fbpx “Revolution Is Not a One Time Event”: Slowness and Care in Art and Cultural Institutions | The Studio Museum in Harlem

“Revolution Is Not a One Time Event”:
Slowness and Care in Art and Cultural Institutions

The Collective
Deja Belardo,
Yatil Etherly,
Kendyll Gross,
Jaelynn Walls,
Chinelo Ufondu

 

Slowness and care are not radical acts. Black women, Black men, Black people have taught us that they’re necessary. We still fight the same injustices forced upon us for centuries in this country, and we fight with persistence and intention. Black feminists have shown us that the work can be done with care. Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The year 2020 took museums to task on an unprecedented level, with scathing rallying cries against these institutions. “Change the Museum.” “Abolish Museums.” “Death to Museums.” These utterances demand that cultural and art institutions move beyond paying lip service to inclusion, equity, and diversity. Instead, these spaces must learn how to confront their colonial origins and understand how they intersect with modern exclusionary practices that have privileged a few, despite mission statements projecting an image of universal accessibility.

Despite movements for social justice and minority representation within museums, many of these institutions that have been called on to redefine their curation, exhibition, and accessibility practices continue to exclude the voices and concerns of these groups, and ignore the advocates calling for this change. As the global pandemic continues to decimate Black and brown communities, and social and political tensions continue to rise, museums have a newfound obligation to incorporate the communities they have historically underrepresented in their exhibitions and programming. However, these institutions should not seek simple solutions, but instead exercise slowness and care when reimagining their practices, asking necessary questions such as:

How can we establish more collaboration between museums and communities? How can we recognize and highlight the cultural significance of the art and artifacts we house? How can we ensure our mission supports the communities we serve beyond the museum?

Many museums have turned to technology to expand their reach and are using digital documentation techniques to enhance the accessibility of their exhibitions. When employing these technologies, a community-based approach is essential. This requires slowing down to better understand and serve the audiences museums represent. Slowness and care can be enacted through projects designed to empower individuals and communities, through listening to communities and representing them in the ways they choose, while also providing the resources to access exhibitions outside the physical museum.

In March 2020, Danspace Project invited Okwui Okpokwasili, Saidiya Hartman, Simone Leigh, and Tina Campt to discuss the concept of slowness, a slowness not necessarily tied to movement, but one that is about, Campt said, “the intensification of all forms of perception down to this really tiny, minute level.” Collectively, Okpokwasili, Hartman, Leigh, and Campt challenged the constant churn of production and labor in favor of a slowness that allows people to connect with practices of care for others and themselves. Slowness can serve as a bridge to the communities around us, creative potential, and ideas of what can be versus what is. Ultimately, slowness allows for time to reflect, critique, assess, and dig deeper.

Practices of slowness and care are especially valuable when we think about museum education, which asks visitors to slow down, look deeply, and make connections. There is a vulnerability in education, a vulnerability in growing comfortable with what we do not know and in sharing knowledge with others. So much of what makes museum education powerful comes from the intimate connections visitors build not only with the artwork, but with one another, in moments of reflection and analysis. Education asks us to come to the table as we are by eschewing hierarchical understandings of knowledge and calling for us to be vulnerable in our willingness to learn and share. Just as education centers slowness and care, so too must museums embrace these practices within their larger operations. As Laura Raicovich, interim director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art and former director of the Queens Museum, says, “Undoing and remaking, collectively, requires a radical slowing down, a focus on process over product, responsiveness without reactivity, recognition that we will make mistakes, and that if we don’t, we’re not pushing hard enough.” More than ever, museums must reevaluate their missions and upend their weak practices that have left staff and publics feeling under-heard.

Art is a meaningful tool for translating ideologies into understandable visual language. Slowness and care are necessary tools for ensuring that art exhibitions are as dynamic as our constantly changing social, cultural, and political needs. Art belongs to the people, and there is a great responsibility to ensure that museums’ audiences truly reflect the communities they serve. There must be consideration for everyone at stake, including the artists, art workers, museum staff, and philanthropists. Implementation of a progressive museum standard has to prioritize people and demands commitment and integrity. Internal teamwork results in greater collaboration with the museums’ external communities.

