As vaccination efforts ramped up this spring, Teresa Coleman-Wash knew that her theater company needed to get off the stage and into the neighborhood.
So, the Bishop Arts Theater Center began hosting pop-up clinics with the Mayor’s Office.
“People were waiting for our doors to open and waiting for us to invite them in, to get the vaccine,” she said.
Coleman-Wash said this kind of community outreach is what’s made the theater center a longstanding cultural resource for Black and Latinx communities in Oak Cliff.
“There’s a trust that these arts institutions can have in our communities,” Coleman-Wash said. “We have to be active listeners. We have to be on the front lines.”
It’s the kind of work art institutions should prioritize if they’re serious about addressing racial inequities, she said.
Cultural spaces of all kinds—from theater groups to museums—have been facing growing calls for deep, structural change. Fueled by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, art institutions vowed to do more to better serve communities of color.
It’s a challenge that they said they were taking on with a renewed sense of urgency after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
Jessica Fuentes, a museum consultant based in Fort Worth, said the past year has underscored just how tenuous those commitments to diversity and racial equity have been.
“Many museums across the United States during the pandemic were letting go their education staff, were having to furlough their security or facilities staff or frontline staff, all of which tends to be people of color,” Fuentes said.
It was a wake-up call, Fuentes said, for decision-makers sitting at the top who recognized the desire for more immediate changes in everything from hiring practices to programming.
“For others, it was a breaking point,” she said. “People who were already doing diversity and equity work for years really started to expect and demand more in a way that they hadn’t previously from museums.”
The Nasher Sculpture Center was among the many institutions that vowed to do more. The museum released a statement last summer acknowledging that art institutions “cannot be separated from, and indeed derive benefit from the same social structures that have used institutionalized violence against people of color as the tip of their spear.”
Director Jeremy Strick says the Nasher Windows series, which offered exhibition space to early and mid-career North Texas artists during the shutdown in Texas, was conceived in response to the moment.
“An exhibition typically takes several years to develop, so to produce an exhibition a week was a significant change,” Strick said. “But it was one that was really conceived to respond to the conditions of the pandemic and the urgency of the moment in terms of racial justice.”
Weekly installations could be seen from the street while the Nasher was still closed due to COVID. The series included installations by artists of color like Xxavier Edward Carter that directly addressed the BLM protests and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.
“The point was not to shy away from difficult topics and issues,” Strick said. “I think the murder of George Floyd really gave us a much greater sense of urgency. I think internally everyone was forced to reflect on the brutality that was ongoing outside our walls, but also the ways in which what occurred inside our walls could either be contributing to that or could not be doing enough to address it.”
Other local art institutions have shied away from open dialogues on race with the community.
Dallas Contemporary faced criticism this spring for waiting too long to respond to the mass shooting in Atlanta, where a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women.
Two women employed by D.C. at the time say they urged the museum to release a statement of solidarity with the Asian American community, especially with the work of two Asian artists on display.
Carrie Horton and Ciara Elle Bryant, who both had visitor services roles at the museum, say they were let go shortly after speaking up.
“I do feel like we did check off a box for a while,” Bryant said. “Like, ‘Oh look, we have Black people too. We look like we are inclusive. We look like we are doing the work.’ But, I feel like it was a placeholder for them actually being willing to have the dialogue about how they aren’t diverse.”
The museum posted a statement on Instagram about two weeks after the Atlanta shooting, and after Horton and Bryant were let go, condemning recent hate crimes against the AAPI community. The post also cited ongoing exhibitions from Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong and Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara.
But, Horton said D.C.’s response was too little, too late.
“I don’t think the Dallas Contemporary is set up to follow through,” Horton said. “The point of the Dallas Contemporary isn’t to grapple with complex issues or foster allyship or whatever. The point of the Dallas Contemporary is to take art from New York and LA galleries and place them in the Rachofsky Collection or the Karpidas Collection. They’re not set up to be an active force in dismantling racism.”
Dallas Contemporary declined multiple requests for an interview. In an emailed statement, the museum said getting through the pandemic has been “incredibly tough.”
“Dallas Contemporary has navigated these challenges with as much consideration and sensitivity as possible, while keeping in mind the financial stability of the institution,” the statement reads. “We will continue to move forward with the support of our board of trustees, members, stakeholders, and partners.”
The museum also said recent programming from artists of color like Jammie Holmes, Carrie Mae Weems, Xiaodong and Nara are a testament to their commitment to “tackling the timely and complex issues that face us more than ever.”
Elizabeth Hill, who was a learning and visitor services associate at D.C. at the time, said truly addressing racial inequities in cultural spaces has to go beyond programming.
“When you show artists from marginalized communities, you take on the responsibility of standing against these things that are happening to their communities,” Hill said. “You take on the responsibility of speaking on these things. You can’t just remain silent.”
But, Bryant says some art institutions are too concerned with the interests of their board members to take part in the kind of community engagement that effects real change.
“What looks good? What doesn’t look good? We have to make sure we keep up this image, and we have to make sure our board members are happy,” Bryant said. “Not the actual communities that are coming in and spending time with this space.”
Fuentes says that’s why diversifying staff from the top down is so important.
A 2018 demographic survey from the American Alliance of Museums found that people of color only hold about 20 percent of intellectual leadership positions at museums, including conservation, curatorial and education roles.
“I think [institutions] need to understand how whiteness has shaped museums,” Fuentes said. “I think they really need to take the time to listen to the people of color on staff already. A big and important step would be to diversify the board and leadership.”
Agustín Arteaga, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, recognizes that these cultural spaces have been driven by bias and shaped by a “Eurocentric understanding of humanity.”
Arteaga has made diversifying his leadership team a priority in a bid to better serve a broader swath of the DMA’s patrons.
“The board, five years ago, decided to hire a Latino man and a gay man, so we started there,” he said, referring to himself. “If you look at this, almost 40% of my senior leadership staff as of today is composed of BIPOC and LGTBQ.”
Still, a deeply human issue cannot be solved just through workplace diversity goals.
Coleman-Wash with the Bishop Arts Theater Center said it requires art institutions to really transform themselves into community assets that reflect the wants and needs of everyone who walks through their doors.
Institutions should be wary of “professionalizing” racial equity work, she said.
“Making sure that we’re on the right side of history at the office, right? Making sure that our institutions are on the right side of history so that we can feel progressive,” she said. “In my opinion, that’s really a superficial way of tackling racial equity.”
Coleman-Wash calls it a personal journey for everyone involved, and that work takes more time.
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