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How Do I Change My Institution from the Inside?

Learn how the art world is grappling with the changes in society on "Southland Sessions" S1 E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture

“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 Institutions?

For the second installment of “How to Change,” I asked, “How can I change my institution from the inside?”

Institutions like art museums and universities have been caught up in a storm of social criticism in response to racist ideas and systems that just won’t go away. The public has raised objections to popular symbols like the racially charged Theodore Roosevelt monument outside New York’s Museum of Natural History, or the statues and buildings in honor of known eugenicists that are being challenged at the University of Southern California. But these very public acts of removal are only the most recent and visible signs of change resulting from a generation of work. Every day, thoughtful people go to work in museums, universities, governments and other institutions with the intention of liberating them from the inside. 

Video still from “Soldadera” by Nao Bustamante, 2015 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante
Video still from “Soldadera” by Nao Bustamante, 2015 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante

As faculty at USC Roski School of Art and Design, I was distressed to learn of the awful history of racism espoused by the university’s second and fifth presidents and their allies. Their misdeeds included discriminating against Jewish athletes at the 1936 Munich Olympics — at the height of the Nazi rise to power — and promoting anti-Black ideas in the sciences and humanities. Remnants of these prejudices continue to affect the experiences of USC students and employees to this day and cause harm to the school’s relationship with surrounding South Los Angeles. I spoke with two of my faculty colleagues about how they are working to change our institution. 

Dr. Amelia Jones, Robert A. Day professor and vice dean of research at USC Roski, brings her commitment to structural change to her leadership role at the university. She says, “Structural change is necessary. Art (as we know it as a concept and thing) is European-based, and white dominant — universities as we know them as well — so, it has been a great joy at Roski to be empowered not only to reshape the curriculum but to make hires that effectively transformed the school for the better.” These hires include artists Nao Bustamante and Patty Chang and art historian Jenny Lin, all women of color, among a number of artists and scholars who bring social justice values to the department. Jones has been advocating against racist artworks on the USC campus for many years, as well as for structural changes to foster equity that she hopes to see realized during her tenure.  

USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance lecturer Achinta S. McDaniel is similarly critical of the Eurocentric origins of her chosen discipline of dance. “Dance has a deep history of racism, and in particular anti-Black racism that continues to infect our practices from commercial and concert forms to higher education, competition dance, studio training and conservatories alike,” she laments. In the academic sphere, “White Eurocentric dance, particularly ballet is still upheld as the standard for excellence and beauty, and Black and Brown forms and styles are consistently denigrated as inferior, always referential to centered whiteness and perpetually othered.” This is evident in which disciplines of dance, such as ballet and contemporary, are made central to the curriculum, and which, like hip hop and Indian dance, are offered as electives. Who teaches which course, and their status as full-time or part-time faculty, also reflects institutional priorities. McDaniel, who is part-time, says her classes are sometimes framed as “fun” and recreational cultural dance classes open to the general population of students to try on an ethnic form for a semester,” as opposed to serious classes that teach the craft of a contemporary art form. “I have been a dancemaker and educator for over 15 years,” McDaniel admits. “I cannot pretend I have not contributed and bought into the oppressive and racist hierarchy of dance in the past. I urge colleagues to admit and commit: own our complicity, and commit to decentering whiteness in dance.” She recommends organizing with others in your industry to affect change on a broader level if your institution is slow to act. “I am working in Los Angeles and with colleagues on a national level in these public forums, and on creating lasting changes in our institutions, and that has started with simply naming white supremacy and anti-Blackness rampant in our industry. I've been working with dance leaders in Los Angeles on creating the LA Dance Coalition, and my main initiative in this regard is to be an unapologetic force that helps to dismantle these structures and advocate for BIPOC dance companies.” This kind of bigger picture thinking can be served by grassroots tactics like founding coalitions and joining associations that work to effect change. For my own part, I spent four years working on these issues as a board member of the College Art Association and more recently co-founded a coalition with other Southern California art workers of color.

“Configurations” from 2017 records artist Patty Chang’s journey across China following the great aqueduct. She urinated at each point she was able to access the aqueduct. | Patty Chang
“Configurations” from 2017 records artist Patty Chang’s journey across China following the great aqueduct. She urinated at each point she was able to access the aqueduct. | Patty Chang

How much you believe in your ability to change your institution may depend on how much power you command within it. But even leadership has its limits. For Arizona State University Art Museum Director Miki Garcia, it took a change of institution and location to achieve some of the changes she has been working toward since she became a museum director 18 years ago. “I certainly know that entering the field of art as a woman of color, I’ve always been distinctly aware of my positionality,” Garcia explains. “Every single person in power [in a museum] needs to do a reckoning with their own understanding of racial justice.” As Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara from 2005-2017, Garcia found it difficult to align the museum with her values as a Latinx woman with a postcolonial frame of reference. She describes how “My efforts to lead discussions amongst the board in particular, and staff, about equity, race and justice were not received with enthusiasm.” Garcia believes that “the museum’s external outputs, that is to say hiring, education, exhibitions” may be the most visible avenues for change, but the real work of examining biases and prejudices is done on an individual level. “Once they start to do that work,” says Garcia, “all of the other work becomes a much clearer path.” This personal responsibility and accountability is a prerequisite if museums are to meet the expectation that they serve all people.

