Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.

How Can I Have an Ethical Art Career?

"yәhaw̓"curated by Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), and Satpreet Kahlon. ARTS at King Street Station, March 23–August 4, 2019 | Benjamin Benschneider
"yәhaw̓"curated by Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), and Satpreet Kahlon. ARTS at King Street Station, March 23–August 4, 2019 | Benjamin Benschneider
Support Provided By

How to Change” is a limited series for “Southland Sessions” exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.

Changing Ethics?

Learn more about the changes in arts institutions on "Southland Sessions." E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture (Media Manager)
E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture (Media Manager)

For the fourth installment of "How to Change," I asked, "How can artists live with integrity and choose ethical institutions to work with, without missing out on valuable opportunities that others accept?" My question was instigated in part by a Facebook post made by San Diego-based artist Andrea Chung, who recently crowdsourced a list of ethical museums, art organizations and galleries. Says Chung, “I posted the question on Facebook because I am frustrated with the lack of sincerity in museums, universities and institutions who have put out press releases promising to do better when it comes to race and equity. It’s as though they only care NOW out of fear of being called out. It’s insulting and incredibly condescending.” Chung is a believer in artists’ organizing power. “I think artists have the ability to take back the power in refusing to work with some of these organizations,” she asserts. “By informing each other of our experiences, we become our best resources.” Sharing information about organizations’ behavior in situations with artists, curators and the public lets people know which deserve their support and which to avoid. “The best way I can hold institutions to an ethical standard is to ask questions about what their commitment is to BIPOCs and LGBTQiA+ artists,” she opines. “I want to know what actions they have in motion to bring equity to not only artists but the communities they are supposed to serve and their staff — ALL their staff, including the security guards and facility workers. They are my audience.” Chung, whose work deals with the history of her ancestors’ migration to the Caribbean from Africa and China, is unafraid to give up an opportunity that doesn’t feel right. “I was offered a solo show at a university museum in Arkansas,” she recounts. “Listed within the contract, it said the state of Arkansas is a supporter of a one-state solution in Israel. The director, whom I later found out is a Trump supporter, emailed saying they would love for me to have a show there. I declined.” No opportunity is worth sacrificing your commitment to your principles. 

Jaishri Abichandani, an artist, curator and organizer based in New York, concurs. Over the past two decades, she has created hundreds of paintings and sculptures and curated dozens of exhibitions featuring diaspora artists of color, LGBTQIA+ and gender-nonconforming artists. Most recently, she curated three exhibitions for the Ford Foundation Gallery in midtown Manhattan. Says Abichandani, "There's a particular vulnerability that you have to be prepared to live with, knowing that you will have a core of supporters who share your moral compass, theirs points the same way, and they understand that we are in this for the long haul and that is why we do this work, but then there are plenty of folks who are more concerned with getting that money, and that’s equity for them.” For her, principles of anti-racism and fair labor practices are connected with a collectivist approach to art practice and exhibition-making. "I just wish we were in systems where more of us had access to funding, and there wasn't this idea of a genius star that was dictated by a handful of people, but more of a system of acknowledging the work of artists and cultural workers and being understood for the amazing contributions that we do make,” she laments. “l wish there was a system that supported visions of artists to make huge large-scale works that could be available to the public, and didn't rely on galleries and collectors and spaces where, even when those works do get made by artists of color, it’s very often in a private collection, not a public collection.” Access to resources affects the capacity of many organizations that strive to comport themselves with integrity in a landscape dominated by ostentatious, at times inflated, wealth.

See more of Andrea Chung and Jaishri Abichandani's works click right and left:

