Interviews

Museums Are Not Neutral: In Conversation with LaTanya S. Autry

La Tanya S. Autry is a cultural organizer, curator, and art historian. She has curated exhibitions at Yale University Art Gallery, Artspace New Haven, Mississippi Museum of Art, Tougaloo College, Crane Art Center, and moCa Cleveland, where her exhibition “Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom” is currently on display. Autry’s research focuses on public art, photography, landscapes, museums, and more, and is the co-founder of the “Museums Are Not Neutral” campaign with Mike Murawski. 

First I wanted to ask you if you could talk a bit about the Museums Are Not Neutral  campaign that you started with Mike Murawski?

Thanks for asking about Museums Are Not Neutral. Mike and I started the initiative back in August 2017. At that point, the persistent claim of neutrality touted by various museum professionals frustrated both of us deeply. We put the truth of the matter on t-shirts, which are available for purchase online through Bonfire, to make the simple, bold statement – Museums Are Not Neutral. Based on the social and political realities, museums are grounded in power relations and are, simply put, historically a product of colonialism and war. Our statement resonates broadly as it operates as a rallying cry and connecting point for many people inside and outside of the museum field. Hundreds of people across the globe have joined us in challenging that lie of neutrality by purchasing and wearing the shirts. As one undergraduate student told me, those of us who wear the shirts are part of a moving exhibition. We refuse to participate in the lies. By highlighting the truth, Mike and I hope to foster efforts to make museums more equitable.

It’s been wonderful to see that our initiative has brought together so many people as many communicate with one another through the hashtag  #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. Also it has raised funds for important community-centered organizations such as Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mike and I discussed it in detail in an article we wrote for the Fall 2019 issue of Panorama, https://editions.lib.umn.edu/panorama/article/museums-are-not-neutral/.

Are there any contemporary examples of museums making initiatives to operate more equitably that you find effective?

There are various initiatives that have value. It’s hard to know where to start. But honestly, in general I find that authentic, generative equitable practices derive from actions of individuals and the groups they form in and outside of museums rather than from institutional directives. During this pandemic era, it has been troubling to witness how museum professionals in education and visitor services areas, who are often racialized and marginalized, have been the first people to lose their positions at many institutions. Often these people constitute the most racially diverse areas of museums, which tend to be, for the most part, white spaces. So that old adage “last hired, first fired” resounds in 2020.

It’s been heartwarming to find museum professionals organizing for themselves by creating fundraisers, the efforts of Oakland Museum of California that reduced hours of full-time staff to avoid cutting part-time positions, significant calls for equity by MASSAction colleagues, among other actions.

Typically executive positions and boards have not changed in substantive ways despite increased narratives of diversity and inclusion in recent years. The same people who created the exclusionary cultures remain in power. I believe funding is at the crux of this imbalance of power. Our governments do not provide the bulk of funding for museums. Philanthropy through foundations, corporations, and individual patrons pick up the vast slack. However these arenas are not bastions of equity either as we know from reports from various people who have written about the extreme lack of racial and gender diversity of these sources and the power dynamic created through these disparities.

To make deep fundamental structural changes in museums, funders would have to require it. However, that’s a degree of transformation that they must engage as well. 

You recently shared a service announcement on your website that states, “Several folks think I give talks on inclusion. I don’t. My ethos involves dismantling the ideology of white supremacy in institutions. This focus is a deeper, structural project. This is where I concentrate my energies.” Could you speak about the importance of this distinction?

The project of inclusion doesn’t necessarily involve opposing racism, sexism, and other forms of structural violence. It can operate as potentially a first step toward the larger project of dismantling existing power dynamics. However, if there is no commitment to transforming in deep ways, the inclusion of more Black people, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian folks only means that those persons are subjected to hostile, violent forces. They often have no recourse in these spaces because there is no institutional acknowledgement of how racism is sedimented into the fabric of the institution. Thus, there is no commitment to eradicating racism. Inclusion alone will not make institutions egalitarian spaces. 

