All posts by mbranch@brown.edu

Social Justice Programming and the University

Over the course of the semester and in the course of completing the readings for this week I have spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which Public Humanities work, and the work that Museums and other Cultural Institutions are doing relates to the similar work that is taking place on college campuses.

In Museum, Society, and Inequality, Richard Sandell writes about a framework in which “museums can impact positively on the lives of disadvantaged or marginalized individuals, act as a catalyst for social regeneration and as a vehicle for empowerment with specific communities and also contribute towards the creation of more equitable societies.” (pg 4) Students and educators working in Student Activities Offices, multicultural centers, and other spaces here at Brown are taking a similar approach cultural and identity centered programming, with similar goals.

For example, this year Je-Shawna Wholley, Program Coordinator for the LGBTQ Center here at Brown, hosted a Queer Legacy entitled Radical Joy.

The lineup for Radical Joy Queer Legacy Series 2017

The series, which centered experiences of Black Queer people and took an intersectional approach to conversations on masculinity, racial identity, queer love, and trans identity.  It was also a direct response to complaints from students about anti-blackness in social justice spaces. Through Radical Joy Je-Shawna sought to empower queer black students by making a marginalized community more visible and also create a more equitable community by providing spaces for others to learn (both of which are strategies employed in Sandell’s article).

Though there is often a similarity in the social justice programming happening in Student Affairs and Arts Administration, it seems rare (at least in my experience) that Student Affairs professionals collaborate with Arts Administrators on the creation of programs or exchange of strategies. As I continue on in my journey as a budding Public Human / Student Affairs professional one question continues to be on my mind and at the center of my work:

How can Student Affairs professionals draw from the work of museum professionals and arts administrators to create dynamic and meaningful arts-based social justice programs on college campuses?

In completing the readings for class today I was struck by how often corporations came up in the articles, from Kurin’s explanation of corporate involvement in America’s Smithsonian to Janes description of corpratistic approaches to financing museums.  I was especially surprised that the Smithsonian allowed companies like MCI and TWA (RIP) to create their own exhibits within the America’s Smithsonian exhibition and have almost full control over the end result.

Kurin writes that “The bottom line was that the partners were entitled to produce exhibits in return for their $10 million sponsorship” and “even though the Smithsonian technically had veto rights over the exhibits, curators had little influence.” (pg35)  He doesn’t seem thrilled about each example of the “corporate brokering” that occurred in the creation of this exhibition but he does use the word “entitled,” implying that the corporations have a right to creative control due to their sponsorship.  However, in an earlier chapter, Kurin implies that turning over creative control of an exhibition on Senegalese culture to the office of the Senegalese president would by “an abdication of professional responsibility” (pg12-3).  I understand that America’s Smithsonian is a unique case– most corporate sponsors aren’t given free rein to curate exhibitions alongside museum professionals; I also don’t have any experience working directly with corporate sponsors.  That said, I am troubled by the idea that corporations were allowed to purchase creative control over parts of an exhibition.

What limitations should be placed on corporate involvement in exhibition planning?
What role should the subjects of an exhibition (such as one on Senegalese culture) be involved in planning an exhibition or event?

Relevance at the Brooklyn Museum

The readings for this week have gotten me thinking about a lot of things: ways in which institutions can be relevant to multiple audiences, the different expectations that visitors bring with them when the visit a museum, and what my identity is when I enter a space (I think I’m an explorer).

For this week I wanted to share the process that I used when I was Brooklyn Museum, an institution which is known for its relevance to many communities. The Museum’s largest and most well-known program is Target First Saturdays, a monthly after hours event, which features music, dance, film, and scholar performances centered on a theme relevant to an exhibition.

At the Brooklyn Museum, we utilized the diverse permanent collections and special exhibitions, which often highlighted Brooklyn artists, women artists, and artist of color, to showcase and celebrate communities whose experiences aren’t always centered. For example, to celebrate A New Republic, an exhibition of works by black, queer artist Kehinde Wiley, we invited Browntourage media agency to curate a series of programs which included voguing performances, a pop up bazaar featuring a diverse array of designers and artists, and a DJ.

