I want to talk about how politics happens in the back room.

A few months ago, via Facebook, I had a slightly strained conversation with the artist Nina Katchadourian about the exhibition of her ongoing project Monument to the Unelected at Pace Gallery. Katchadourian made some politely pointed messages in response to posts I (and others) had made regarding a piece I had written about the state of political wokeness evinced by the fall programs of a few blue chip galleries in New York City. The artist sought to make it clear to me that her art wasn’t just window dressing for a gallery (read: rapacious business) that was primarily interested (I thought and still think) in showing her work to make a jazz-hands show of caring about social inequity and the politics of representation. I respect Katchadourian and her work very much so I suggested that we have a conversation and thus not allow any animus to linger. We did speak and I conveyed to her that I sincerely hadn’t meant to dismiss her work or that show. We talked it out and initially thought we might find a way to have her write something about the piece that would have coincided with the then proposed theme of our Sunday edition (which was later changed). I was relieved that we spoke with each other kindly and attentively and I listened as much as I talked.

But the writing never happened. Bits and pieces of a puzzle were exchanged but never quite cohered. Then, several days later I read Ksenia M. Soboleva’s review of Katchadourian’s show where Soboleva wrote: “At Pace gallery, however, the installation is hidden away in the library, and even the gallery staff does not seem to be aware of its existence (I had to repeat myself several times before anyone understood what I was looking for).” Back I went to Facebook in a spritz of self-satisfaction to declare that I was not wrong in my initial assessment that “Katchadourian’s addition [to the Pace autumn program] was a business decision.” The artist didn’t respond to those posts.

It’s a shady sleight of hand for Pace to claim to have Katchadourian’s work on display while essentially keeping it hidden in a back room (which she may not have initially known given that she was in Europe when we spoke). With me Katchadourian gamely defended her gallery and her work, but in my estimation this work had been instrumentalized by the gallery to make it seem as if Pace is concerned about our mainstream political machinery, to make it seem that it is not a luxury boutique selling scaled-up bibelots for a very rarefied market. If the gallery really wanted to support the work they would have placed it where all visitors could see it.

The Whitney Museum of American Art also demonstrated it had read from this script when it sought in early autumn to instrumentalize the growing fervor in the arts community around issues of structural racism, equity, and social and economic justice. The museum had quickly cobbled together an exhibition Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In a Time of Change scheduling to open on September 17. It would have shown the work of almost 80 artists, their posters, prints, photographs, and digitized protest banners acquired through fundraisers for COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter-related causes. But then several of the artists got wind that the Whitney had purchased the work at concessionary prices, placed it in their collection without the artists permission, and did not plan to compensate the artists for their inclusion in exhibition. In the ensuing storm of unflattering press the museum pulled the show.

The above anecdotes give me a way in to talk meaningfully about what has changed and what hasn’t from my vantage at the intersection of the provinces of galleries, museums, and visual art, in this year of profound reckoning with our institutions. I think these stories are illustrative of the habitual practices, aspirations, cravings, and concerns that exist in their overlap on the Venn diagram, where I operate.

What is news is that this year, in many of these places, the back-of-house decisions, the small and obvious slights made by organizational leadership, the whispered rumors of harassment, intimidation, and reprisal have become occasions for analysis and investigation with the aim of rooting out the bad actors who have historically managed to keep the display space beautifully ordered while an intern is quietly sobbing in a back washroom.

There has been a wave. Several museums, galleries and arts organizations have had open letters sent to them alleging either misbehavior among leadership, the cultivating of a culture of white supremacy, or the mistreatment of employees, among them the Brooklyn Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, and Americans for the Arts. Many organizations compelled their leaders to resign after allegations of harassment or mistreatment of junior employees surfaced, including the Akron Art Museum in Ohio; the Guggenheim Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Some leaders were fired outright, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Erie Art Museum; American Museum of Natural History, Gagosian gallery. What’s more, junior employees have come to realize that they are stronger as a class, rather than as a collection of individuals and so have attempted to unionize at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and Maine’s Portland Museum of Art.

