ST. LOUIS — A friend recently shared some wisdom overheard at the American Institute for Graphic Arts conference: “If you put five white guys from Stanford in a room, they’ll design something for five white guys from Stanford.” So goes the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) saga. The institution no longer represents the community it supposedly serves; it points at cultural topics of power and voice for brownie points, but dialogue is suppressed by those very same power structures. It’s become unclear whether or not CAM and larger institutions like it can represent “art that reflects the world around us, and helps connect us to the most salient issues of our time,” as CAM claims to do in its “vision” statement. Can an institution reflect the world around it if it is not made up of community members from the world around it? And what does the community do when it realizes that it is not being represented within the structures, activities, and content of the museum?
During many meetings in which local artists of color and allies gathered to strategize in response to the controversy, two possible approaches emerged: reprimand and correct CAM, or elevate the good work happening beyond its walls. In other words, do we say “no” to CAM or focus on saying “yes” to ourselves and the communities we feel it is marginalizing? If the museum’s former chief curator Jeffrey Uslip and, by extension, CAM believe that Kelley Walker “is the one contemporary artist of our generation that is thinking through history, race, identity, and their lasting evolving and rotating implications,” then the talented artists and cultural workers gathered in that room for those meetings, where are thinking through those exact quandaries, are presumed invisible — or, worse, irrelevant.
If this is that moment of “systemic rupture,” it is also a moment for local empowerment, building new systems, and affirming POC artists. It’s a moment of shifting energy and, therefore, shifting power. Instead of putting time into correcting CAM, St. Louis artists have decided to dedicate energy to supporting artists of color, and institutions dedicated to that mission.
When considering whether or not we would attend the second “Lunch with the Curator,” from which Uslip, the curator, again escaped, many artists of color concluded that they’d rather spend that time working on their own projects or preparing their upcoming exhibitions. Thinking through potential protest actions to undertake that weekend, the community preferred to attend performances and exhibitions by St. Louis artists of color, rather than spend time reprimanding CAM.
That same weekend, artist Basil Kincaid was busy preparing his exhibition and performance at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary. As activists encouraged each other to go to the shows of artists of color, Kincaid’s opening was packed, while CAM’s lunch event was quiet.
“In a time and cultural climate fraught with the misrepresentation of black people, black stories, and black bodies, I find it imperative, as a black artist in St. Louis, to provide opportunities to expose the wealth of creativity and depth of reflection within the black experience,” Kincaid said in an interview. “In the face of erasure and dehumanization, it is an empowering and healing process to create work and share the vibrancy of black imagination buttressed with tenderness and resilience of spirit.”
For Kincaid and many other local artists of color and their allies, this moment is less about the institution that failed them, and much more about keeping the momentum of the boundary-pushing work that they are already pursuing. Kincaid’s show, R3clamation: Inward Quest, which tackles the complexity of “confronting our genetic, generational, and personal trauma,” per the press release, deals directly with topics of race, identity, and power — something Direct Drive failed to do. CAM is failing to do the work. Local artists are already doing the work.
On the same weekend, the Millitzer Studio and Gallery presented Their Way, a group photography show curated by local artist of color Kahlil Irving that dealt with the representation of bodies. One of the organizers of our community meetings, Katherine Simóne Reynolds, was exhibiting in this show; thus, supporting this gallery, this artist, and this curator seemed more relevant for inciting change. Artists of Asian decent encouraged rallying together with other activist communities and to attend Speak: APIs & Black Lives — A Unity & Awareness Concert, which also happened that weekend. Other artists are discussing group shows of visual art, performance, and music that celebrate black bodies and hold space for anger and pain.
Beyond individual artists and curators, local arts organizations are rethinking not just content and representation through exhibitions, but who holds power within the institutions and the manner in which these organizations operate. James McAnally of The Luminary explained how he hopes to shift the structure of his own institution. “We are working on a plan to offer part of our space to black artists to determine their own context in order to share our resources directly as an organization,” McAnally said. “Rather than assume we know what is best, we are attempting to understand how to transparently share whatever power we have in order to move forward collectively.” Kincaid concurred with this rethinking of how institutions themselves operate and who holds power, adding: “It is of utmost importance to have the ability to tell our own stories in our own ways, ideally within spaces designed with our cultural evolution at the vanguard of their conception.”
These processes themselves are acts of power reversal, and the power of affirmation is perhaps more powerful than the act of condemnation. This approach isn’t so different from suggestions that came out of the events in Ferguson in October 2014, like getting people of color into elected office and encouraging an economic shift to patronizing black- and minority-owned businesses. This approach of seizing power is not new, and has roots in Black Panthers programs like “Free Breakfast for Children” (HandsUpUnited runs its own Books and Breakfast program) and free health clinics. These actions create their own, alternative system, offering a new path forward.
To be clear, CAM is not responsible for catalyzing this spirited response from the local artist community. Mike Brown’s death catalyzed this response. Kajieme Powell’s death catalyzed this response. So did Vonderrit Myers’s, Pruitt Igoe, the redlining ballot measure in 1916, the East St. Louis race riots a year after that. The list goes on.
Perhaps the most impactful forms of protest are those in which we lift up the good so much that the toxic dies out because no one is watching anymore. In which the shift in focus and value moves away from institutions that aren’t serving their communities to those that are; toward artists engaging the most pressing issues of our time, and community members who are direct participants.
In St. Louis, we are committing to that type of protest. We are advocates as well as protestors, but we are advocates first.
Basil Kincaid and Audrey Simes’s R3clamation: Inward Quest continues at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary (2713 Sutton Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri) through October 29. Their Way is on view at Millitzer Studio and Gallery (3103 Pestalozzi Street, St. Louis, Missouri).