Isadora Noe Freeman and Mary Christiana Freeman (c. 1859) (photo via the Library of Congress)

I frequently say that I entered the art museum, and the curatorial profession in general, through the back door when no one was looking. It was like I came through the service entrance and got intimately acquainted with the field’s colonial foundations and mechanisms well before I knew what the galleries looked like. Thus, I do my best to employ curatorial approaches that will force institutions to develop new infrastructures. This grew from my upbringing in Black feminist and Black working-class ways of knowing that taught me how to employ my being as a disruption and how to utilize my personal and cultural biographies as a form of knowledge. 

Over time, I learned that traditional art museums were never going to substantially support this type of work. However, I knew BIPOC curators, scholars, activists, and artists who were carrying it out; I knew that so many more before us had developed detailed instructions, and I knew that the vast majority of museum professionals wanted to learn. So, last year I developed a graduate curriculum that teaches museum professionals how to apply anti-racist frameworks to their basic job functions. I call it the blast work and I’m frequently analyzing museums across the United States for projects that can blow holes in traditional museum practices and typical approaches to permanent collections. 

Consider American portraiture. Most major encyclopedic institutions in the US hold significant works by artists like Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Charles Willson Peale, and the list goes on. But the history of American portraiture gets much more interesting and accessible when you consider that from 100–800 CE the Moche fashioned beautiful vessels in their own likenesses. They were one of the earliest cultures in the Americas to perfect realist portraiture and produce it in large quantities. Almost a thousand years later, Phillis Wheatley’s portrait appeared on the frontispiece of her 1773 book — the first published book of poems ever written by a Black woman. In the early 19th century, Joshua Johnson was a popular American portraitist in the Baltimore region. And from the 1850s to the Depression era, Black men and women across the US prioritized self-authored visual presentation, particularly through photography. 

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773) (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

So, what if a Black literary theme replaced the typical chronological presentation of early American portraiture? What if museum visitors were introduced to American portraiture through a permanent collection gallery grounded by Toni Morrison’s line, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself”? Taken from her 1973 novel Sula, the quote pertains to the protagonist’s journey to self-awareness and self-autonomy. How appropriate and central are these ideas to American portraiture? How important has self-image been to our individual processes of knowledge production? More so, what different forms of knowledge are produced when Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx histories are prioritized in a visual presentation of American portraiture, especially considering the fact that White American forms of self-representation have often necessitated, and then subsequently facilitated, sexist, racist, and frequently violent re-makings of everybody else? Lastly, how can we exhibit American portraiture to explore how definitions of self-autonomy, self-fashioning, and self-awareness have changed over time? 

A reinstallation like this could revolutionize the presentation of American portraiture, creating numerous opportunities for institutions to explore issues including:

1.) Power: Using colonial and antebellum portraits of White sitters, most art museums could engage how traditional American portraiture was a visual representation of both the political and socioeconomic dominance of colonial settlers, plantation owners, and Whites who garnered their wealth from the country’s slave economy. 

Presenting this narrative through permanent collection objects provides an entry point for staff and leadership to unpack an institution’s history as a settler-colonial entity. Using Diana Greenwald and Nika Elder’s study of John Singleton Copley’s sitters as a model, organizational excavation could probe institutional budgets and discern how grant, gift, and endowment funds are bolstering discriminatory policies. This is how museums can utilize employee feedback data, their permanent collections, and groundbreaking art historical scholarship to pinpoint the specific ways that BIPOC low-wage labor, BIPOC commissions, and BIPOC acquisitions are converted frequently into financial capital for White museum leaders and cultural capital for primarily White audiences. It’s time to move away from hiring DEI firms that facilitate generic corporate approaches to equity and inclusion. We must start employing our collections and the analytical models that scholars have tailored specifically for developing anti-racist cultures within the visual arts and the organizations that house them.