What has made this come about is at least partly the viral spread of the idea that sustained, intentional, strategic, mass action can actually effect political and social change. The massive protests brought thousands into the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several others, in some ways have demonstrated the truth of this idea. While police forces around the nation generally have yet to have their budgets seriously curtailed, we did manage to vote out the corrupt, racist, misogynist miscreant from the White House. The art scene wants to be relevant to these contentious arguments about policing, the rule of law, economic and social justice, political representation and equity — as it long has. Art has consistently sought to make itself part of the everyday lives of the general public. This remains the case.

What has changed is perhaps the awareness of those who labor within this space (in non-leadership positions), to now recognize that while the message of holding leadership accountable needs to be broadcast and promoted, PR campaigns almost always lack substance; that change, while desired, may be painful even for the well intentioned; that a few marquis hires or changes in policy won’t and can’t fundamentally change the makeup of senior staff and trustee boards; that BIPOC folks can also be just as committed to unjust social hierarchies that benefit them as anyone else; that profound social recalibration is not a sprint, but a marathon.

What may have changed is we within the art scene realizing the limits of symbolic action. This is the water we swim in: metaphor, symbol, allusion, allegory, representation. We love representation, the power of signifying, the incisiveness of well-argued critique. For us these tools are so robust that we come to imagine they are the demiurges of the world. They are not. And by themselves they won’t effect structural change. Representation alone will not save us.

What has changed is we might now recognize that we have to risk more than a bad review, or an angry letter, or being shunned at a social gathering. The protestors who made it clear that killing Black people without accountability risked more. They, along with credentialed reporters lost eyes, limbs, and their lives in the melees that sprouted in cities all over the nation. No great change in US American culture has ever come about without these losses. Perhaps we are beginning to grasp this.

But what remains the same is our difficulty with apprehending structural change. It’s not enough for an organization to rid itself of a harmful director; this, in and of itself is not enough to make an institution a healthy, enlivening place to work where every employee and volunteer is treated with dignity, respect, and fairness. To accomplish this we have to address the vision of the directors, the makeup of boards and of staff, hiring and promotion policies, compensation rates, disciplinary practices — all in transparent ways. When we talk about a workplace “culture” we are getting closer to understanding how structure works regardless of individual action or intent.

I had a conversation with the curator Jasmine Wahi several weeks ago, while visiting an exhibition. I said to her that I thought it was positive that we in the art scene had begun to hold institutions’ feet to the fire. She said that she thought it was good, “if we keep the same energy.” I suspect that will not be enough. I would add that we need to keep the awareness of the need for structural shifts and the willingness to risk more than we usually do. Can we do these things? I honestly don’t know.

Nina Katchadourian created a kind of memorial and touchstone whereby we can understand what active, engaged, enlightened citizenship looks like, because this is the opposite of pithy slogans. The cooption of her work also tells us what failure looks like when our art enterprises fail us in refusing to be transparent or live up to their own rhetoric. And it tells us that we can’t depend on marketing schemes or catch phrases. We have to dig in and do the long and arduous work in the trenches before we see dawn. We are living in war time, in days that are mostly night, and we can’t afford to pretend that the situation is otherwise. If enough us have the will and vision and genuine human generosity and do the work to make structural change in the art scene then perhaps what greets the next generation will be significantly better than what greeted me. I suggest we get to this work.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

One reply on “Representation Alone Will Not Save Us”

  1. As represented by the devastating death of Dr. Susan Moore, this is equally true for healthcare…and business: diversity must be more than simply an ethnic or cultural seat at the table, but the voice of diverse opinions and viewpoints being heard and represented in the subsequent decisions and actions of organizations and society. Respectability politics forces people to suppress their true selves to fit in in white society; white society seeks to sustain their control over the cultural (healthcare and business culture included) landscape and can’t make room for diversity of perspective. This severely limits equitable contribution at work and in our community, and we are the worst for it.

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