Provocations: A Crisis in Museum Governance?

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National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. (image credit: Wikimedia)

Art museums have, for quite some time now, been under intense critical scrutiny over the ideological content of their exhibitions and programmes, and over how they relate to audiences, in terms of who they speak to and for. More recently, the critical gaze has shifted, initially to museum boards, and the socio-economic and political interests and power structures these typically represent. And now they have shifted again to the inner workings of museums, to the politics of the leadership and staff. It started, quite predictably, with sexual harassment allegations, as has happened in almost every industry, and now it is about allegations of racism and toxic work environments caused by dysfunctional leadership, as well as more general calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the museum world, especially at the leadership level. The Black Lives Matter movement has added further urgency to this.

Arising from this, there has been a string of high-profile resignations and firings in North American and European museums, recently, as well various open letters and campaigns, many of them targeted at individuals in leadership positions. One of the latest and most poignant instances has been a public letter denouncing a longstanding “culture of racism” at, quite ironically, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, with calls for the resignation or removal of its long-serving deputy director and chief curator. These incidents have received significant attention in the specialized and general press as most of the persons fingered are prominent, highly accomplished figures in the museum and art world.

It is part of a crisis that is long in the making, a long-overdue reckoning and, hopefully, there will be a balancing of the scales that will turn museums into more socially relevant, responsive, equitable and well-managed organizations. However, I have some reservations about the present spate of firings, resignations and denouncements. One is that female museum professionals are disproportionately targeted, and that often the removals often involve women who were among the first to ascend to leadership positions in their museums. As most, if not all of the professionals in question are white, it raises questions about how white women are positioned and interpreted in the present debates about race and social justice. And, even more importantly, it raises questions how these white female museum professionals have positioned themselves in the racial dynamics of their organizations. But something appears to be off and I cannot accept that white female museum professionals, who are still a minority in senior museum positions, are somehow more racist than their male counterparts, or that their leadership style would somehow be more problematic and toxic.

Like many in the museum profession, I am aware of several instances where male museum leaders, of various racial backgrounds but all card-carrying members of their local Boys Clubs, have engaged in deeply toxic, even outright abusive behaviour (including sexual harassment and multiple affairs with junior staff) but they have only rarely been called out or held to account over it. So, racial dynamics aside, it appears that the present reckoning is an asymmetrical one, and that women are, once again, held to different, much more exacting standards than men in terms of their professional conduct and management styles, and still resented if they ascend to positions of leadership. I would rather see a situation in which any inappropriate professional conduct from museum leaders, or for that matter, any other staff members, is reported, denounced and resolved or penalized, irrespective of who they are and without perpetuating the culture that this is somehow to be tolerated from powerful, well-connected “eminent” men.

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Desmarais Pavillion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal (image credit: <a href=”http://By Thomas LedlOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Thomas Ledl, Wikimeda)

Another concern is that the present reckoning may inadvertently open the door for opportunistic moves and intrigues that have nothing to do with what is purportedly at hand. At least one of the instances that recently reached the international press, with accusations about what may well have been toxic and dysfunctional professional conduct, appears to have been compromised by an agenda to further a nepotistic appointment. I am referring to the firing, with immediate effect, of Nathalie Bondil, who had led the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for many years, in a context which seems to have been mired in board and succession intrigue and which is now subject to an official Quebec government investigation.

If a museum professional is genuinely and consistently problematic, by all means, discipline or fire, but now is not the time to push aside highly accomplished and performing museum professionals over personal grudges, vendettas, and other self-serving agendas, or to make way for individuals who just happen to be well-connected, accommodating of meddling boards, or good at playing the current politics, but who may have less to offer, professionally. If there is to be greater exclusivity and justice in the museum profession, the integrity of the present reckoning cannot be muddied by pandering or opportunistic agendas, and professional merit and performance must remain the key criteria for appointments and promotions.

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Provocations: What about the Kingston Biennial?

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Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

Some time in late 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica decided to cancel the Jamaica Biennial, of which two editions had been held, in 2014 and 2017. The Jamaica Biennial was the re-conceptualized successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National Exhibitions. While still hamstrung by the expectations and entitlements that had been generated by its predecessors, the Jamaica Biennial was widely recognized as groundbreaking and poised for further developments that would be beneficial to the Jamaican and Caribbean art worlds. The exhibition was opened up to the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, it was shown at multiple locations in Kingston and Montego Bay, and it included special projects that invited a more in-depth look at some of the featured artists, instead of the customary one or two works.

