Following the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States during 2020, art institutions around the world have attempted to confront the systemic racism that is imbued in their institution, whether by hiring Black curators, acquiring works by Black artists, or organizing exhibitions that highlight the work of artists from the African diaspora. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), its recently formed Anti-Racism Committee launched a three-part conference series, titled “Toward an Anti-Racist Art Ecosystem,” as a way to discuss these issues.
The series has brought together art world professionals and academics to discuss segregation in institutions and how students might find paths to overcoming obstacles toward engendering new futures. The first lecture, held in April, focused on Chicago’s art scene was launched in April. The second one, held earlier this week, widened the initiative’s scope: Sampada Aranke, an assistant professor at SAIC, led a panel on creating an anti-racist art ecosystem at the national level.
“We want to share success stories with students,” Aranke said during the panel. “I don’t just mean examples of art world fame, but examples of people who have built pathways for themselves in sustainable collaboration with their communities.”
Aranke’s panel included artist Bredan Fernandes; Allison Glenn, senior curator and director of public art at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Nancy Marie Mithlo, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Deana Haggag, a program officer at the Mellon Foundation.
Of the panelist, Aranke said that they have each approached creating anti-racist futures from different perspectives: “Someone like Nancy [Marie Mithlo] is coming at the issue from the position that institutions are broken, that they can’t quite be counted on, and that that should be recognized. Meanwhile, someone like Glenn is thinking about how to work with communities who are typically left out of these institutions and how to overcome those obstacles.”
At the core of this week’s panel was creating equity in the art world. Haggag reflected on when she realized that she had come into a position of power—and how she might harness that for change. “Something no one ever told me was that the day you have a job, the moment you become a curator, the second you have a major exhibition or publish a book, you are now on the side of power,” Haggag said. “There’s a lot you need to do to question how that power can be used to make space for the powerless without accidentally comparing yourself to them.”
Glenn discussed a recent exhibition she had organized earlier this year: “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, which honored Breonna Taylor. Her method for the show, she said, was to invite as many people to give feedback as possible. “I know students, and others, consider curators to be such a singular authority,” Glenn said. “But I want to share this example of creating space for other voices of authority.”
As part of these community-focused efforts, Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, was also brought on to advise the exhibition. Glenn also worked with the museum’s community engagement strategist, Toya Northington, to engage with various Louisville residents to learn more about what they would like to see from an exhibition like the one she was planning. One request was to include more Louisville-based artists in the show, and Glenn added the work of five photographers who had documented the protests in Louisville in the wake of Taylor’s murder.
“[The] decentralizing of my voice and my authority allows for, I would argue, a very successful approach to the making of this exhibition,” Glenn said. “I was given the opportunity to gain critical insight from people who are invested in the conversation.”