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.
HEY @ToledoMuseum — I LOVE YOU BUT YOU MUST EITHER THINK WE’RE IDIOTS OR YOU MUST NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. I *CANNOT* BELIEVE WE HAVE PEOPLE RUNNING MAJOR ORGS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT NOT TAKING A STANCE IS THE MOST PRIVELEGED, HARMFUL CHOICE YOU COULD MAKE. pic.twitter.com/RQrL4Pw4rt
— Haikoo (@haikavanian) June 5, 2020
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.”
To @ToledoMuseum. It wasn’t political when y’all profited off Kehinde Wiley. pic.twitter.com/BHMzo38mat
— Nelly (@janellenunnally) June 5, 2020
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.
Memories So Fair and Bright
Kimetha Vanderveen’s paintings are about the interaction of materiality and light, the bond between the palpable and ephemeral world in which we live.
Artists Contemplate Sovereignty in Santa Fe
The Santa Fe Art Institute’s 2024 International Thematic Residency focuses on what sovereignty means for artists from across the world.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
How Did Early Modern European Craftspeople Pass On Their Knowledge?
A new book about object making critically examines a written history of working with materials.
Dual Portrait of Old Master Rachel Ruysch Holds a Trove of Secrets
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just acquired the rare painting, which depicts the Dutch artist at work surrounded by her signature flora.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Did Van Gogh’s Disdain for the Eiffel Tower Inspire “Starry Night”?
Art historian James Hall argues that van Gogh replaced the Eiffel Tower with a towering cypress tree and its inaugural light shows with the night sky.
Greek Museum Welcomes Dogs For World Stray Animal Day
Furry friends and their pawrents can visit Athens’s National Museum of Contemporary Art for free this weekend.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Ai Weiwei Recreates Monet’s “Water Lilies” Using 650,000 LEGOS
It’s the artist’s largest LEGO artwork to date.
Did a Simpsons Episode Predict the Florida “David” Outrage?
The episode, which aired 30 years ago, made a dark prediction about conservative politics in 2023.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms
As part of Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, Sadaf Padder presents an exhibition to offer insight into her curatorial process.
I’m a Florida Drag Queen and I’m Scared
I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.
Very brave and commendable for this museum to take a stand when so many institutions are terrified by the bullying of a tiny minority of racists. Pandering and appeasement will not satisfy professional activitists who live only to destroy.
Comments are closed.