 

We often collaborated with local artists and community members and relied on these local arts leaders to curate and suggest events that would be relevant to their communities, much in the way that Nina Simon recommends in The Art of Relevance.  This method allowed us to build trust with the communities we sought to serve and to allow for many groups to be able to see themselves in the programming.  Curators also did this work by collecting and exhibiting artworks that are reflective of many communities. Target First Saturdays draws thousands of visitors each month, based on a model which is community centered and relevant.

The conversation on relevance, community-centered programming, and “pandering” is one that I’m really familiar with and I look forward to our conversations in class!

I approached the readings (and video) for this week thinking about the definition of the words empathy and sympathy, two words which are often confused and used interchangeably.  A blog post on dictionary.com defines the differences in this way: “sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.” It was useful to have this definition when viewing The Couple in the Cage film and unpacking visitor responses.

In the video, visitors respond with a variety of feelings: anger, curiosity, pity—but it is rare that visitors empathize with the “natives.”   According to Fusco,  “People of color…have at times expressed discomfort because of their identification… making frequent references to slavery and to the mistreatment of Native people… [while] cross-racial identification with us among whites was less common.”  (pg158)  The thought that a white visitor was more likely to sympathize while a person of color was more likely to empathize raises a lot of questions:

How might the reactions by visitors (especially white visitors) be different if the project the “natives” were said to be from an island off the coast of Norway rather than an island off of the coast of Mexico?  Would this even be plausible for most visitors?  Some visitors refused to believe that the subjects were “Natives” because they looked too white.

How does a person’s race (and other identities) determine who that person can easily empathize with? What implications do identity and empathy have socially and politically?

Monuments and Mourning

In Memorial Mania, Doss states that “temporary memorials create a public place for individuals and communities united in grief and often anger” (pg 68), a statement which definitely rings true as I think about the time I happened upon the temporary memorials to the victims of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. Parisiens and visitors alike traveled to the makeshift memorials, contributing flowers and paying respects and it seemed like the temporary memorials gave memorials mourners a way “do something” in a time of helplessness or fear.  Visiting the memorial brought up many of the feelings I remember experiencing as a teenaged New Yorker in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks—fear, anger, profound sorrow and sadness for the victims and their families.

My friend Kevin’s photos of the temporary memorial at the Marianne monument

Interestingly, one of the larger temporary memorials was created at the base of a large, bronze,  graffitied  statue of “Marianne”, “a feminized symbol of revolution and liberty”, (pg 20) surrounded by allegorical statues representing liberty, equality, and fraternity.  It made a fitting location for a memorial, not only because of its proximity to the Bataclan theater, where the largest attack took place, but also because Marianne, as Doss explains, was created in determination to “unite the French body politic around a consensual national mythology.” (pg 20) Large terror attacks such as the ones that took place in Paris in November 2015 are viewed as an attack on the nation, much in the way that the 9/11 attacks are seen as “an assault on American innocence” (pg 120).

The statue of Marianne (accompanied by Liberte, Equalite, and Fraternite), in the Place de la Republique in Paris

As I looked at the flowers and stuffed animals at the foot of this representation of French nationalism, an allegory which doesn’t come close to representing the true diversity of Paris and of France, and I thought about the calls for unity and national pride I wondered— does this “E Pluribus Unum” mentality that pervades the mourning of national tragedies create space for groups whose marginalization may have laid the groundwork for the tragedy itself?

Photos taken by teammate Kevin in Paris. The Eiffel Tower, itself a symbol of Paris and of France, was illuminated with the colors of the French flag for one week after the attacks.

Images and Mythmaking

“For some scholars, public historical imagery supplies the myths and symbols that hold diverse groups in political society together.” –  David Glassberg, Public History and the Study of Memory

As I considered the question “how are myths made?,” which accompanied the readings for this week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the relation between image and myth, especially as it relates to American History.

During my time as an educator at the Brooklyn Museum I often taught from Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, a large scale image of Washington in the heroic pose of an orator.  When it was first created in 1796  the painting was copied many times and circulated widely with versions of the painting now hanging in the White House and in the National Portrait gallery. It has become one of the quintessential depictions of the first president. The portrait shows Washington dressed as a middle class man and surrounded by symbols of the American Republic (the flag, the eagle, copies of the Constitution and a history of the American Revolution), and was designed to heroicize Washington and promote the ideals of democracy.

