To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy in Art Museums Today
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Angela Davis, 2014
I feel like I’ve started and stopped this essay at least a hundred times over the last three months. The year 2020 has been tumultuous for the majority of Americans, with the onset of the pandemic and the surge in global civil unrest in response to America’s blatant disregard for Black lives. As the video of George Floyd’s heinous murder emerged, along with calls for greater visibility about the killing of Breonna Taylor and the beating of Iyanna Dior, people all around the world took to the streets. If white folks and governments will not do what it takes to dismantle white supremacy once and for all, we will tear it all down. Racist monuments around the country have been torn down at a rapid pace, and museums need to be next.
While the United States is a nation conceived and constructed by people of different races, genders, and ethnicities, the foundations of our society have always turned on the axis of systemic white supremacy. It is no coincidence, then, that for over two centuries the traditional art-historical narrative in this country has remained predominantly Eurocentric and male in nearly every major museum. It follows that only 4% of the positions outside service and security in US art museums are held by Black professionals. As justified as we are in our current anger against other traditionally white supremacist institutions, we should not be shocked by the disingenuous statements of solidarity that have flooded social media and museum websites in the last few weeks in “support” of Black lives. Many of these statements were bolstered by the images of work by Black artists without proper permission, or read as flagrant hypocrisy in the face of deliberate institutional obstruction, hostility, and erasure of Black curators and employees. The reasoning behind such egregious and uncaring acts by art museums has always been very simple—it’s purposeful.
We know very well that art museums are some of the strongest cultural bastions of western colonization. Through very deliberate racist and sexist practices of acquisition, deaccession, exhibition, and art-historical analysis, museums have decisively produced the very state of exclusion that publicly engaged art historians and curators (including myself) are currently working hard to dismantle. What we do not speak honestly enough about are the very distinct ways in which racism and sexism are utilized to traumatize us and oftentimes undermine our work—the very work that our respective institutions claim they want—and often recruit us to do.
Recently, I participated in a Zoom call with tens of Black curators from around the world, with representatives from small institutions to some of the largest and most popular museums, as well as independent curators. It was absolutely amazing to see so many of my colleagues at one time! Here were people that I’ve admired for years, as well as tons of new acquaintances, all speaking so passionately about how we could work more efficiently to support each other and Black artists. My heart sank, however, after about an hour of discussing concerns about our institutions’ tone-deaf responses to this moment and our overall experiences in museums. It seemed like time stood still when I realized that no matter where in the world we work, what positions we hold in our institutions, or how diligently and effectively we do our jobs, many of us are experiencing similar traumas and complete mental exhaustion from navigating and contorting ourselves around abhorrent manifestations of white supremacy in museums and the art world at-large. Ironically, I had to leave the call early, as my institution began demanding mental and emotional acrobatics via emails pinging in the background
"After six years of working as a museum curator—at a small, a mid-size, and, currently, a very large institution—I’ve learned how nefarious the culture of white supremacy in art museums really is."
After six years of working as a museum curator—at a small, a mid-size, and, currently, a very large institution—I’ve learned how nefarious the culture of white supremacy in art museums really is. The PTSD from racial trauma that many of my BIPOC colleagues and I are carrying is a clear indication that art museums are absolutely not in solidarity with BIPOC people and their communities as they claim to be. As a critical-race and cultural historian who specializes in American art, I’ve worked diligently throughout my career to illustrate that this, too, has never been coincidental.
From the founding of the nation’s first art museums to the establishment of American art as an academic discipline and the development of curatorial practices around American “fine art,” museums in this country and the collections they house have existed as material extensions of systems founded upon genocide and slavery, maintained by various practices of marginalization, omission, and erasure. If we are to eschew this exclusionary culture in American art and its institutions, it is imperative that we change the value system upon which both our art museums and our art history is founded.