The idea (and for the sake of disclosure, it was a project I directed) was that the Jamaica Biennial would become a fully curated exhibition, with a changing cast of guest curators, although I had hoped that there would still be a call for submissions, so that the inclusion of new artists would be encouraged. I strongly felt that the “invited for life” system that had existed since the 1980s was elitist and counterproductive to the inclusive development and exposure of Jamaican art, and needed to be abandoned. This was however resisted by the board, who were concerned about the fallout from prominent and well-connected artists, as there had been some such rumblings. Whether there should have been another exhibition to accommodate these “legacy artists” was a matter for discussion, although I was doubtful that this would reduce the pressure, as being included in the Biennial would no doubt still be regarded as an entitlement by many of these artists.

Already in 2018, I had expressed concern at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s failure to make any public statements on this reversal in its exhibition programme, when it came to my attention that only the “invited list” artists had been invited to a meeting to discuss the way forward, instead of having a public forum with the entire artistic community. In my view, this discussion, which was furthermore attended by only about ten artists, illustrates the extent to which the National Gallery continues to feel beholden to a particular cohort of “inner circle” artists, and a particular social cohort, as it is widely recognized that the invited artist list is uncomfortably aligned with Jamaica’s class and power hierarchies.

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Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

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Two years ago, on April 28, 2018, I posted to this blog an open letter to Kei Miller (it is linked here for easy reference). The letter was written as my critical response to an essay by Kei, “The White Women and the Language of Bees”, which had been published a few days earlier in the inaugural issue of the online Pree Lit Magazine. Kei Miller’s essay caused quite a furor on social media, with sometimes heated discussions in which Kei and myself both participated, and in various other forums (Bocas Lit Fest was in progress). The controversy reached the Guardian newspaper (linked here), in which my letter to him was referenced and quoted. The essay was withdrawn from Pree Lit, at Kei’s request, and subsequently republished but in a revised from (linked here). My response was to the original version. I understand that the essay will also be published in Kei Miller’s forthcoming book of essays, as he recently announced.

Yesterday morning, Kei Miller made a long post on Facebook (which is linked here) in which he reflects on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their implications in Jamaica. He also comments on the lessons he claims he learnt from the debate about his “The White Women and the Language of Bees” essay. He itemizes those “lessons” in a list of ten points. My letter and I are the subject three of those ten points, point 3, 4 and 5. Although I am, curiously, not mentioned by name, most people who read his post would have known perfectly well that he was referring to me, given the public attention my letter had received.

Under point 3 of his list, Kei accuses me of not having published his response to my blog. He writes:

3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.

To be absolutely clear: I am the “white woman living in Jamaica” and I would have preferred to be referenced by name, instead of being alluded to, as I had also called for him to do with the white female writers he similarly alluded to in his “Bees” essay. And for the record, I did not personally know any of these women writers when I wrote my open letter to him, although two were distant acquaintances, and I was speaking solely on my own behalf.

Yesterday morning, when I became aware of Kei Miller’s Facebook post, I sent him the following note via FB Messenger, which speaks for itself (I have corrected one typo for the sake of clarity):

“Dear Kei,

I just read what you wrote about me on Facebook, without mentioning my name although my identity must be clear to a lot of your respondents, as they would have been aware of my letter. If I would have received the response to which you make reference, I would most certainly have published it, and if you were concerned that I was trying to suppress or ignore you in any way, you knew where to find me, on Facebook and via email. I am generally speaking very easy to reach and responsive. I did not in fact receive any comments to that post — what I published are links to other publications where my letter to you was referenced. It is unfortunate that you should represent me in this manner, two years later and without any verification with me, as this matter could have been easily have been cleared up and dealt with in its time.

Best regards,

Veerle”

I am aware that Kei saw my message fairly soon after it was sent, but he has not reacted or responded to date, at least not to me. I then decided to post an earlier version of this blog post to Facebook, in which Kei was tagged. To that, too, there has been no response.

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Provocations: Navigating The Creative Industries

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Still from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936)

This is the first of a new series of shorter critical interventions on salient issues. The posts will pose questions, rather than to attempt to provide answers, and they are meant to be conversation starters, and comments are welcomed, as usual.

