Opinion

Amid Historic Black Lives Matter Protests, One Museum’s Call for a “Nonpartisan Approach” Disappoints

“Let me reemphasize this point: the Toledo Museum of Art does not have a political stance,” director Adam Levine wrote, prompting criticism. But oppression is not a question of political ideology, it is factual.

The Toledo Museum of Art (photo by Wpktsfs via Wikimedia Commons)

The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in Ohio is one of the latest institutions to draw criticism for its response to the nationwide protests against anti-Black police violence and systemic racism. In a polemical statement released earlier this week, TMA director Adam Levine expressed political neutrality, arguing that museums must remain unbiased and lamenting that “we are living in a moment where virtually everything becomes politicized.”

“Let me reemphasize this point: the Toledo Museum of Art does not have a political stance,” wrote Levine. “We exist to provide access to the highest quality works of art from across time and space to anyone, regardless of their beliefs or their appearance. These are not empty words; this nonpartisan and disinterested approach is baked into our institutional DNA.” Levine then cited the museum’s statement of purpose, which says it “recognizes neither class, creed, color, nor condition.”

While acknowledging and condemning the “deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery” and the “unconscionable homicides that disproportionately target people of color,” Levine goes on to emphasize the importance of “retaining a nonpartisan stance.”

The statement swiftly prompted concern on social media. In a nation where Black people are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, such declarations of neutrality are dangerous, some critics suggested.

“I cannot believe we have people running major organizations who don’t understand that not taking a stance is the most privileged, harmful choice you could make,” said one Twitter user.

Historians, critics, and other cultural figures have long pointed to the problematics of institutions’ claims of neutrality. Notably, in 2017, curator and cultural organizer La Tanya S. Autry and museum educator Mike Murawski started the hashtag and fundraising campaign #MuseumsAreNotNeutral to expose the fallacies inherent in such claims and support social justice initiatives.

“For the most part, museums are products and projects of colonialism. Because the origins and evolving practices of the construct stem from and perpetuate conquest, they are by nature not ‘neutral,'” Autry told the journal Panorama in a 2019 interview.

The TMA’s statement and Levine’s insistence on a “disinterested approach” read as a glaring example of an institution attempting to remain neutral, even more conspicuously so because it is doing so at a historic moment in the battle for racial equity. But further along in the text, Levine anticipated the accusations he was nevertheless met with in a befuddling admission that, indeed, “museums are not neutral”:

They never have been and they never will be. We choose what content we display either in our galleries (i.e., we choose what we acquire and/or exhibit) and in our programs, and those choices, which are literally ‘curated,’ manifest an institutional ‘agenda’ — what we call a strategic plan. However, simply because you are not neutral does not mean you cannot be balanced or, to use another word, ‘objective.’

The museum’s role, Levine said, is to “bring people together and educate,” and adopting a political position poses a risk to creating a more civil society. His argument seems to be that taking sides could alienate people of certain ideologies — perhaps, if we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, he means the very ideologies we need to challenge.

The problem, however, is that the brutal violence toward Black bodies exhibited by police, vigilantes, and other members of a primarily white system of oppression is not a question of political ideology: it is factual. To imply otherwise is not simply an act of silence, which many institutions have also been criticized for, but one of denial. It could be interpreted as negating the loss of tangible human lives.

“To @ToledoMuseum. It wasn’t political when y’all profited off Kehinde Wiley,” said another Twitter user, likely citing the museum’s 2017 solo exhibition of the African American artist, which it said “explores ideas of race, gender and the politics of representation.

In a follow-up statement published this morning titled “Prioritizing Actions Over Words,” the museum outlined the measures it plans to take in order to “advance diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.” These include hosting unconscious bias training for staff; ensuring more diversity in its collecting activities; prioritizing outreach to Black leaders; and changing its recruitment practices to diversify its applicant pool. 

Along with these physical actions, the museum is also planning a symbolic one: hanging a banner of artist Alison Saar’s print “High Yella’ Blue” (2016), spanning three columns, outside its building. (A retrospective of the artist’s work, Mirror, Mirror: The Prints of Alison Saar, was meant to open in April but postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus.)

These promises make Levine’s vehement case for a non-political approach to museums — left unaddressed in the later statement — all the more puzzling. It is also in this second statement that the museum refers to Black people and Black Lives Matter, while references to either do not appear in the initial post.

In his description of “High Yella’ Blue,” Levine quotes a description by Robin Reisenfeld, the museum’s senior curator of works on paper: “In this piece Saar creates an ‘everywoman’ generic face with tears running down her cheeks to indicate that grief is a commonly shared emotion.”

But Saar’s weeping female figure is unlikely to represent the “everywoman.” The term “high yellow,” describing a light-complexioned person of African descent, dates back to the 19th century and denotes social stratifications among Black populations based on skin color. It’s unclear whether Reisenfeld provided this context in the rest of the description, as Levine does not link to the text he quotes, but it is notable that he did not decide to offer it himself.

The TMA’s verbal commitment to diversifying its staff and collections and engaging the Black community — which makes up 27% of Toledo’s population — is an encouraging first step. However, this museum director’s impassioned calls for “objectivity” caused pain and outrage; it must address those effects and do better, and other institutions should follow suit.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Levine emphasized his assertions that “museums are not neutral” and pointed to TMA’s diversity, equity, and inclusion plans, mentioned above.

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