Last fall, I attended a lecture by MacArthur Fellowship-winning contemporary artist Titus Kaphar at the University of Indianapolis in which he asked, “Why have we amended the US constitution several times to address issues of racism and sexism but never substantially amended the art history?” 1 Despite decades of exhibitions that have paid homage to women artists and artists of color, how many museums have made the substantive move of creating galleries that offer a more honest display of the diverse array of artists working throughout the twentieth century that we know were not white, male, and living on the East Coast? 2
Ask a few museum professionals—particularly those from BIPOC communities—if they feel genuinely and fully supported by their institutions when they try to correct this erasure through programming, the reinstallation of permanent galleries, or traveling exhibitions. I expect the number would be close to zero. For example, Taylor Brandon, a former marketing associate at SFMoMA, recently shed light on this issue when she commented on how that institution allotted fewer marketing and programming resources to its Dawoud Bey retrospective than its Warhol exhibition. This is a common manifestation of white supremacy in art museum marketing procedures.
Building relationships with BIPOC museum staff members—who have historically gone unheard—is one approach that I’ve used over my career to combat this. Meeting and engaging an institution’s security and facilities staff is often my first point of business upon starting any curatorial position. Despite the fact that security guards and custodians make up the largest group of BIPOC staff in most museums and they engage with visitors in the galleries on a daily basis, they are almost never asked to contribute to or give feedback on institutional content. This alone is one of the most racist and classist hierarchies maintained by white supremacy culture in art museums.
At one point in my career, the marketing department of the museum I was working at was not promoting a show of a Black artist’s work to Black communities, so my colleagues and I printed flyers ourselves. I had begun my tenure at this particular institution almost a year and a half before this exhibition opened, and during that time I had gotten to know some of the museum’s majority-BIPOC support staff pretty intimately. I had visited and spoken at their churches, given tours of the museum’s permanent galleries to teachers and counselors from schools in their neighborhoods, partnered with local Black artists on projects that were already happening in their communities, worked in after-school art programs, and provided one-on-one mentoring to BIPOC teens and young adults. As a result of these relationships, many of which I maintain today, I knew that there was great interest in the exhibition. This allowed me and my colleagues to pepper homes, local businesses, churches, cars windows, and schools with our DIY exhibition flyer. More BIPOC attended that exhibition opening than had visited the museum’s galleries in over five years.
"The primary reason I pursue these strategies—then and now—is because my curatorial practice centers Black people first and art history second."
I say all this to demonstrate the ways in which had I consciously built relationships with the museum’s Black staff as a means to develop sound, trusting relationships with the Black communities that surrounded the museum. The primary reason I pursue these strategies—then and now—is because my curatorial practice centers Black people first and art history second. I don’t care how much any institution claims diversity or inclusivity as “core values”: white supremacy is the only fundamental value present when a museum staff member outside the marketing department has to take it upon themselves to promote a show in this way.
Another strategy that I’ve used throughout my career to initiate needed change is to work closely with museum docents. This is not standard practice in all art museums. However, docents are typically long-time volunteers for a museum who engage with visitors in the galleries by leading conversations around art history and the canon to the general public and are versed in the institution’s learning objectives. They have been a valuable resource to me as I develop anti-racist programming and gallery interpretation. Interestingly, I’ve been able to garner a more honest sense of where an institution stands on issues of race, class, and gender as the docent cores that I’ve come in contact with over my career were primarily comprised of middle-class white women. In our current climate, I know readers will ask how a group of middle-class white women can provide any valuable information about institutional ideas of race and class. In my experience, when a museum has not provided sufficient interpretation and engagement of works by women or BIPOC, docents who are interested in these subjects will frequently take it upon themselves to study the scholarship in an effort to provide audiences with more in-depth conversations and tour experiences regarding these works. I have found that this is an effective strategy for me to gauge an institution’s commitment to actual inclusivity: if the institution is not supporting docents’ efforts on this front, I know that I’ll have a hard time getting full support of my ideas and projects. If the institution is encouraging docents who engage the collection within the contexts of race, class, and gender, that tells me that I won’t have to work as hard to garner institutional support of my curatorial ideas.
I share this strategy because it has provided me with vital information over my career about how to discern the severity of white supremacy culture in an institution’s education department. For instance, if docents are conducting gallery tours that address issues of race, class, and gender, were any of the museum educators involved in helping them develop these tours? Do these tours only happen when a traveling show of work by a BIPOC or woman artist is on view? Do tours of the permanent collection look exclusively at works by women when discussing gender, or by BIPOC artists when discussing race, or do they engage a wide range of works on view? Have museum educators and curators met with docents to exchange information or develop a plan about how best to engage the entire collection when discussing issues of race, class, and gender? Is a tour addressing race, class, or gender a one-off tour offered only to BIPOC school groups? Most importantly, are docents and museum educators using the works of Black scholars and art historians to inform their interpretations? These are the types of questions BIPOC curators have to answer before we can do our jobs responsibly and effectively.
