Interviews

The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler on Mass Incarceration and the Role of Activist Art

Audience watching ‘Free Angela Davis’ at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by William Blaylockall)

At the Brooklyn Museum in June, Elizabeth Sackler read from James Baldwin’s “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis”: “We must fight for your life as though it were our own — which it is — and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

The letter was published in January 1971 as Davis, a philosophy professor and social activist, was on trial for charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy following a shootout at the Marin County courthouse. Baldwin was one of thousands around the world who spoke up in defense of Davis. (Nina Simone brought her a balloon in prison; a Fresno farmer put up bail.) Though Davis was acquitted on all three counts, her trial was a flash point for the violence and racism embedded in our criminal justice system.

Today, as Congress has tanked in its efforts at bipartisan prison reform — and even President Obama’s clemency initiative has stalled — Angela Davis is still pushing to dismantle the prison industrial complex and to create a vocabulary addressing the racial and economic roots of oppression. For her efforts, she received this year’s Sackler Center First Award, honoring women at the forefront of their fields.

Elizabeth Sackler, founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the Brooklyn Museum’s first female chair of the board (she stepped down in June), created the award with Gloria Steinem in 2012 — when Occupy Wall Street was in full swing, just after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and as broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality sparked activist movements like Black Lives Matter. Since then, Sackler, a longtime matron of the arts, has turned her attention to prisons. In 2014, she launched States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children, and People of Color, a Sackler Center initiative to spark dialogue about the impact of our carceral policies.

When the Brooklyn Museum gave Angela Davis the Sackler Center First Award, New Criterion editor Roger Kimball responded with an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. He portrayed Davis, Sackler, Steinem, and the Brooklyn Museum as members of a self-satisfied liberal elite clinging to the tired mantras of 1960s radicalism while enjoying the fruits of late capitalism. In a follow-up piece, Kimball went on to question the right of a public institution — “moreover a public art institution” to honor “a woman who once made the FBI’s list of the Ten Most Wanted malefactors.” He worried that Davis’s radical ideals (or perhaps her criminal record) would topple civilization.

Though Kimball’s rhetoric is laughable, the question of whom a museum elects as its heroes — whose work it champions and how it narrates history — is, of course, crucial. In 2015, the Sackler Center exhibited Women of York: Shared Dining, an art installation made by inmates at the York Correctional Institution. What’s wrong with displaying the work of inmates inside the halls of culture? The problem isn’t, as Kimball implies in his critique of Davis, that their deviance threatens the status quo, but that their work moves freely through the space of cultural consumption while they remain behind bars.

Despite the long alliance between activism and art, there are limits to what a museum can do. Social change that begins in the gallery needs to be supported and enforced by policy in order to have real teeth.

I spoke with Sackler to discuss the urgent crisis of mass incarceration and her own advocacy.

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Angela Davis and Elizabeth Sackler at the Sackler Center First Awards (photo by William Blaylockall)

Nicole Miller: What was your first experience in a prison?

Elizabeth Sackler: I visited the York Correctional Institution in 2013. I’d been wondering how I could assist women in prison in some way, and I met a choreographer in Santa Fe named Joanne Tucker. Joanne brought her dance ensemble to the York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic, Connecticut. It was the first artist-in-residence program at that prison. When she told me about it, I was immediately interested. Joanne put me in touch with the librarian at York. My initial idea was to do a short PowerPoint presentation about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and invite the women to make their own plates for women that they admire and honor. It was going to be a one-day workshop, but it turned into a six-month project. I went up every month, and it resulted in Women of York: Shared Dining. It was exhibited in Connecticut by the Prison Arts Program, and then it came down to the Brooklyn Museum and was on display last year in the Herstory Gallery at the Sackler Center. In October, it’s going to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for an exhibition called Yum: The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food.

Shared_Dining Installation 2 - Credit Brooklyn Museum-Jonathan Dorado
“Shared Dining Installation” (photo by Jonathan Dorado) (click to enlarge)

NM: As you were getting to know the women at York, what priorities or concerns did they bring to their work?

ES: Most of the women were in the Wesleyan College program. They were very excited about making the place settings. A few of them had been artists before their incarceration, but many had never painted before. It became clear that their artwork helped them to move through some emotional or psychological territory.