Switching to the present moment, what does curating from home look like? And what are the challenges of exhibiting digitally? Are there  any beneficial opportunities that digital exhibitions offer in comparison to traditional exhibition work?

Yeah, so much to say here. In this troubling scary time, there is so much uncertainty about our personal physical safety, the health of loved ones, financial viability of museums, employment, skill levels, access to technology, and more. So I’ll just highlight a couple of things.

After the first 2 or 3 weeks of living under “stay home” orders, many museum folks started operating in what seemed like overdrive. Throughout the field there’s been a rush to produce lots of content for digital spaces, in particular social media. Some people suggest that we recreate existing exhibitions in online forms. For some places, this moment is time to enhance existing practices. But for many institutions the turn to digital is a significant shift as digital engagement has not been central to most facets of many institutions. I value social media for multiple reasons. But I don’t believe we can or should attempt to translate physical exhibitions to social media tweets, IG posts, Zoom calls, etc. These are different things. Experiencing art in situ is its own thing. There is no 1:1 relationship between these various modes of communication.

In a time of great financial concerns and evidence of massive layoffs in the field, it’s not surprising to see colleagues pushing to demonstrate relevancy.

There’s a lot to be said on these points. But for now, I’m going to focus on the things that I center in my curatorial praxis – honoring people who are traditionally excluded from museums, participating and advocating for collective care, developing thoughtful communication, and fostering critical reckoning.

Lately as I’m at home during this pandemic trying to work, I’ve been improving my skills at recording audio and video presentations. I’m thankful to have the means to do this work and find it intriguing to figure out how to share the spirit of Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom, the show I recently curated at moCa Cleveland, via various digital platforms. However, I’m also eager to dedicate more attention to developing ways to share that energy via other non-Internet based means such as mail, radio, newspapers. As we know, many people don’t have access to the Internet or computer devices. Cleveland suffers from “digital redlining” like many other cities. I’m collaborating with colleagues to create materials that will reach and support those individuals.

Image taken from “Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. c/o MOCA Cleveland

 

Could you speak about Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom, the current exhibition that you curated at MOCA Cleveland?

Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom opened January 31st at moCa Cleveland. For six weeks I had the pleasure of sharing it with everyone who visited the museum. It has been a powerful experience. The show, which honors a discussion between Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Dionne Brand, centers Indigenous and Black liberation and features work by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Cara Mumford, Amanda Strong, John Edmonds, Tricia Hersey, Vaimoana Niumeitolu and Kyle Goen. In her discussion about her book As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, Simpson, who is a key Indigenous thinker, educator, activist, as well as artist, demonstrates how refusing to be complicit in white supremacy and colonialism is necessary for Indigenous and Black people working together for liberation. In addition to highlighting how Indigenous and Black artists historically have been pivotal in envisioning freedom, she calls on folks from these groups to develop networks of care.

Her message touches my heart and resonates with the work of other artists I love. Our small, but mighty, multimedia exhibition extends Simpson’s and Brand’s conversation in physical space. It has been a true joy to figure out how to curate a show that centers a discussion and book. 

The exhibitions’ cross media nature reverberates through the individual works of art. In particular I continue to be struck by how the exhibition stresses the importance of interdependence and collective care. Several months ago as I developed the show, I had no idea it would eerily speak to our current public health crisis. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Indigenous and Black communities routinely have confronted deep degrees of public crises through devastations of genocide, theft of personhood and land, exile, and other oppressions.

About a month ago my mentor Maurice Berger died of the covid 19 virus. He was a key thinker in critical race theory and the arts. Learning of his passing hit me hard. For a while I became more anxious about this pandemic. But I remembered his belief in me and that my work as curator has value at this moment. So I am taking one day at a time and finding strength in the artists’ energies. I know that the art in Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom offers wisdom for all of us. While the museum is closed now in compliance with public health measures, I am committed to sharing the exhibition’s message of collective care. We are all we have.

 

 

 

 

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