I want readers to understand how much free labor BIPOC museum professionals have to do to ensure that the work we were hired to do and the work of BIPOC artists is represented accurately and responsibly. Before I can even compile a checklist for my exhibitions or gallery reinstallations, I have to lead hours of critical-race discourse, both within the museum and in the broader arts community, to prepare viewers for more culturally relevant content. As I often lead programs and curate exhibitions that focus on anti-white-supremacy and contemporary social issues, I typically have to work for months within the institution to build the structures needed to support whatever project I’m working on. This highlights how desperately museum staffs need collective anti-racism and inclusivity training. In my experience, institutional leadership stalls even when museum employees have worked with outside consultants to draft proposals designed specifically to address issues of white supremacy within the institution’s culture. This not only deliberately undermines the months of structural work I do to support my curatorial work; it also more egregiously undercuts the very work that the institution claimed it was hiring me to do.
I use the phrase “engaged with BIPOC communities” as a semantic reversal of the traditional idea that success can be measured by the ways in which communities engage with the institution, meaning those who are actually visiting the museum. This is not a reliable metric because we know that people of color are not visiting traditional art museums en masse. So, how can art museums ever claim success when they know that traditional audiences do not and in some cases have never reflected the demographics of the communities where art museums are located? To answer this question, I’ve spent my career developing strategies through lectures, programming, acquisitions, reinstallations, exhibitions, and relationship building to demonstrate that not only are more truthful interpretations of permanent collections necessary to developing diverse audiences, it is unequivocally essential to the development of a genuine culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 3
Although I am an Americanist, I am a Black woman from Detroit, Michigan. This is my worldview. My curatorial philosophy is rooted in a working-class, womanist value system which does not uphold white patriarchy as a standard of universality or excellence. Yet, as a woman of color, I am cognizant of the fact that within the greater society, white-maleness has always been and is still considered to be “right.” Thus, at the heart of my curatorial practice is an understanding of the traditional art-historical narrative and its maintenance within museum collections as more insidious than instructive. The process of developing genuine cultures of DEI within museums cannot occur through reinterpretation alone. It has to start with gaining a full understanding of the institution’s overall capacity for building said culture.
To produce a genuine institutional and disciplinary culture of DEI in museums, white museum professionals must do the work within themselves and within their institutions to heal the trauma that has resulted from decades of building an art historical narrative and literally thousands of arts institutions that are steeped in the values of white patriarchal supremacy. And to do that, they must begin to be really honest with themselves.
In 2017, La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski were brutally honest when they launched their “Museums Are Not Neutral” T-shirt campaign, which recognized the ways in which institutional concepts of neutrality, objectivity, normality, professionalism, and high quality are used to perpetuate a status quo based on oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism.4 This contemporary functionality is deeply rooted in the history of European museums, through what English sociologist Tony Bennett has called “the mismatch” of the philosophies or mission statements purported to govern museums and the exclusionary practices embedded within their actual modes of functioning. In his 1993 monograph The Birth of the Museum, he explains:
While [the idea of the museum as a vehicle for public education] requires that [museums] should address an undifferentiated public made up of free and formal equals, [its functioning as an instrument of public reform], in giving rise to the development of various technologies for regulating or screening . . . has meant that they have functioned as a powerful means for differentiating populations. 5
In this discussion of the ways that the European bourgeoisie specifically designed the museum as a space to “reform” the European working-class and to promote culture as an extension of European empire, Bennett demonstrates how early European museums promoted the idea of “high culture” to ultimately reinforce class hierarchies and the use of culture as power. In doing so, the museum was established as an exclusive space that denoted the supremacy of European elites, while simultaneously being strictly a space for lower-class Europeans to receive instruction on how to become more sophisticated citizens.
