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On Sunday, April 29, dozens of protesters occupied the Beaux-Arts Court at the Brooklyn Museum as they reiterated demands for a decolonization commission, about which the art institution has remained silent. The calls for the commission come after the criticisms that followed the appointment of two white curators to the museum, including in the field of African art.
Protesters from 20 grassroots groups, including the American Indian Community House — the latest organization to join a broad coalition pressuring the museum to create a decolonization commission — descended on the large Beaux-Arts Court. The protesters dropped three banners, held up signs, and invited the people who’d gathered to speak. Jive Poetic from the Insurgent Poets Society read a spoken word poem that addressed gentrification in Brooklyn (the poem was recorded by Hyperallergic and it is posted in the video below).
Artist Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx was one of the protest organizers and helped lead the event. During the rally, protesters reiterated their list of demands, including “deep diversification” of museum staff, the removal of Board President David Berliner (who is connected to many real estate interests), a commitment from the museum to mitigate gentrification, and an acknowledgement of the full history of the museum’s holdings while including a land acknowledgement that would highlight the fact that the institution was built on indigenous land.
“The museum wants our art, our culture, but not our people,” Rodriguez said during the gathering, echoing the beliefs of many critics of the museum, namely that art institutions want art by people of color but not their bodies speaking out or claiming space in the institution.
Artist Alicia Grullón spoke about her own difficult role as an artist invited to be part of the Radical Women programming at the museum and someone passionate about fighting gentrification. She cited a number of the Latina artists in the major exhibition currently at the museum who had their own contentious relationship to museums.
“They saw the contradiction of museums as rational public spaces when the world outside was anything but. They understood we are all still colonized in our minds and imaginations,” she said. “We are still undergoing the process of becoming human … art only gets better when people are valued.”
After Grullón’s passionate words, Rodriguez added: “Exhibitions are great but they are only cosmetic solidarity, it is about changing the day to day functioning of this museum … it is about acknowledging what is beyond the grounds and the power structures this organization coddles, and [how it] effects the communities around the museum.”
“We must understand gentrification for what it is, it is modern day colonialism,” Michael Higgins of Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) said at the rally.
Sunday’s protest was the latest effort to bring the Brooklyn Museum and the neighboring Brooklyn Botanic Garden to the table to discuss issues of anti-gentrification and decolonization, while working to ensure that the institutions play positive roles in reflecting and protecting the diversity of the surrounding neighborhoods. Protesters were also concerned about the rezoning of areas around Prospect Park that would allow developers to build beyond the six- or seven-story height currently allowed in order to accommodate high-rise development.
At the rally in the museum, a number of protesters were confronted by museum guards and they agreed to slowly lead the protest out to the museum’s main entrance on Eastern Parkway. Outside, the banners and signs attracted the attention of passersby, many of whom took the time to read flyers handed out by the activists.
One local resident named Laura, who lives in Park Slope, said she was attracted to the action, but she was surprised this was her first time hearing about the issues. “The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is so vital to the neighborhood and anything developed around it should be mindful of that, so I really want to learn more about the issue,” she told Hyperallergic.
Other passersby reiterated their concern about the issues, but many refused to comment, saying they were still learning about all the issues being discussed.
After a brief rally in front of the museum, protesters walked to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden entrance nearby on Eastern Parkway to raise awareness among visitors to the annual cheery blossom festival.
Following the protest, Hyperallergic was told by Movement to Protect the People that a representative of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden agreed to a future meeting with the group to discuss the issue.
Hyperallergic reached out to the Brooklyn Museum for comment, and we will update this post when a statement is made available.