Process must be put over product, people before objects. Money and the value of resources must come second to the needs of all people in the process of creating, maintaining, and managing museum exhibitions. Slower exhibition turnaround would allow more time to be thoroughly thoughtful throughout the process, from ideation to installation. Art is best understood from a multidisciplinary perspective, especially as the world shifts politically, socially, and ideologically. For museums and the arts and cultural sector as a whole to be more collaborative in spirit and action, the work must be intentional and honest. It requires shifting operational structure to be less hierarchical. The responsibilities of each museum department can be more centralized to use a broadened perspective on the strengths and challenges of organizing a body of artwork for a museum show.

It is clear that the contemporary challenge of museums is to craft and curate exhibitions with equity and ensure that they remain relevant to cultural life. Simultaneously, a steady production schedule is important to museum culture and economy, and is unlikely to cease even in the face of a rapidly shifting culture. How do we contend with these two ideas? One way is through a complete overhaul of museum interpretation. If museums are the people, then communicating with an expansive museum audience is at the apex of crafting a care-full institutional experience. By taking time and slowness to rework display strategies and linguistic choices to address as wide-spanning an audience as possible, museums can act as active intermediaries between artwork and viewer. Revising the context, language, and educational aims allows for a broader community around art.

More than notions of communication and action, care and slowness must act as pedagogical strategies in institutional spaces, through immersive experiences, partnerships with community-based organizations, and clear through-lines of dialogue between visitors and institutions. Enforcing these education standards is a way to connect diverse museumgoers with what institutions hope to communicate through their exhibitions and curatorial choices. Slowness can mean taking the time to work with specialized educators within the communities surrounding museums. That is the kind of action that needs to be taken for large institutions to maintain relevance in a contemporary context. Rather than blockbuster shows with little pedagogical depth or connection to the audience, museums must take the care to speak with their audiences intimately through wall texts, displays, and systemic shifts in language. Though this may come with difficulty, care is at the center of adjusting to a world wrought with rapidly transforming social and cultural landscapes—one in need of visual art.

For the majority of 2020, institutional discourse has been punctuated with buzzwords such as equity, abolition, decolonization, agency, and action, all to address the compounding moments of this tumultuous time. While these well-overdue conversations are given space and attention within the arts—though due to the tragic cycle of Black death and trauma—it begs the question of  what integral element will finally push this trite dialogue into a future that protects and uplifts Black and Indigenous communities. We believe this answer lives in the growing lexicon of institutional critique that rethinks and shifts the meaning of agency and action toward an actualized liberation. That shift is through an emphasis on slowness and care.

What happens when we proceed as if we know this, antiBlackness, to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which we to attempt to speak, for instance, an “I” or a “we” who know, an “I” or a “we” who care?

—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being 

Slowness and care come down to institutions and workers divorcing themselves from the capitalist obligation of constant production, internal efficiency, and rapid response to both external and internal critique. There have been many instances of cultural institutions confronting systemic issues of race, gender, and disability with ill-defined ideas of equity that result in furthering the harm marginalized communities face at the hands of public, private, and civic institutions. Instead of falling prey to this cyclic inaction and violence, priority must be given to slowing down to focus on acknowledgment and awareness, to digest the structural injustices in contemporary society, and to answer responsibly. This means focusing on vocalizing and reestablishing intentional goals for institutions while redistributing funding to those most in the more precarious situations through mutual aid, both internal and external. “Examples can be found in the LACE Lightning Fund in Los Angeles and the mutual aid resource and exchange established by workers at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.”

But it raises for me, you know, after trying to think about it for a little while, the question of whether or not it’s possible or not to decolonize this, or any other place. But what if the very idea of place is inseparable from the theory and practice of settlement?

—Fred Moten, “Migration, Refuge, and the Politics of Sanctuary Music”

Equity requires significant change. These examples are some of the ways to incorporate slowness and care into ethical and sustainable funding models, an area that is most tied to antiquated colonial frameworks. At the same time, funding and development has the largest capacity to truly ignite significant, equitable change within institutions through educational programs and curatorial efforts. The fundamental questions remain. How do we encourage people to care about others? How do we operate as members of the thing called "humanity”? Leading with honesty and humility, we must say we have no answer now and instead dedicate ourselves to continuously fighting to operate in a realm of humanity deserving of care, honesty, and respect.

As we arm ourselves with ourselves and each other, we can stand toe to toe inside that rigorous loving and begin to speak the impossible—or what has always seemed like the impossible—to one another. The first step toward genuine change. Eventually, if we speak the truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves.

—Audre Lorde