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The memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis is constantly changing. In the days following Floyd’s murder by the police, street art, flowers, handwritten notes, and more appeared outside the now-infamous Cup Foods. Todd Lawrence, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, told me that since then, “It has become a living space,” as new artistic additions have been incorporated. This state of flux characterizes much of Minneapolis’s street art scene in the wake of recent protests. While some of the murals and installations will likely remain, many have already been removed. The ownership of the physical art is contentious; some residents desperately want it to stay in the community, while others have held auctions and indicated an interest in donating the pieces to museums. As residents decide what to do, a University of St. Thomas research project provides a different option.
The university’s Urban Art Mapping George Floyd & Anti-Racist Street Art database is a publicly accessible digital catalog of street art around the world made in response to the past few months of Black Lives Matter protests. Although it primarily features work from Minnesota, it has steadily expanded with every new submission. The project began out of a desire to preserve a wide range of art, from simple graffiti tags to commissioned murals, acknowledging locations, artist permissions, and the ever-evolving art in different neighborhoods. Since the project started in early June, it has received almost 1,000 submissions.
The research team also seeks to document the changes that have been made to the art, like the ways Floyd’s memorial has transformed. By including pictures of pieces at different points in time, they hope to capture their ephemeral nature. “Walls speak,” says Lawrence, who is involved with the project. “What’s on the walls is an expression of people’s feelings, people’s response to what’s happening at any given moment. Time affects how these messages get expressed.” Beyond the memorial, Lawrence, along with Paul Lorah and Heather Shirey, have watched and recorded as new pieces have replaced older ones. In one poignant example, a graffiti tag of Floyd’s name is slightly covered by a mural of a raised and illuminated fist.
The project can also be an educational alternative to traditional galleries and museums amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As they begin to craft lesson plans for their own students, Lawrence and Shirey told me they are looking to the database as a teaching tool. For her art history class, Shirey had previously sent students to nearby museums and well-known street art. Now, the beginning of her course will focus on learning from the database instead.
The Urban Art project isn’t the only attempt at publicizing and digitizing protest art. Recently, Rukeko Hockley, an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, put on a virtual exhibit of Black protest art in partnership with Instagram for Juneteenth. The show highlighted both historic and recent work from artists such as Alexandra Bowman, Melissa Koby, and Nikkolas Smith. But for many Minneapolis residents, the question of who gets to collect the physical art persists. “Within the Twin Cities,” Lawrence says, “there’s a kind of tension and struggle about who gets to be in control of [the art], what happens, where it goes, how it’s preserved, and how it’s going to be displayed.”
These conversations are happening around the world as well. In recent weeks, the British Museum was admonished over its statement of support for Black Lives Matter by critics who don’t believe the institution has engaged enough in anti-colonial work. Other museums have struggled with showing their support for BLM as well, from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Museums are really built on a foundation of colonialism and therefore white supremacy,” says Jami Powell, associate curator of Native American art at the Hood Museum and lecturer in the Native American studies department at Dartmouth College. “In some ways,” she adds, “museums will never fulfill the goal of being equitable.”
With these issues in mind, the database seeks to provide a community-centric alternative. If one were to call their project a museum, Lawrence says, “it would be a museum that has a whole lot of curators.” Much of the database is crowdsourced. The images also aren’t at risk of disappearing or being stored in a museum basement. “We don’t have that problem, since we have an infinite space to collect these records,” Shirey says.
This news is gratifying to some artists in the area. Reggie LeFlore, a visual artist and muralist in Minneapolis, thinks the future of the art created over the last months should be decided by the artists themselves. While he hopes that his physical work stays local, he’s open to the idea of digital preservation: “Putting [the art] in a gallery space isn’t going to help the injustice that happened … if they go to a museum, that’s where they’ll die.”
“There are, of course, lots of complications with making a digital archive too,” adds Shirey. Although they are trying to include as many pieces as possible, the researchers are cognizant of not using pictures of artists, children, or home addresses. They also monitor the quality of the images, as well as pieces they want to add from cities that haven’t had any submissions yet. “We always need more images,” Lawrence says.
Even with all of these considerations, the virtual museum is expansive. “This database will serve as a resource to show people that there was this powerful movement and an articulation of anti-racist messages and art that came out of this movement,” Lawrence continues. “People can try to paint over and wash it off, but we hope that because of our database, it can’t be washed over completely.”