“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.
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:
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.
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.
Transitioning from their initial role as a Seattle Arts Commissioner in the early phases of the project to a staff position as Program Lead in 2018, Surface brought awareness of community expectations to their new position. "The programming plan arose directly out of those sessions, adding in the reality of government constraint. We built a studio for artists in residence and incorporated performing arts programs." Not everything was built from scratch with community input as the foundation. Surface admits, “We also had to look at some long-held policies and ways that things had been done in the past, and adjust our thinking about that.” ARTS at King Street Station advisors select artists in residence on a monthly basis and provide advice and guidance with respect to programs and policies. “They are there to ensure that we are always centering the arts office’s racial equity mission and that the opportunity benefits as many artists as possible, maximally for each artist. They bring in a lot of perspectives and cultural knowledge," they affirm. Since Advisors come from the community and include everyone from elders to high school students, it's important that participation be enriching, and not an obligation. “We wanted them to benefit from being Advisors, so we try to create an atmosphere where people are honest about their deep reactions, where disagreement can be healthy and constructive rather than awkward or upsetting. They’ve coalesced into a cohort and become a community for each other.” Advisors also connect with potential artists for the program, which helps to generate interest. Participants come in at various levels of experience and exposure. “Some of them are experienced exhibitors with technical prowess and mostly want the space to execute their vision with minimal interference. Others are first-time or emerging exhibitors, or trying something different from what they usually present,” Surface states. “We provide a variety of experiences tailored to each applicant. It’s more administrative labor than a more templated approach, but it allows us to maximize our resources.” This individualized approach, offering support to those who need it and space to those who don’t, creates a sense of trust in the artists in residence that allows them to focus completely on their work.
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), a 40-year-old alternative arts nonprofit in Hollywood, has been cited on Chung’s Facebook thread and elsewhere as an arts presenting space that artists consistently trust to operate with integrity. According to Sarah Russin, LACE’s Executive Director, what makes this possible is the institution’s artist-led values and artist-centered board. “Because LACE was started as an artist-run space, there's an ethos that's baked into the organization that is artist-centered. So if we are talking about the ethical treatment of artists, or equitable treatment of artists, it's part of the DNA of the place. The early boards at LACE were all artists; that’s the history of the institution,” Russin recounts. “Now, the board has some artists and some non-artists, so what is in writing in our board by-laws is that programming is directed by the staff and not by the board. That’s important because you may have art collectors on a board,” which can lead to ethical conflicts when an artist’s work is enhanced in value by institutional support. “In some larger institutions there have been issues between what’s in the best interest of a board member and their collection, and what’s in the best interest of an open and free curatorial process for the organization,” she describes. “Our board doesn’t get involved with programming at all; they’re not directing any particular programming. I think that’s pretty critical. LACE has an amazing, diverse board that is all-in on the mission and trusts in the curatorial vision.” Having worked at larger institutions such as Otis College of Art and Design in the past, Russin appreciates how a small, non-commercial institution has a lot of leeway to take risks and push boundaries with their programming.
Russin in turn puts trust in her staff, led by Chief Curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar. “Daniela is really my partner in all the programming that we do,” Russin states. “She and the other staff, if there’s anything where we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to handle something and feel really good about it ethically, then it’s something that gets discussed with the whole team.” As the first point of contact for most artists and the public, the staff’s sense of empowerment is critical to the institution’s reputation for integrity. “I think that places at a large scale where there is enormous fundraising pressure, we’ve all seen scandals around board members who a lot of us would be very uncomfortable with in terms of how they make their money or how they treat their employees or whatever criteria you are going to use to make a judgment about whether somebody should be part of your organization, larger institutions have more of a history of those problems, while the smaller institutions aren’t in that arena in general,” Russin argues. “I came to LACE so that I could be part of a decision-making team and experiment, to have the ability to try things out and not have to go through a lot of committees or hoops or hand-wringing to decide whether you’re going to try something out.” Firewalls between board members who may have a personal stake in the artists the institution presents and staff who make selections and allocate resources are crucial to maintain that running room.
The truth is, there’s no way to stay true to your values and never have to compromise an opportunity as a result. But you don’t need to fear that passing up an opportunity that doesn’t feel good will damage your career. Institutions have diversified, but whether that commitment goes deeper than the surface depends on whether stakeholders, including artists, hold them to it. Says Abichandani, “Just because the color of the artist has changed doesn't mean that the system is no longer flawed. I’ve been in conversation with Black women curators and women of color who have faced a backlash for doing what the institution brought us in to do. It’s hard in those circumstances, like LaTanya Autry said in a talk, ‘There are often circumstances where even if you want to make a stand as a curator, the institution is prepared to use artists to make a case against you.’” Institutions can leverage support for artists into an image of support for diverse perspectives that is not extended to curators and staff behind the scenes. The severe power imbalance between institutions and individual artists can be exploited. “Artists are self-interested, and they may choose to support the institution,” Abichandani admits. “It’s not always a guarantee that the curator-artist relationship is one of solidarity.” Be that as it may, a curator with integrity is a bulwark for an artist against institutional pressures and demands. Abichandani’s advice: “So you figure out which institutions you can work with.” May we have the serenity to change the institutions we can, and avoid the ones we can’t.
Top Image: "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