At the beginning of June, in response to the belated solidarity posts released by museums and cultural institutions following the massive protests against anti-Blackness and systemic racism, curator and writer Yesomi Umolu shared “14 Points on the Limits of Knowledge and Care” on her Instagram account. These reflections gestured toward conversations that have rattled art and cultural workers for years — namely, the continual refusal of the museum to acknowledge its imperial history and function. The museum prefers to present itself as neutral and benevolent, a public space offering both respite and cultural authority. But, as with most institutions, it is and has been intimately wrapped up in harm.
“The conditions of collecting upon which museums were founded are inextricably linked to colonial violence enacted on the other — non-western bodies, spaces, and societies,” writes Umolu. Amidst pressure to decolonize and rebuild our institutions and personal relationships, she wonders, “what does this look like in practice” for museums and art spaces?
Umolu’s question echoes another asked by writer, curator, and activist Kimberly Drew: What should a museum look like in 2020? I held both questions close while reading Drew’s debut book, This Is What I Know About Art. The slim text is part of the Pocket Change Collective series, which publishes work by leading activists and artists for a teen audience. Drew charts her personal journey towards and beyond the art world, using her own fumbles and triumphs as a frame in which to examine the symbiotic relationship between art and activism. Beginning with her undergrad years at Smith College and ending with her decision to leave her position as the social media manager of Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, the book organizes itself around formative moments in Drew’s career. If you’ve been following the social media phenom since the 2011 launch of her popular Tumblr blog, Black Contemporary Art, then you may already be familiar with the outlines of Drew’s trajectory. For young people curious about the intersections of art, resistance, and self-power, this book serves as a generous guide.
Drew sprints through lessons learned at various institutions: Smith College, Creative Time, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Met. A revelatory, paid internship at the Studio Museum introduces her to artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lorna Simpson, and Glenn Ligon — a stark contrast to the whitewashed art history courses she took during her last years at Smith. She challenges that lack through her blog, which became her way “to resist the erasure of Black artists.” A string of post-graduate jobs deepened her commitment to physical accessibility and community accountability. Still, a tension emerged between her vision of what the museum could be and the museum as it is, stubborn and reluctant to change. Drew alchemized her frustration into projects and initiatives meant to disrupt the boundaries imposed by art institutions on cultural production. She turned her own Instagram account into a roving gallery, documenting as many free shows as possible in an effort to demystify the art world to those excluded from its processes. The book is a brief tribute to the limits of institutions, leaving readers to ponder (and hopefully activate) the question: how to transform museums into arbiters of care?
This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew is published by Penguin Random House and is available online and at indie bookstores.
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Dear Allison Conner,
You write: “These reflections gestured toward conversations that have rattled art and cultural workers for years — namely, the continual refusal of the museum to acknowledge its imperial history and function. The museum prefers to present itself as neutral and benevolent, a public space offering both respite and cultural authority.” But there is no “the museum” that exists except as a theoretical object.
Certainly, a few museums have acknowledged their imperial histories, and some have presented themselves as other than neutral. My question how would “the museum” go about addressing these issues that you (rightly) insist need to be addressed? Is this even possible? Do you know how many different kinds of museums there are and the different communities they serve? Is it even meaningful to talk about “the museum”?
This generalized institutional critique doesn’t do your argument justice.
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