Curating Difference: Race and Ethnicity in the US Museum

Chairs: Bridget R. Cooks, University of California, Irvine & Jacqueline Francis, California College of the Arts/ACRAH

This session is intended as a conversation addressing how to implement a critical race visual studies-informed practice in a museum setting. Topics for consideration include: how mainstream and/or culturally-specific institutions in the US have embraced such an approach; case studies about exhibitions devoted to art made by US-based artists of color and/or art made about American communities of color; and strategies promoting greater racial and ethnic sensitivity amongst extant museum professionals as well as diversifying their ranks in terms of the ethno-racial backgrounds and/or awareness of future hires. Submissions from Los Angeles-area and West Coast-based curators and museum professionals are especially encouraged, as are topics focused on this region.



  • Sierra Rooney, Stony Brook University; Monumental Change?: Integrating Black American Women in the United States Capitol Statuary Collection

The United States Capitol National Statuary Hall showcases statues of notable American individuals, and until very recently, this honor was accorded to no black women at all. This changed in 2009, just months into the presidency of Barack Obama, when Sojourner Truth and, then in 2013, Rosa Parks became the first black women recognized with statues in the Capitol’s galleries. The presence of Truth and Parks within seat of the federal government demonstrates the bumpy and contentious path toward ever-greater inclusiveness in the civic sphere. While there has been little scholarly attention paid to contemporary artworks displayed in the Capitol, I argue that the creation, design, and dedication of these monuments during the Obama presidency is a historically significant re-framing of our national narrative. My research traces the patronage and reception of the monuments to Truth and Parks through newspaper accounts, federal proceedings, and commissioning documents. My resulting analysis demonstrates that the civic processes that resulted in these monuments epitomizes a powerful, official endorsement of a new pantheon of American heroes, one that acknowledges the contributions of African American women. However, given the limited ways that these women are afforded heroic status, these statues also reveal just how carefully this story is constructed.

  • Angelica J. Maier, University of Minnesota; Smudged: Cindy Sherman and Blackface Minstrelsy

Exuding confidence, a grinning woman stands with one hand on her hip, the other raised as if holding on to the overhead handle of a public bus. Wearing platform heels, a t-shirt, blazer and mini-skirt, the woman’s eyes meet our gaze with an alluring look. Yet there is something peculiar about the photograph; a stiff posture and feigned joy in her smile intimate superficiality. Upon closer inspection, another detail asserts: smudges of makeup on the woman’s right leg near the hem of her skirt. There, heightened artificiality stems from more than just her peacock posture; it also comes from dark makeup attempting to hide white skin—dark makeup used to paint the woman’s legs, hands, neck, and face black. A 2016 retrospective exhibition of Cindy Sherman at the Broad in Los Angeles featured this image along with fourteen other photographs from Sherman’s 1976 “Bus Riders” series. The exhibition of the series fell short in two ways: by not providing sufficient contextualization (i.e., explaining how these images were originally displayed in 1976) and by failing to acknowledge that these images, through the use of blackface makeup, warrant justified outrage. By acknowledging the controversial potential of such images as well as their potential to evoke pain, we can begin to make space for dialogue regarding these images. Through this case study, I contribute a new narrative to a much-written about artist that acknowledges the necessity for critical empathy from artists, curators, and art historians as we engage and re-engage with race-based imagery.

  • Alana Ryder, Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University; Empowering Incarcerated Women from Script to Screen: The Director’s Dialogue on Art and Social Change at the Wexner Center for the Arts

This case study will examine how an annual public program at the Wexner Center for the Arts was reimagined to have a life beyond the walls of its lecture hall. The 2017 Director’s Dialogue on Art and Social Change launched out of a partnership between the center’s Film/Video residency program and Pens to Pictures, a filmmaking collaborative based at a women’s prison in Dayton, Ohio. Expanded to a three-part program, the Director’s Dialogue provided access to the filmmakers, Pens to Pictures founder Chinonye Chukwu, and staff from the correctional facility; over a dozen organizations focused on reform, reentry, and advocacy; and perspectives of professors and community leaders. The short films and documentary demanded a program structure that enabled participants—from the first-year college student to the civil rights lawyer—to continue their study and engagement with the intersections of social justice, mass incarceration, race, and gender. The paper will outline what tools, resources, and stakeholders were involved to compel attendees to take action after the Director’s Dialogue. Strategies that art institutions can implement to create a safe, adaptive platform that allows exchange and debate will also be described. Additionally, the paper will provide reflections on and methods for supporting the art and voices of the most marginalized in order to make urgent social issues deeply humanized, personal, and visible.

Discussant: Chang Tang, Penn State University


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