Jonathan Christensen Caballero, “Seeds of Tomorrow/Semillas del Mañana” (2022), earthenware, secondhand fiber, gold luster, steel, wood, 77 inches x 61 1/2 inches x 57 inches (photo by Mariah Seifert, courtesy the artist)

2.) Shared Traditions: Using daguerreotypes of African Americans and Moche portrait vessels, a gallery could demonstrate that, almost 2000 years apart, Blacks used items of self-representation in a similar fashion as the Moche.

Using objects to explore similarities between African American and Moche ways of sharing could be a way for museums to dismantle departmental silos. By unpacking internal procedures to find points of intersection, similarity, and opportunities for new pathways to interdepartmental collaboration, museums may discover, for instance, that departmental practices in development are much more aligned with registration and public programs than curatorial. This could prompt questions like: in what ways can a registrar’s expertise help development refine fundraising practices? Or, in what ways can departmental strategies for community building in public programs help expand donor demographics beyond those with high financial capacity? During my time at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, we implemented this type of interdepartmental collaboration through a core team model, where major projects were conceptualized and reviewed by a core team comprised of staff from all museum departments. Working this way democratized our proposal process, but most essentially ensured that our projects both represented and included the communities we valued despite dire institutional barriers.

This type of internal relationship building should also compel institutions with Native, Indigenous, and pre-Columbian collections to commit to responsible repatriation and restitution of every object that should be given back. The first step in genuinely respecting Indigenous communities is to return their stolen cultural property, not to deliver a performative land acknowledgement. Imagine what the field would look like today if the total number of art museums that developed land acknowledgements between 2018 and 202o actually returned just one object instead? Such an act would have required art institutions to care more about what actual Native peoples have been saying for decades, rather than the verbiage of their institution’s public-facing narrative.

Joshua Johnson, “Portrait of a Man (Abner Coker)” (c. 1805–10), oil on canvas, 27 7/8 inches x 22 inches (photo via Bowdoin College Museum of Art)  

3.) Contemporary Manifestations: To demonstrate just how common the practice of self-representation has been throughout history, a gallery could install portraits from various cultures to show that humans (not just BIPOC) have always enjoyed seeing themselves. An installation of portraits representing myriad cultures would provide an opportunity to diminish the divisions between collection areas. It could also allow for an exploration of contemporary forms of self-representation in ways that encourage visitors to physically engage the gallery’s theme by actually taking selfies. And, it could include works by Jonathan Christensen Caballero, Kukuli Velarde, and many others to demonstrate the ways in which Moche portrait techniques and other ancient Indigenous artistic practices are alive and well in contemporary Latinx art. This is an accessible way to engage innovative technologies in museum display, and to explore virtual options for gallery interactives. This is also a more responsible way to show contemporary art in a historical American gallery without putting it on corrective duty. Museums have to stop displaying BIPOC contemporary art, artists, and curators as detours around investing in professional development that trains all museum staff in how to engage and interpret historical American and European work through more critical and relevant frameworks. 

As Kajette Solomon, Museum SEI Program Specialist at RISD, frequently says, “People comprise institutions.” This means that the art museum, its colonial foundations, and discriminatory culture are not haphazard byproducts of history; rather, our conscious decisions create that reality. Now, we have to become learned in and respectful of ways of knowing that center BIPOC culture, humanity, and experience. We also have to know how to analyze our institutions’ functionality for spaces of disruption and make the conscious decision to change how we operate. We have to acknowledge that history is comprised of innumerable experiences happening simultaneously, and that we know enough now to take better responsibility for our institutions’ role in it. 

Artist once known, Moche culture, (100 BCE–500 CE) ceramic and painted earthenware (photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (photo Kelli Morgan/Hyperallergic)

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers. Register here for Dr. Morgan’s virtual event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Wednesday, March 15 at 6pm (EDT).

Dr. Kelli Morgan is a Professor of the Practice and the inaugural Director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University. A curator, educator, and social justice activist who specializes in American art and...

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