Though Bennett’s class analysis delineates the basis of discriminatory culture in early European museums—making it a vital lens through which to understand the histories and contemporary realities of class discrimination within art museums today—his argument glaringly lacks sufficient consideration of the importance of race and gender to the cultural structures of public museums in nineteenth-century Europe. If we are to achieve a comprehensive awareness of the mechanisms of white supremacy culture in art museums—and, further, a better understanding of why the last thirty years of focused exhibitions of women artists and artists of color, programming designed for “underserved” audiences, and various diversity initiatives for hiring curators, training graduate students, and expanding board membership have not produced genuine cultures of diversity, equity, and inclusion within art museums—we must first analyze European museum history to identify specific moments that elucidate exactly how the museum itself was established as a space to codify white male identity.
"…if art museums are to become cultural institutions that truly value Black lives and want to be engaged with BIPOC communities, contending with the structural history of museums must be the rule, not the exception, of institutional behavior."
Recognizing and interrogating such historical moments is critical to understanding the white supremacy in today’s art museums because the European model of the public museum served as the quintessential architectural, interpretive, and cultural archetype for early American art museums. More pointedly, examining the cultural histories of European and American art museums in this manner illuminates the ways that these institutions and the collections they house were deliberately employed to instruct masses of white men in how to recognize themselves as humans, citizens, and seeing subjects. At the same time, women and non-white individuals (as well as their cultural products) were classified along a problematic visual spectrum of pseudo-scientific racist, and sexist categories ranging from beautiful, static object to primitive, non-human savage. If American art is to remain relevant to audiences outside of its institutional structures, and if art museums are to become cultural institutions that truly value Black lives and want to be engaged with BIPOC communities, contending with the structural history of museums must be the rule, not the exception, of institutional behavior.
This is why I’ve always found the confusion that museums exhibit around issues of inclusion to be so fascinating and sometimes infuriating. If a museum’s permanent collection represents white people and clearly celebrates European and Euro-American visual culture as “genius,” and “universal”; if a museum’s board of directors and professional staff are both majority white; if Black and brown presence within the museum appears only in the form of visiting school groups, security and facilities staff, or one-off special exhibitions; or if institutional procedures deliberately undermine, erase, and ignore the work of BIPOC employees, why is anyone surprised that a museum’s audience is predominantly white? The performative inquiry of aspiring to DEI is blatantly and purposefully ignorant. Whenever the million-dollar question of how to better engage diverse audiences is posed, I always reply with the following question: What would it look like if communities of color, the disabled, and LGBTQ communities were prioritized at every level of the institution alongside white upper and middle-class communities? Of course, the question is frequently met with blank stares and blinks, which then prompts me to provide the following answer: It would mean that inclusion had to be central to the functionality of all museum departments, which inherently means that the institutional value system would have to decenter white people.
As appreciative as I am to have worked for several prestigious museums, my professional endeavors as a socially engaged curator and historian have come at a cost. I’m pretty much tired all the time, even when I take mental-health days. I’m currently on a six-week personal leave—as poet Nayyirah Waheed says so eloquently, “All the women in me are tired.” And so are just about all of my BIPOC colleagues in the field. Stop asking us for reading lists and resources and take the initiative to do your own research. Just because we are BIPOC does not mean that we are anti-racism scholars, facilitators, or activists. Stop expecting us to listen to how shocked and upset you are about the current protests. If you’re upset about watching the protests, imagine how upset we are about watching BIPOC die over and over and over and over again. Stop asking us what we think are the best solutions—we’ve attempted to implement our solutions to these problems for our entire careers, often to have them underfunded, undermined, or completely erased by white superiors or institutional procedures. It’s time for white museum professionals to come up with some solutions of their own. Yes, rectifying white supremacy culture in art museums absolutely requires recontextualizing objects, but it is unequivocally clear that white museum professionals must first initiate and enact these processes at home in their own mirrors.
 Titus Kaphar, “Making Space for Black History: Amending the Landscape of American Art” (lecture, Sutphin Lecture Series, University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN., November 7, 2019).
 The Brooklyn Museum of Art is well known for the various ways it has reinstalled its American collection to address these issues. See sources on the museum’s website and in the New York Times. Other institutions such as the Worcester Museum of Art purposely changed gallery labels to address slavery and its legacies. See sources on Hyperallergic and Artnet News.
 For more about my curatorial work, see here, here, and here.
 La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski, “Museums Are Not Neutral: We Are Stronger Together,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 5, no. 2 (Fall 2019).
 Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (Oxford: Routledge, 1995), 90.