There was one young woman who couldn’t look me in the eye when I met her. At first, she sat alone apart from the group, but by the time we finished the plates, she was just aglow. In our closing circle, she said she had touched a place in her soul that she never knew existed. One of the women made a place setting to honor Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. When Malala found out she was chosen, she contacted me and came to the prison to sign books for each of them and to thank them. It was really extraordinary for them to be recognized by Malala.

NM: In her autobiography, Angela Davis writes, “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” Beyond the humanizing work of art, are there specific reforms you’d like to see in our prisons?

ES: One of the things that I have learned about using the word “reform” to discuss the criminal justice system is that it assumes that the basic structure is sound. I have come to understand why Angela Davis is a prison abolitionist, because the fundamental, basic premise of our prisons is not for the purpose of reforming and creating a person who can come back into society as a whole human being to participate in our communities. It is a system built on punishment, violation, and alienation, and it generates more alienation and anger.

Shared Dining -Tracie-Malala Edit
“Malala Yousafzai” by Tracie from the series ‘Shared Dining, York’ (2015) (image courtesy Susan Meiselas/Three Guineas Fund Project, photo: © Susan Meiselas)

In the US, solitary confinement began in the 19th century among the Quakers, who would separate people from the community when they did something wrong. The idea was to give them a chance to repent and then bring them back into the community, but it was considered the severest punishment that you could inflict on a human being. Eventually, the Quakers abandoned this practice of total isolation because it was driving prisoners mad. And now, as we know, solitary confinement is used regularly. There are prisons in upstate New York where people are in solitary confinement for decades.

NM: The solitary confinement of teenagers in New York State has come up in the dialogues you host at the Sackler Center, States of Denial. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are prosecuted as adults and can be put in adult jails and in solitary confinement. Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, from the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York, made the very important point that if a parent put their 16-year-old child alone in a room, day after day for 43 days (which is the average length of stay in solitary confinement for an adolescent on Rikers Island), we would call that child abuse. But in New York, the government is doing that.

ES: It’s state-sanctioned violence, yes. And then, when you consider that one out of every three children has a parent in prison, you have to look at the impact of mass incarceration on children and families. We call it collateral damage, though what we’re really talking about is the experience of a child who feels suddenly abandoned; who’s placed in foster care where there’s the potential for abuse; who’s forced to learn a new way of thinking about their future and the way that the world perceives them. This is one of the consequences of mass incarceration, and it couldn’t be worse.

Sold out crowd at the Sackler Center First Awards
Crowd at the Sackler Center First Awards, Brooklyn Museum (photo by William Blaylockall)

NM: In a recent article for the New York Times, Holland Cotter criticized many museums that have adopted “corporate strategies” of marketing and expansion. He called these institutions “destination brands; busy, event-driven entertainment centers. But as generators of life lessons, shapers of moral thinking, explainers of history, they no longer matter.” Do you agree with him that the role of the museum is to shape moral thinking?

ES: A couple of years ago, in connection with our States of Denial programming, I was asked the question, “Why are you doing this within the museum?” My response drew on Holland Cotter’s work in the Times. He’s concerned about a market-driven globalism that flattens the rich diversity of local cultures and is accessible to only the 1%. This is a problem among museums because art is intrinsically a form of social activism. What would we give, he asks, to have a museum that integrated its art and its history with its people and its morals? My response is that we don’t have to give a king’s ransom for that. We have that at the Brooklyn Museum. You just need to get on the 2 train.

NM: Do you have particular exhibitions or programming in mind to address this goal?

ES: Next year will be the 10-year anniversary of the Sackler Center. The entire museum is going to be approached through a feminist lens. There will be changes made within each of the departments such that we will be hearing the voices of women and seeing their artwork equitably. In our antiquities collections, we’ll be fleshing out stories that haven’t yet been told in order to connect the past to the present. The entire museum will be a fully encyclopedic museum because we’re going to be hearing not only the patriarchal, but also the matriarchal view. That is a very significant move. We’re the first museum that has ever done that, museum-wide. I believe it could change museology.

The Sackler Center First Award honored Angela Davis at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on June 2, 2016. 

Corrections: Holland Cotter’s name was originally misspelled. The York Correctional Institution for women is located in Niantic, Connecticut, not upstate New York, and the States of Denial Sackler Center Initiative was launched in 2014, not last year. We regret these errors, and they have been fixed. 

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