There have been a lot of conversations here in the Caribbean, of late, on Covid-19 and the Cultural Industries, most of them online of course, making use of the dreaded Zoom or other online communication platforms. It is, as such, heartening that there is a fair amount of engagement with how the cultural sector is affected by the cultural crisis, and also that funds are being made available for various remedial projects, from local governmental and non-governmental sources as well as international funders.

Observing some of these events has, however, also been very troubling, for a number of reasons. One is that only very few have involved actual practicing artists (visual, performing, or literary – a broad and diverse group that also includes film and design) and that the discussion has been articulated, led and, indeed, dominated by policy makers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and academics in the field. The other, related concern is that it has illustrated the insufficiently questioned, but deeply entrenched focus on the Cultural Industries, at the expense of more nuanced and contextualized discussions about culture, the arts and artistic practice, which appear to have become marginalized and even ignored in the Cultural Industries debate. And that may well come from not giving sufficient voice to those who are directly involved in and knowledgeable about artistic practice, including those who operate at grassroots level, which has led for such discussions to become woefully disconnected from what should by their foundation, anchor and primary point of reference. This disconnect was certainly evident in a recent discussion on the affiliated term Creatives, on the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook site, where a majority of artists expressed reservations about being so labelled and pointedly objected to the “flattening” homogenization of the cultural field this involved.

I will not go into the details of how the Cultural and Creative Industries, and the Cultural and Creative Economies, are variously defined, and the shifts in meaning that occur between these terms — that has already been covered extensively by many others. But it behooves us to remember that the term was introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in the context of a deep and concerned critique of mass popular culture as propaganda and of the role of these Cultural Industries in Monopoly Capitalism. In its present incarnations, the term and its spin-offs are rooted in the ethos of Neo-liberalism and increasingly, there is a very reductive conflation the monetization and commodification of culture as the primary manner in which cultural production is validated and supported. I prefer the term Creative or Cultural Ecology, as it is a more inclusive terms that de-emphasizes monetization as a primary goal, without disregarding it, and leaves room for and validates a variety of cultural and artistic practices that may not be motivated by profit or entrepreneurship.

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Inside Pandora’s Box: A Few Thoughts about Art in the Age of Corona – Part II

This is the second of a three-part post. Part I can be found here and part III is forthcoming.

Oh shit

In 1961, the then young politician Edward Seaga delivered his seminal speech “The Haves and the Have Nots” in the Jamaican Upper House. Irrespective of how we may feel about the ideological and political path Seaga took subsequently, and his role in how postcolonial wealth and power were consolidated in Jamaica, it was a watershed moment in the country’s political history as it acknowledged, in compelling, sharply drawn terms, the gaping socio-economic divide that shapes Jamaican society. This divide is still active today, and perhaps more entrenched although it has taken different forms, but it is far less acknowledged while we are called to pursue collective mirages of “prosperity.”

The speech came to mind when I read a recent letter to the editor by the Jamaican anthropologist Charles V. Carnegie, who is an avid walker and observer of Kingston’s streets and a passionate advocate for its “walk-foot people” — that diverse group that does not have the privilege of a car, the people who move about in the ambit of the noise, physical danger, and exhaust fumes of the city’s chaotic, traffic-jammed streets, offering various goods and services, begging and hustling, or just trying to get from home, or school, to work and back. In this letter, which was the Letter of the Day in the Jamaica Gleaner of March 27, 2020, Professor Carnegie reported on his conversation with a car-window washer — one of many on Kingston’s major intersections — who complained about the downturn in business because of the reduced traffic and, no doubt, drivers and passengers being reluctant to turn down windows to hand them money for fear of exposure.

From this conversation, it was clear that the young man and his companions did not have a clear understanding of what was going on, in terms of the public health concerns or the social distancing measures. He appeared to be largely “out of the loop,” information-wise, despite the daily governmental press conferences, curfews, and various media campaigns for hand-washing, staying at home, and social distancing – a dangerous situation since such campaigns can only be effective if there is widespread, shared understanding of the message and and collective buy-in to the necessity of the measures. Carnegie called, in response, for those campaigns to use Jamaican patois, rather than standard English, as he saw the matter of language as a major factor in the apparent communicative breakdown.

