Blacked Out in the Art World

It’s not easy to be a black woman working in the arts. Not on days like today.

Hank Willis Thomas, "Raise Up" (2014) at the Marian Goodman Gallery booth in the 2014 Art Basel Miami Beach (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Hank Willis Thomas, “Raise Up” (2014) at the Goodman Gallery of South Africa booth, 2014 Art Basel Miami Beach (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Editor’s Note: The author of this article, who works in a prominent art PR agency, requested that the following be published anonymously as not to jeopardize her job or professional contacts.

It’s not easy to be a black woman working in the arts. Not on days like today. It’s been 11 days since we learned that the officer who killed Mike Brown won’t be indicted. Three days have passed since Eric Garner’s murderer got off scotch free, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was buried. I’m having trouble keeping track of the casualties in the war against black bodies, but if you were to ask my colleagues at a New York arts PR firm, they’d tell you that’s all secondary to Art Basel Miami Beach.

You’d think that today was another day of museum acquisitions, art world gossip, and business as usual. It’s not business as usual for me though, because I have to reconcile what it means to work in a community that is indifferent to my existence. That’s not hyperbole.

In arts PR, we pay attention to all news because art is dependent on culture. Many of my co-workers would argue that art is life, and we take pride in keeping each other apprised to major headlines. We refresh the pages of international news outlets all day, and when something of particular interest happens you’ll often hear one of us yelling from our desks to share with the office. When the cat-calling video went viral, we were crushed. A blogger compiled Chris Pratt memes and we gathered and gawked. Kim K’s daughter painted her Hermes bags and we gagged in unison. So imagine my continued surprise that the news about Brown and Garner still hasn’t been acknowledged. Are black lives not relevant enough? Is the black experience in today’s America not worthy of discussion?

When my co-workers don’t acknowledge Mike Brown and Eric Garner, that says to me that my life, and the lives of people who look like me, isn’t important. Or at least, it’s not more important than Miley Cyrus’s latest “artwork.”

It’s a paralyzing feeling to be surrounded by people who don’t acknowledge that #blacklivesmatter. I’ve accepted that as long as I’m in PR, and not working for a black firm, I will more often than not be the only black person on staff. I’m okay with that because I’m of the belief that people of color need to play a role in telling the stories of artists of color. Just like it’s important for women to speak and write about female artists. I believe my black perspective is imperative because sometimes it takes a black person to be the authority on black subjects. It’s that simple.

What’s not simple is trying to balance my position as a black woman in the world with my position at work. When colleagues and clients make ignorant statements, I do not want to bite my tongue. Yet, I know that if I make public every internal battle I face in the art world today I will be seen as the angry black woman. And no matter what feature story I place, or epic crisis I avert, my successes will be trumped by my attitude that doesn’t fit company culture. On days like today though, I’m realizing just how harmful silence really is.

It’s not like my colleagues don’t know how to talk about blackness in the arts. We talk about it all the time! We write press release upon press release about the importance of promoting artists of color so that their perspectives are included in conversations about race today. And when we’re successful, we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done — because of our work another black voice is featured, and audiences are educated, and we sleep easy knowing that we’ve made a difference. Today, though, there’s no conversation. No job well done. No sleeping easy.

It’s a problem that I work in a profession that capitalizes on how cool it is to be black until it’s not cool to be black. If Kehinde Wiley decided to make black men killed by #damngoodcops the subject of his next portrait series, the art world would care. Wiley’s dealers would rightfully sell his works as the important documents of our time — and they’d make a pretty penny. Curators and critics would praise the series as an important reflection of this turbulent moment in American history. My colleagues would tell the media that an exhibition of his work is the most important statement about racism today.

Unfortunately, racism doesn’t only exist when white people want to acknowledge and benefit from it. I’ve now learned what it really means to be a black woman working in the arts. It means I carry the burden with none of the gains. It means that black lives in this country will never be more newsworthy to my peers than art world scandal. It means that I need to come to terms and accept that many of my peers, who exploit black art and the black experience, really don’t care about these issues when it really counts.

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