Opinion

A Curator Reflects on Exhibiting Police Violence in University Art Museums

The recent “pause” on American Monument at CSU Long Beach, evoked another exhibition about police violence that took place almost two decades ago at another university art museum.

lauren woods, “American Monument” Cal State University, Long Beach, September 17, 2018 (photo by Matt Stromberg)

When I learned of the dismissal of Kimberli Meyer, director of the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, on September 11, less than a week before the opening of lauren woods’ American Monument, an installation about police brutality, it struck a familiar chord.

The installation’s focal point is 25 turntables mounted on pedestals, each with a record that plays a variety of audio documentation about the violent deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers. Where audio was not available, the records are blank. The striking absence of visual representations of violence against Black bodies thoughtfully encourages greater concentration on the recorded content.

Meyer and woods worked collaboratively on the installation from its inception. It was the first project initiated by Meyer upon her arrival at the museum in 2016. In other words, until American Monument opened, the shows she mounted were already in the pipeline. While the university insists that the firing had nothing to do with the content of the installation, its timing, as woods aptly points out, is suspicious.

Eighteen years ago, at what was considered a progressive university in Connecticut, I experienced a related situation, not unlike that of Kimberli Meyer and lauren woods. Black and Blue: Examining Police Violence was scheduled to open Friday evening, October 20, 2000, at the beginning of Homecoming and Parents Weekend.  

The then president of the university and the director of the Office of University Relations requested, not long before Black and Blue would open, that the public opening be moved to a different weekend when it “wouldn’t jeopardize the launching of a capital campaign.” Or, to move the reception to Sunday afternoon of that weekend when, they implied, many parents and alumni would have already left the campus. That Sunday, October 22, also happened to be the annual National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Attention was not drawn to this wonderfully ironic coincidence, and the show opened on Sunday.

While Black and Blue was still being organized, a grant of $2,000 from the university’s Affirmative Action Office, along with its enthusiastic co-sponsorship, was withdrawn at the insistence of the president. The press release, a letter requesting financial assistance from a well-known private arts foundation, and other text about the project were wordsmithed by the administration in an effort to defuse their political content and emphasize that, above all, it was an art exhibition. Sound familiar?

Included in Black and Blue: Examining Police Violence, 2000 (curated by Nina Felshin). This work was to be featured on the exhibition announcement card. Instead, the administration insisted that only text be used. Never before—or subsequently—had the university intervened in a matter that was the domain of the curator and graphic designer.  Dread Scott, “Turn of the Century” (1999), inkjet print (photo courtesy of Dread Scott)

A panel was organized that included Jill Nelson, editor of the anthology Police Brutality (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000) and a professor of journalism at CCNY at the time; Patricia J. Williams, professor of law at Columbia University and a proponent of critical race theory; and two artists in the show: Pat Ward Williams, whose installation Move? (1989-2000) is about the 1985 military-style police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, and Dread Scott, who was represented by an installation Historic Corrections (1998) and an inkjet print Turn of the Century (1999). As with every aspect of this show, which was not the case with any others, the panel had to be approved by the administration. The university provost insisted that “the other side must be represented.” In the end, the panel was composed exclusively of artists in the show. Patricia Williams and Jill Nelson had to be disinvited.

In addition, every work in the show was run by the local police department for its approval. There were no objections, despite the department’s history of profiling Black students, a fact that was marked that Sunday, October 22  by a 200-strong, student-organized march from the gallery to police headquarters for a rally.

After all these attempts to undermine it, the show opened intact.  

As the curator of Black and Blue, I feel deep solidarity with Kimberli and lauren. Thank you, Kimberli, for selecting an artist whose vision you believed in and for presenting what from a distance, sounds like a powerful installation; and you, lauren for conceiving American Monument, with its unique approach to race-based police violence and for the pause you insisted on in deference to your “collaborator.” I admire your supportive working relationship and hope that woods’ eloquent response to Meyer’s unexplained dismissal signals a new chapter in your creative collaboration. And, very importantly, that this incident leads to increased dialogue about police violence, creative and legal challenges to it, and the power of art to raise consciousness about critical issues.

Nina Felshin curated Black and Blue: Examining Police Violence. She is a curator, writer, and activist.

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