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Cultural Institutions Heed Calls to #OpenYourLobby to Black Lives Matter Protesters

This week, theaters across the nation began repurposing their spaces in support of protesters fighting anti-Black police violence. A few museums are joining. Will the rest of the art world step up?

The Studio Theatre in Washington, DC is among a number of performing arts organizations that are offering a safe space for protesters (photo by Leila Spolter, courtesy of Studio Theatre)

As protests against systemic racism and police killings of Black Americans continue nationwide, theaters in New York City and elsewhere began opening their doors to demonstrators looking for a safe haven. @OpenYourLobby, on Twitter and Instagram, is tracking those repurposing their spaces — including the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and the Atlantic Theater Company — to offer protesters a drink of water, their restrooms, WiFi, or simply shelter.

“NYC, we hear you,” read a post on the Public Theater’s Instagram stories Wednesday. “If you are heading out to protest today, our restrooms are open from 2pm to 6pm. We will have staff volunteers on hand to help facilitate social distancing.” Theaters elsewhere in the nation also heeded the call. In Washington, DC, the Studio Theatre opened to protesters yesterday, and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will be open from 12pm until an hour before curfew beginning today, Friday (June 5), through Sunday.

For over a week, the country has mourned and raged tirelessly over the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a group of former Minneapolis police officers. With some peaceful demonstrations taking a violent turn following escalations by law enforcement, and protesters and essential workers left stranded as curfews remain in place in cities like New York, the importance of safe spaces has been magnified.

The emergence of performing arts organizations among such spaces prompts questions about the role other cultural institutions will choose to play, including museums and galleries.

Starting today, the Brooklyn Museum lobby bathrooms will be open to protestors from 2-6pm, according to a post by Carmen Hermo, an associate curator at the museum. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City told Hyperallergic that it will be distributing water, snacks, and providing bathroom access from 5:30-7:30 pm today, in conjunction with the planned vigil in Court Square from 6-6:30 pm.

But a recent tour through Manhattan revealed some of its major galleries with boarded-up storefronts, and it remains to be seen whether other organizations will step up.

The Art Space Sanctuary project, started by Abou Farman in 2016, encourages organizations to become places of refuge. Among those that have declared themselves sanctuaries are the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Triple Canopy.

Farman, an assistant professor of anthropology at the New School, told Hyperallergic that the act of opening a public space in this moment is an important political action that can “go against the systems of real estate and other looters up top.” He cited the Poetry Project in the Lower East Side, which is offering a nightly sanctuary space for people protesting and leaving jail at its location in St. Mark’s Church. Still, he believes letting demonstrators in is only the beginning.

“There’s two pieces: there’s opening the lobby, and there’s also the larger project, which is defunding the police and reinvesting. That has to be part of the picture for these organizations,” said Farman. “It’s great to see them opening their doors and spaces. But the major arts organizations have a great responsibility, because inequality is concentrated so strongly in their boards and acquisitions and buildings, and the violence of that inequality is washed by art.”

Museums this week have come under scrutiny for not doing enough to support Black communities and, in some cases, for being complicit in the systems that oppress them. Under mounting pressure, they have begun taking action. Yesterday, the Walker Art Center issued a public statement cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department; the Minneapolis Institute of Art confirmed in an email that it too would stop contracting services from the agency.

“There’s a lot of declaration of support and words, but we want institutional positions to make concrete demands,” Farman added. “As civic institutions embedded in their cities it’s part of their responsibility — because when they need to call the police, to protect themselves and their boards, they do. In fact, the board members in places like MoMA/PS1 are heavily invested in security and prison companies.”

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