even more so than the art, it’s actually many museums themselves that send an “othering” message as I approach. And, according to the headlines of the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2015 publication on arts participation, as a person of African descent, as a man, and as an American, I am probably pretty typical in this way. African Americans visit museums in numbers much lower than our numbers in general pop and we are even less likely to be on the curatorial staff. To complete the picture, men attend in lower rates than women and Americans are thought to be going less and less. Great. I am average.
But “no colour bar” was different. I got all wrapped into so much of the show, including a recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookstore, and this artist, Keith Piper, who I learned was at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University teaching from 2000-2003. After seeing his work, I went home to read about him and then watched a 30 minute video he producedcalled Pathways to the 1980s about the Black Art Group 1979-1984. Piper had this one video/photographic piece, “Go West Young Man” simulating his father talking to him that I had to get right up on to explore whether my own father wanted me to understand this message. Then there was this painting from Tam Joseph called “UK School Report” that perfectly sums up what “good” Black boys are supposed to look like. We should be ashamed that so many beautiful, intelligent Black boys that look the like picture of the Black boy on the right continue to meet the standard of “Needs Surveillance” from white controlled structures of power.
I would not be thinking about my relationship to museums were it not for the work of a number of dope Pittsburgh & non-Pittsburgh cultural instigators. For the last year or so, Kilolo Luckett, D.S. Kinsel & BOOM Concepts (a project supported in part by The Heinz Endowments) have been pushing into my consciousness the need to rethink the relationship of Black people to museums and museums to Black people. Separately & together they’ve been hosting visits, silent dance parties and talks in Pittsburgh Museums & Libraries. In doing so I hear “What public cultural spaces aren’t ours? What spaces shouldn’t welcome us?” Then this point was driven further home by this article in the NY Times article in November “Black Artists and the March into the Museum” Finally, this past week, my good colleague from the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Robyne Walker-Murphy, focused her monthly twitter chat #flychat featuring Ravon Ashley, Aleia Brown,& Stephanie Cunningham on “#BlackGirlMagic on Museums” and had this super interesting dialogue in response to questions like “How do we make museums revolutionary spaces?” So, in what is the continued evolution of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, things are heating up for museums, which is exciting and good for museums and audiences. #NoColourBarred.