 

 

It was early days yet then, in terms of the Jamaican experience of the pandemic, and the public communications have become more Jamaicanized since then, with the slogan (and hashtag) “tan a yuh yaad” (“stay at home”) as well as a few less memorable ones. Several popular musicians have opted in, with songs and social media posts that urge Jamaicans to comply, as is reported in the above TVJ Entertainment Prime clip. Perhaps the window-washer now has a better grasp of the situation – it would be interesting to know if that is in effect so and how this is reflected in his money-earning strategies and income. And the public handling of the crisis has been relatively successful: after a rapid increase in confirmed Covid-19 cases, the daily numbers have now tapered off and only nine deaths have been recorded. While major uncertainties remain, there are now moves to “reopen” the Jamaican economy and, particularly, to reopen the country’s borders to tourism.

But it appears that there is still a major public disconnect and that only part of the population follows the Ministry of Health guidelines, and only when they have to, which may come back to haunt us in terms of greater community spread. The wearing of a mask (over mouth and nose) is now mandatory when going out and most places of business require them, with mandatory hand disinfection and, increasingly, temperature checks also being the norm on entry. The situation on the streets of Kingston is markedly different, however, and I’d venture that mask-wearing compliance is only at about 50 %. Many of those who do wear masks while on the streets have them covering their mouth only, or even wear them casually on their forehead or chin, as if it were a fashion accessory. And it appears that compliance is strongly mediated by class, with middle and upper income persons far more likely to adhere to the directives. The non-compliance appears to come, by and large, from today’s “have nots” and the reasons why may not all be equally obvious.

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Inside Pandora’s Box: A Few Thoughts about Art in the Age of Corona – Part I

This is the first of a three-part post. Part II can be found here and part III is forthcoming.

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’ (1939)

Some months ago, after hurricane Dorian devastated the northern Bahamas, as one of several recent environmentally linked catastrophies, I had started to write a post about climate change and the Caribbean art world. For various reasons I did not finish it at that time but the Corona pandemic has driven me back to reflecting on the subject, albeit from a different perspective. Because the pandemic is, at a fundamental level, part of the broader environmental crisis that is engulfing us, as it stems from our rapacious stewardship of natural resources and a globalized lifestyle which is increasingly unsustainable. Our encroachment of natural habitats appears to have been a major factor in the emergence of the virus, while its rapid, global spread is linked to the intensive international travel patterns that shape our globalized world.

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Corona

We live in an age of deep narcissism and thoughtless aspirational conduct — FOMO, YOLO, brand consumerism, and all — that has invaded all aspects of life, from personal relationships to politics. The current call for social distancing will require us to delve deeply into our reserves of personal resilience and self-reliance but this should be no excuse to to act with the sort of self-absorption and selfishness that has so become entrenched in our culture, as this will only contribute to the escalating crisis. The loathsome attacks on people of Asian descent that have been reported in various parts of the world will hopefully not be the start of new, detrimental waves of ethnic cleansing, or violence against those who are perceived to carry the illness or have coveted resources. We are in this together and our survival as a supposedly intelligent species may very well depend on our willingness and ability to think and act collectively, with wisdom, empathy, and foresight.

The current moment calls for reflection on many levels, in addition to the urgent immediate actions. In fact, it calls for major cultural changes. It is a moment in which many of our collective and individual priorities, actions, and responsibilities will have to be reconsidered, along with possibly our entire way of life. If we don’t, what is happening now — pandemic and climate disasters alike, along with the social disruption and conflict that inevitably accompany such events — will happen again and again, and worse every time, until human civilization ends.

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Bushfires over Canberra, Australia, 2019-20

The reality we all need to face is that the Anthropocene is in a deep, self-inflicted and possibly epoch-ending crisis. And, arguably, so is Capitalism, as the ethos that shapes its economic and social power dynamics. The much-feared recession has already commenced but it may be the start of much more than that: the possible end of a socio-economic dispensation that has proven to be unsustainable and fundamentally inequitable, and that is a root cause of the current crisis. Or perhaps it won’t and Big Capitalism will, once again, turn out to the biggest winner, at least in the short term — stimulus packages are being clamoured for by some of its biggest, most well-resourced exponents, along with calls for full economic activities to resume despite the anticipated human cost, while profits are no doubt already being made off the crisis or at least planned for. But that, in itself, will make its deep failings and injustices more visible than ever, and perhaps more likely to be decisively challenged. Such challenge is already emerging, for instance in the current #notdying4wallstreet call for a national strike in the USA, which almost immediately went viral on social media. We may soon find that the winds of revolution are blowing.Read More »