"End Game," 2018 by Jaishri Abichandani. Foil, wire, epoxy, brass, plastic, crystals, paint, wood, MDF. 48 x 48 x 60 inches. | Courtesy of the artist
"End Game," 2018 by Jaishri Abichandani. Foil, wire, epoxy, brass, plastic, crystals, paint, wood, MDF. 48 x 48 x 60 inches. | Courtesy of the artist
1/5 "End Game," 2018 by Jaishri Abichandani. Foil, wire, epoxy, brass, plastic, crystals, paint, wood, MDF. 48 x 48 x 60 inches. | Courtesy of the artist
"Lajja Gauri redux ( the shameful one)," 2020 by Jaishri Abichandani. | Courtesy of the artist
"Lajja Gauri redux ( the shameful one)," 2020 by Jaishri Abichandani. | Courtesy of the artist
2/5 "Lajja Gauri redux ( the shameful one)," 2020 by Jaishri Abichandani. | Courtesy of the artist
"Vex VI" by Andrea Chung. Collage, ink and beads on paper handmade from traditional birthing cloth. 17 x 13 inches unframed | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
"Vex VI" by Andrea Chung. Collage, ink and beads on paper handmade from traditional birthing cloth. 17 x 13 inches unframed | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
3/5 "Vex VI" by Andrea Chung. Collage, ink and beads on paper handmade from traditional birthing cloth. 17 x 13 inches unframed | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
"Sisters of Two Waters" by Andrea Chung. Collage, beads on handmade paper. 8 x 10 ¾  in. | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
"Sisters of Two Waters" by Andrea Chung. Collage, beads on handmade paper. 8 x 10 ¾  in. | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
4/5 "Sisters of Two Waters" by Andrea Chung. Collage, beads on handmade paper. 8 x 10 ¾ in. | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
"Proverbs 12:22, 2019" by Andrea Chung. Bibles cast from sugar, rice, beads, medicinal herbs and paper. Site specific installation at the Museum of African Diaspora | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
"Proverbs 12:22, 2019" by Andrea Chung. Bibles cast from sugar, rice, beads, medicinal herbs and paper. Site specific installation at the Museum of African Diaspora | Courtesy of Andrea Chung
5/5 "Proverbs 12:22, 2019" by Andrea Chung. Bibles cast from sugar, rice, beads, medicinal herbs and paper. Site specific installation at the Museum of African Diaspora | Courtesy of Andrea Chung

As Founding Director of Public Events and Projects at the Queens Museum from 2003-2006, Abichandani helped open the museum to the surrounding communities, some of the world's most diverse, who had not viewed the museum as a space that was inviting to them. "I know this as someone who lived in the neighborhood of the museum and did not go inside for at least fifteen years; it always looked closed, there was never anything that indicated one could go inside or that it was a living space,” she recalls. Under the direction of Tom Finkelpearl, the museum pivoted. “He understood that he needed to activate the museum space and that it had never functioned in the Manhattan high art world, so he needed to build a program with the community that existed,” Abichandani explains. Her work as an activist founding South Asian Womens’ Creative Coalition (SAWCC) in New York and London informed her practice of holding feminist spaces with other women of color, which she brought to her programs at the museum. With SAWCC, "The initial basis was an idea of Black feminist solidarity and women of color solidarity and working-class cross-nationality. There were a lot of social justice-based ideals because my entire background in organizing in the South Asian community had been based in social justice feminism.” SAWCC was not exclusively a working-class group of artists, nor did every artist who participated view the group as a space for righteous struggle. “While it was initially the only South Asian feminist space that needed to do everything for everyone, it could not, and what we served well was visual arts and writing. Since then, they have dealt with gender and what it means for the mission, now they have to deal with caste in a way that was neglected over the last several years,” she describes. Even within spaces that are exclusive to women of color, class disparity and desire for prestige can drive rifts between peers whose ideals don’t quite reconcile.

The American War: Pao Houa Her and Sadie Wechsler. ARTS at King Street Station, February 6–March 21, 2020. | Rafael Soldi
The American War: Pao Houa Her and Sadie Wechsler. ARTS at King Street Station, February 6–March 21, 2020. | Rafael Soldi

Susanō Surface is Program Lead at King Street Station, an arts program directed by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. In response to Chung’s Facebook thread, they pointed to ARTS at King Street Station’s efforts to create an ethical model, developed through a lengthy process of community-based listening sessions. "We are servants of the public, we are tax-funded, it's the people's place," they explain. This public mandate is one that Surface has baked into the processes that govern ARTS at King Street Station. “When there was an opportunity to open a civic arts hub in a central location, the City needed to hear directly from the community. This process started in 2016. There were three public listening sessions for the whole community, and 16 focus groups that focused on communities of color. The Office of Arts & Culture tried to gather information about: what activities do you want to produce as a contributor, or experience as an audience member/attendee, here? Do you want to see visual arts? Music? Theater? Dance? Rentals? Something else?” Having participated in these feedback sessions, the community around King Street Station perceived the resulting arts space as more accessible and relevant to their experiences than a typical museum or gallery. Even the physical shape of the institution took their input into account. Surface describes how community feedback and internal staff feedback aligned in support of a design that would “keep the historical character; people liked how it looked, with a raw industrial feel and ceilings open to the pitched roof.” People also expressed that they were not interested in having professional curators with high profiles working in the space. “In the listening sessions, we heard that our publics did not want a fancy powerful curator behind the scenes picking people, even artists of color,” says Surface. “‘Who decides who decides?’ is a frequently asked question. They wanted a model where people could apply, and where the programs would be adjudicated, selected and nurtured by a panel of community advisors who also represent the breadth of people living in Seattle.” Additionally, staff would need to do direct outreach to individuals and community groups in the vicinity to attract applicants who reflect the surrounding population around King Street Station.

"yәhaw̓"curated by Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), and Satpreet Kahlon. ARTS at King Street Station, March 23–August 4, 2019 | Benjamin Benschneider