“George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart. 1796

In many ways, heroic depictions of founding fathers by Stuart and other artists helped to create and solidify the mythic images we have of those figures today.  These works, including John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, have become the dominant images of historical figures and events and appear in textbooks and on American currency.

The reverse of the two dollar bill, which features John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence”, created between 1817 and 1819.
The reverse of the New Jersey state quarter. The image is based on Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, painted in 1851

That said, many of these popular depictions were created years after the subjects died and inaccurately portray historical events. As I think about images and the relation they have to mythmaking I wonder:

What role do dominant images of historical figures and events have on shaping the dominant narrative of those figures and events?

Also:

Most of the images we associate with the founding fathers lionize and even deify them. How does being surrounded by aggrandizing images of historical figures make it more difficult to accept revisionist histories of these figures?

Whitewashing Civil Rights through Silencing and Misremembering

I found Silencing the Past really captivating and couldn’t help but think about how relevant it is today. As I was reading, one history that came to mind is the story of Martin Luther King Jr, a figure who is almost universally celebrated and whose birthday is a national holiday.
In chapter 2, Troulliot writes, “Inequalities experienced by the actors [of history] lead to uneven historical power in the inscriptions of traces.  Sources build upon these traces in turn privilege some events over the others, not always the ones privileged by the actors.”
What does it mean when the history is documented and archived but then misrepresented? Comments like “Martin Luther King would be ashamed of Black Lives Matter” seem to be silences in fact retrieval (the misremembering and deliberate omission of facts) and also a silence in the retrospective significance, as the “corpus” (aka stock story) of Martin Luther King, has largely been whitewashed.
As I continued on to Pierre Nora’s Between History and Memory, I was initially skeptical about Nora’s promotion of memory over history but in my preparation for my presentation, I thought about conversations I’ve had with family members about the way legacies and histories get warped.  “Oh now everybody claims to love Muhammad Ali–“, my mom once told me over the phone days after Ali passed away. “You know, when I was younger white people hated Ali. Hated that he was Muslim. Hated that he refused to fight in Vietnam. Now 40 years later, everyone loves him– and they have the nerve to claim that he transcended race!” It is with this recollection that I discovered the true power of memory.  My mom wasn’t taught about Muhammad Ali–, unlike me, she was there during the 1960s and 1970s. She remembers– and she knows the truth.
Muhammad Ali speaks at a Nation of Islam meeting in 1974.

Nora writes, “Memory is blind to all but the group it binds” but “History… belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority.”  MLK and Ali embody this difference. In the memories of the people they sought to liberate, they belong to Black people. In the corpus of History they now belong to everyone.

Is Public Art Really for Everybody?

In Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently, Hilde Hein begins her introduction with a memory of Jean-Claude and Christo’s Gates project, a set of orange ‘gates’ placed along pathways in Central Park.  She remembers the gates fondly, speaking of them as “an unexpected antidote to September 11, 2001” (which is a pretty bold claim) and arguing that “there is no doubt that [the work] is public” (page 1).  Is it really though? Is a work of art really public just because it is physically accessible to average people?

Gates installed in Central Park

I have a different memory of the gates. When I visited as a high school senior living in Queens I remember wondering “who cares about these gates?” and “what do these gates have to do with anything?” I left pretty quickly and went to The Met, where I could find artworks that I could actually understand. The gates, though physically accessible to New Yorkers who walked the paths of Central Park, were nonetheless inaccessible to many residents who saw the project as esoteric and lacking in relevance.

Herein lies a problem with much of Public Art. Hein claims that Public Art has, “descended from the pedestal that separates art from the public” but in reality, it has served to move “the pedestal” from inside the Museum outside to the park or the plaza (page 17).  Projects such as Gates and Untitled (Lamp/Bear), which is currently on view at Brown, reflect the tastes of the art insiders and elites rather than those of publics who are served. Is an artwork “for the public” if members of the public have no voice?

Untitled (Lamp/Bear) by Urs Fischer

To me, murals are more successful and meaningful works of public art because they often reflect the input and the interests of community members, something which is lacking in many works of public sculpture.  Murals are often commissioned by community groups and local business owners and are sometimes created by children and community members.

A man sits in front of a mural depicting Hip-Hop artist Ol’ Dirty Bastard

How can we ensure that works of Public Art truly public?