When people’s lives are being threatened because of the color of their skin or the way they pray, when people are having bottles broken over their noses because of whom they love, when families have to worry about being separated by mass deportation, when swastikas are being etched on walls, when nothing feels safe anymore, it’s easy to think that art doesn’t matter.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Never is art more essential than in times of separation; it is the ultimate force of creativity, hope, reflection and revolution.
What art does best is to hold up a mirror to the full spectrum of our humanity, to shine a light on our greatest failings alongside our greatest virtues.
I have seen so many things in the past year that have given me reason to feel optimistic at a time when it feels like the world is crumbling.
At Portland Art Museum, I witnessed Native photographers Will Wilson, Wendy Red Star and Zig Jackson gracefully challenge the legacy of Edward Curtis, the white ethnographer whose documentation of Native communities had frozen them in time for a century. These artists took back agency and humor, they honored the women that Curtis had effectively erased from history, they offered collaboration in place of exploitation.
I saw an exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery by photographer Jim Lommasson, who travels the country collaborating with Iraqi and Syrian refugees for the project What We Carried. Lommasson photographs the objects that are most dear to his collaborators and invites them to write their stories on the photos. He has recently been asked to extend the project to include Holocaust survivors.
I met an artist named Erica Thomas who challenges the patriarchal notion of what success in the art world should look like. She hangs a neon “Artist in Residence” sign in the window wherever she is working, creating a lifelong self-proclaimed artist residency. Her marriage appears on her CV as an ongoing project, the most collaborative work of her life. She empowers us to create without first having to ask for permission.
I sat for a one-on-one performance with artist Sharyll Burroughs, who rejects the label “artist of color,” because her work seeks to prove that all language and categorization is too small to contain the full breadth of our humanness.
At the show The Soul of Black Art at Upfor Gallery, I wept in front of a pair of images, hung side by side. The first was a photo from the Jim Crow South, in which an elderly black man climbs a steep set of stairs to get to the colored entrance of a movie theater. In the photo next to it, another black man climbs another steep set of stairs, but it was President Obama boarding Air Force One.
Before I had a chance to allow the full extent of that progress to wash over me, I turned to the adjacent wall. On it hung a diptych by painter Arvie Smith depicting a mob of white women and men with guns hanging black men from trees by shackles, slave ships in the distance.
This is art’s job. It keeps us honest by telling us how far we’ve come in the same breath as it reminds us how much farther we need to go.
To those of us in the art world who care so deeply about nurturing a culture that is inclusive, this is our time to be activists. Curators, arts writers, arts editors, gallery owners, board and jury members, administrators of large funding bodies: We must recognize the awesome responsibility of being gatekeepers, of being among the privileged few who help to determine an artist’s creative and financial viability in the marketplace. And we must use that power with care.
To my fellow arts writers: Go out of your way to see shows of underrepresented artists. Every review you give to an artist of color, a female artist, or a queer artist adds a line to their résumé, which makes him or her a more competitive candidate for grants, fellowships, residencies and future exhibitions. And if you are a white writer reviewing an artist of color, if you are a man reviewing a woman’s show, if you are a straight person reviewing a queer artist, be mindful of how you impose your experiences and your perspective on their work; we are not always equipped to properly contextualize it. Through interviews, we can allow these artists to speak about their work in their own words before we seek to comment on it. Take the extra time to get the artist on the phone.
To all of the curators, gallery owners, and executive directors of arts institutions: Continue showing work of underrepresented artists. Double down. But don’t expect that this in itself will be enough to engage the communities that have felt unwelcomed, unwanted and unrepresented for a long time in the white-box art world.
Most of the people who have influence in the art world have slowly worked their way up within galleries or arts nonprofits. So if you’re in a position to hire people for entry- and midlevel positions, extend your search beyond the pool of graduates from the local art schools and consider interns, preparators and gallery assistants from other communities. Establish curatorial fellowships for people who have an abiding passion for the arts but have not, perhaps, had the luxury of consistent exposure to the art world or a formal arts education.
To those of you who, so far, think that this article doesn’t pertain to you because you don’t consider yourself to be a part of the art world, please hear me: You are even more essential to the arts than the rest of us. You are the audience. You are, quite literally, our reason for being. So, please, after you’ve taken to the streets, take to the galleries and the museums. In our city, where 42 percent of the population is without religious affiliation, these institutions are our houses of worship. They connect us with something greater than ourselves. They offer the comfort and solace of beauty, and provide endless examples of what the human hand can do when it is guided by the heart. I promise it will astonish you.
Going to the galleries is always free, and the Portland Art Museum offers free admission on the first Thursday of every month, so if you’re a student or you have a large family, please don’t let finances be a barrier. If you want to go to the galleries but you feel unwelcome or intimidated by the prospect, or if you feel self-conscious about asking the wrong questions, email me and I will take you on a tour myself. (It is worth noting that you are in good company; I do this for a living, and there are still a few galleries where I, too, feel unwelcome.)
And to all of the artists out there: Take to your studios. Channel your outrage, your fear, your anger and sadness into a painting, a sculpture, a play, a dance performance, a film, a photograph, an essay, a drawing. Channel your optimism into something beautiful. Your creativity gives us hope; it opens up pathways of empathy, vulnerability and understanding. Creation counteracts destruction. Keep creating, friends. Keep putting meaningful things into the world. For yourself. For all of us. We need you now more than ever.