Video still from “Silver & Gold” by Nao Bustamante, 2013 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante
Video still from “Silver & Gold” by Nao Bustamante, 2013 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante

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Garcia has been frustrated in the past by what she perceived as a lack of willingness to do this difficult and necessary internal work. “As a woman of color, I heard many comments that people felt they had already done the work, they were liberal and progressive and they already knew, they don’t see color,” she laments. McDaniel agrees. “A large part of the problem is the notion that artists are progressive and ‘woke’ and have essentially transcended the need for conversations on equity. This is dangerous in all facets of dance, and is the notion around which white supremacy continues to flourish.” Says Jones, “Many, many more stories to tell about the racism I’ve seen directly — even as a white person! Maybe not surprisingly, because of course other whites feel they can bond with me over the need for exclusionary ‘standards’ and other modes of covert racism/sexism.” Bringing such biased practices to light is an important first step in creating a more inclusive learning environment that approaches these difficult histories constructively.

A still from “Milk Debt” by Patty Chang. | Patty Chang
A still from “Milk Debt” by Patty Chang. | Patty Chang

Even more disheartening for agents of change in institutions are the comments that accuse those who work to build equity of having ulterior motives. Says ASU’s Garcia, “I had a lot of comments about how I was pushing my agenda because of who I was, that I was pushing it as my own personal mission.” People of color can lead museums, but still not be seen as the audience for museums. In Arizona, Garcia has been able to implement strategies for deeper, more meaningful change within the museum, which she credits to the region’s greater diversity and its centrality to contemporary debates about immigration and the climate. Since joining ASU in 2017, “The conversations I’ve been able to introduce are much more cooperative, and I feel like I’ve been seen and heard. Since I arrived, we have been outlining how our programs can be more inclusive. We initiated an equity, diversity and access group among the staff, and we have brought in consultants to talk to us about the history of Arizona, the history of the place and our relationship to it.” Understanding the historical, cultural and economic forces that created our institutions is essential background work that we have to do before we can change them to better reflect our present.

On a walk in Newfoundland, artist Patty Chang found a dead sperm whale washed up on the shore and decided to wash it as a form of purifying the body to prepare it for the next stage. The scene became part of her 2016 work, “Invocation of a Wandering Lake.
On a walk in Newfoundland, artist Patty Chang found a dead sperm whale washed up on the shore and decided to wash it as a form of purifying the body to prepare it for the next stage. The scene became part of her 2016 work, “Invocation of a Wandering Lake.” | Courtesy of Patty Chang

Garcia views these conversations as team-building activities for her staff and stakeholders. “These conversations are embedded into the fabric of how we operate, to ask whose stories are we telling? Whose stories are we not? We create a culture that is as safe as possible to discuss that as a whole team.” For Amy J. Andrieux, executive director of New York’s Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art (MoCADA), a lot of this work has already been done in establishing the museum’s mission, in the context of its visual and performing arts programs. This doesn't make the work any easier, as the museum needs to act in accordance with its values in all ways. Says Andrieux, “For every rental/partnership with a sponsor, we make our space available for free to a minimum of three cultural workers/starter organizations per month.” Fundraising, programming and operations decisions are all informed by the museum’s social justice mission. “We have an eight-point bullet list of aims that fall under our mission to present works by artists of African descent and to invite dialogue on pressing issues facing the African diaspora. Every exhibition, program or piece of content must speak to a minimum of 80% of those aims or we don't do it,” she explains. Even among artists of color, there are inequalities of access that the museum seeks to resolve. Andrieux describes how, “To balance the inequality of access and representation, we ensure that at least 80% of exhibiting artists, curators and partners represent the marginalized communities that we serve. This elevates community stories, shifts dominant narratives and offers financial opportunities and career exposure to those most in need.” While we agree that institutions such as museums and universities serve the public, until now there has been too little conversation about who the public is and how the institutions should be serving us. 

Video still from “Test Shoot” by Nao Bustamante, 2014 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante
Video still from “Test Shoot” by Nao Bustamante, 2014 | Courtesy of Nao Bustamante

This is certainly true in Los Angeles County, where people of color make up nearly 75% of the population but barely 30% of the arts and culture workforce. Recent high profile hires at museums will help, but cannot alone compensate for this enormous imbalance. Ultimately, the purpose of institutions in the here and now is only partially to preserve and interpret what exists, be that archives, collections or presenting works of art. Equally important is how the institution operates within its community -— ideally as a neighborhood resource and a conduit for improving social and economic equity for generations to come.

Top Image: On a walk in Newfoundland, artist Patty Chang found a dead sperm whale washed up on the shore and decided to wash it as a form of purifying the body to prepare it for the next stage. The scene became part of her 2016 work, “Invocation of a Wandering Lake.” | Courtesy of Patty Chang

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