The weekend after Donald Trump was elected President, the Queens Museum held its regular family workshops, which, according to then-executive director and president Laura Raicovich, normally attract between 40 and 50 families. That November weekend, only three families showed up.
“People stopped leaving their homes, their lives had been disrupted,” Raicovich told a packed audience Thursday night at “Toward Sanctuary Summits,” a panel discussion convened by the New School’s Vera List Center for Arts and Politics on the role of cultural institutions as both figurative and actual sanctuaries for immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, in the age of President Trump. Raicovich was joined by Tom Finkelpearl, the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) — an early architect of IDNYC, the New York City identification card that serves as a form of identification for any New Yorker, regardless or their immigration status — and artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, one of the initiators of Philadelphia Assembled, an exhibition and series of public events that took place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last fall.
The discussion’s co-moderator Carin Kuoni, the director and chief curator of the Vera List Center, began the conversation by emphasizing that “we are all newcomers, immigrants, we arrived here on land that belonged to someone else.” Fellow moderator Alexandra Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at the New School, discussed the history of the sanctuary movement in the context of the rights of undocumented immigrants. It was churches that first agreed to house undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Central America, in the 1970s and 1980s, not allowing immigration police to enter without a warrant, and declining to disclose any identifying information.
Panelists debated whether cultural institutions should provide the same level of protection against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) houses of worship. Attendees hoping for a simple 10-point plan for how museums can protect undocumented immigrants may have left disappointed at the ratio of questions raised to questions answered. In addition, anyone who attended looking for answers or a comment on whether Raicovich’s increased focus on immigration activism following Trump’s election contributed to her resignation from the Queens Museums would have been disappointed; she did, however, mention briefly that the Queens Museum’s board seemed less inclined toward expanding their existing community programs than she was.
Nevertheless, the event was a rare, raw opportunity to watch an artist, a curator, and a government official grapple with what the concept of a sanctuary offers in terms of practical benefits for visitors to cultural institutions and whether the term “sanctuary” should be used at all. Or perhaps, as both Kuoni, Alonso, and Finkelpearl argued, the concept of sanctuary is too imprecise and unstandardized when it comes to both cities and to schools. As the DCA commissioner noted, the term may over-promise what an institution can do to protect populations seeking protection from detention and deportation.
Finkelpearl discussed the role of cultural institutions in the successful implementation of the IDNYC card. The goal of the program was to “create an ID card that could solve problems locally between our undocumented sisters and brothers and police.” In order for the program to work, however, it couldn’t rely on undocumented New Yorkers alone. It needed citizens and green card holders and permanent residents alike to obtain one. That’s where the museums came in.
Finkelpearl described the process of enlisting more than 30 of the city’s most popular cultural institutions — from the Metropolitan Museum to the Bronx Zoo to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens — to offer discounts and other benefits for IDNYC cardholders. He believes that these places “de-stigmatized the card,” and increased membership. “We promised 200,000,” he said, but now “a million New Yorkers have the card.” According to official data, 77% of immigrants surveyed said the card increased their sense of belonging to the City. Still, Finkelpearl was reluctant to call cultural institutions “sanctuaries,” either for their participation in the program or in terms of their ability to protect undocumented immigrants in general. “I’m worried that if you say sanctuary, people will feel comfortable in a way that is not accurate,” he added.
While some saw the ambiguity of the term “sanctuary” as a problem, van Heeswijk embraced it in her work organizing Philadelphia Assembled, a partnership between multiple community-based organizations, artists, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It was very clear to me that there is not one definition of sanctuary,” van Heeswijk said. Participants met in homes, offices, and gardens to discuss how to create community in the midst of a rapidly changing and gentrifying city. Those discussions led to a variety of exhibitions, workshops, and installations like the Sanctuary Dome, a mobile pavilion where, for 14 hours a day over three weeks, the public could come visit a structure in Center City Philadelphia to talk to museum staff, to artists, and to members of various community organizations.
“From the very beginning,” van Heeswijk said, “we focused on transparency and effective allyship, especially around power and money … subsidizing transportation costs for meeting attendees who couldn’t afford it, and providing food and childcare.” After the practical concerns were addressed, she added, artists were in a unique position to use creativity for a purpose, employing “imagination as a collective exercise of care.”
At Philadelphia Assembled, the community always took the lead, according to van Heeswijk, which meant that organizers had to learn to be flexible. This included canceling or reconfiguring events they were initially excited about, like one they dubbed an “ICE breaker” dance party, during which organizers — who had been warned of a potential ICE raid — planned to dance as a form of resistance. What had started as an act of creative defiance began to feel problematic, van Heeswijk recalled, and at the request of the immigrant advocacy organizations involved, Philadelphia Assembled canceled the event.
If there were concrete takeaways from Thursday’s event, which grappled with complex issues and ambiguous terms, they were the need for greater flexibility, for cultural institutions to take the lead on behalf of local communities, and to remain flexible enough to change plans and tactics when necessary. As Raicovich emphasized, for both the Queens Museum’s audience and some of its staff, the threats of discrimination and deportation are not abstractions, but very real dangers. Whether or not cultural institutions are comfortable using the term “sanctuary,” the communities they serve may still demand it, and the institutions need to be ready.
“Cultural institutions use a lot of awesome words to describe where they are,” Raicovich said, “but when you look at [ their actions], there’s a misalignment.” She added: “If culture can’t lead, who can?”
The keynote conversation of “Toward Sanctuary Summits” took place on Thursday, February 15 at the New School in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.