This is the final weekend of the #DecolonizeThisPlace residency at Artists Space in Lower Manhattan — the closing event is tonight. On that occasion, the MTL+ collective and the group behind #DecolonizeThisPlace reflected on three months of conversations, screenings, events, and presentations, and they prepared this open letter to the incoming director of Artists Space.
We agreed to publish it in its entirety:
Decolonize This Place: Open Letter to the Incoming Director of Artists Space
by MTL+ /Decolonize This Place
Three months ago, we were invited to Artists Space to “decolonize this place.” We always understood decolonization is not a metaphor but a process of rearranging relations of power. As our time at the space comes to an end, we wish to impart that Decolonize This Place should not be a name of one exhibition among others in the history of the organization you will soon direct. It is an ongoing call to undertake the work of decolonization, a task that will not end in our lifetimes, nor the lifetime of Artists Space itself. The experiences, the relationships, the unlearning, the actions, the art that developed during this residency will extend beyond our time here. The call to decolonize continues to intensify, and “this place” applies to any location that bears the violence of settler colonialism.
But what will Artists Space be in the aftermath of this process that we set in motion? What will be the future of this process mean to you, and to the people who work here? Will you revert to some version of business as usual, a re-normalization, or is something else possible? What will be the relation of director and directed? Donors and donees? Artists and space? Which artists? Who will be your public? Who will feel welcome here? Who will benefit from the resources of your institution, and how will they be distributed?
These are not just questions for Artists Space. We address them as well to Common Practice, the network of New York’s alternative arts spaces that invited us to undertake this project. That invitation flowed from a perceived existential crisis for small nonprofit organizations struggling to survive in a speculative real estate market and dependent on a donor class out of touch with the public purpose of these institutions since their inception: to foster critical art and ideas with no immediate market value in the ultra-luxury art economy.
No doubt, Common Practice expected a legible exhibition, a predetermined programming schedule, maybe some workshops or even town halls in the spirit of, say, Group Material — or even a dose of “institutional critique” directed at Artists Space itself. By bringing us in, however, they opened the door to grassroots movements connected to the following strands of struggle: Indigenous Struggle, Free Palestine, Black Liberation, Global Wage Workers, De-Gentrification, and many more. Decentering whiteness, rearranging power, repurposing infrastructure, we made Artists Space into a welcoming home for movement people to find one another, to grow, and to make an abundance of art and build local power.
Decolonize This Place was propelled by young artists and organizers of color whose most gratifying experience of creative work has been in the world of social and political organizing, far removed from the gallery-and-studio system they are trained to revere by instructors in the debt-fueled MFA programs. Why is this so important right now? Political and civil society elites failed to stop Donald Trump, and so it is obvious that the grassroots social movements, more than ever, will be needed to fight back against the attacks expected to come from his billionaire allies and his white nationalist supporters. Creative people, with creative ideas and actions, will play a decisive role in the struggles, and arts organizations should help them to do their work, by any means necessary.
Finally, we should note Decolonize This Place generated some institutional friction, both within Artists Space and Common Practice. Predictably, it was our concern with Palestinian freedom that proved most uncomfortable for certain actors involved in the process. We have found that no other issue is so threatening to the economy of arts institutions. Leaders of our progressive cultural institutions cower before the threat of being cut off by donors who will tolerate almost any other kind of artistic expression except speech that is critical of the Israeli Occupation. Donors and patrons who make these threats seldom pay a price. This should not be the case. Following in that spirit, we invite you, Incoming Director, to take steps toward breaking the artworld taboo against support for Palestinian rights by hosting a series of workshops and forums about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).
But BDS is just one example of the kind of decolonial struggle that is needed in this moment. Arts organizations that find themselves in the advance guard of gentrification, or with the evidence of displacement on their doorsteps, must learn how to conduct their business in open solidarity with the concerns of their host community. They should decide to turn their gallery space into a much-needed resource for community groups who are organizing against displacement, violence from police and Homeland Security, and who are working towards a non-predatory commons-based economy. They should seek advice on how to retire white, or male, privilege from their operational culture and payroll. And they should join forces with practitioners of movement art, not to exhibit them, but to advance our collective struggle against injustice and towards liberation.
These, and more, will be needed in the dark years to come. We do not believe that arts organizations have only a limited, and marginal, role to play. Independent of the academy and the publicly-funded cultural sector, they are in a unique position to host, sustain, and amplify the voices and creative energies of grassroots movement groups. Decolonize This Place has offered one version of this vision, but there are many others.