An Instagram post sparks intense debate about equity in Austin’s art world

As cultural institutions face public scrutiny over racial equity, the Contemporary Austin gets ready to launch a solo exhibition by Deborah Roberts, who is Black. A separate allegation of racism heightens demands for a reckoning.


“Little Man, little man” is a mural by Deborah Roberts that just last week was installed on the side of the Jones Center, the Contemporary Austin’s downtown gallery building on Congress Avenue.

The mural features six images of a young Black boy making joyous expressions and playful movements.

Roberts creates her figures from fragments, combining found images— from magazines, photographs, news and popular culture on the Internet — with hand-painted details. She often specifically selects images for their cultural and political import. The outward facing hand on two of the “Little Man, little man” figures is Barak Obama’s, photographed as he took the oath of office as America’s first Black president.

“Little Man, little man” takes its name from James Baldwin’s long-overlooked children’s book that articulates the experience of Black childhood through the adventures of a four-year-old boy in Harlem. Originally published in 1976 with illustrations by Yoran Cezac, the book received little attention and fell out of print until 2018.

The mural is the first part of “I’m” Roberts’ upcoming solo exhibition. Originally scheduled to open this fall it was delayed by the pandemic until Jan. 23, 2021. The exhibition will occupy the museum’s first floor and include all new work: collages and paintings, as well as two interactive sound, text, and video sculptures.

The 58-year-old Roberts, who is a native Austinite and lives and works here, prefers to be referred to as “Austin-based” these days, a reflection of the international scope of her career.

A working artist for decades, Roberts received very little institutional attention prior to 2014. Following her personally brave decision to pursue an MFA as she was nearing 50, Roberts’ art took a radical turn, moving past what she has called her “Black Norman Rockwell” style and towards her current practice of probing ideas of race, beauty and identity through collage-based portraits of black children.

After finishing her degree at Syracuse University, Roberts returned to Austin. In 2016, she made her own exhibition opportunity, gathering artwork, as well as that of three other Black artists, for an exhibition at the George Washington Carver Museum. That same year she received a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation fellowship, and made the cash award stretch as a long as she could.

Related: ‘Deborah Roberts faces down Venus and her stereotypes’

By 2017, Roberts was working in a shoe store to support herself when she was included in “Your Body is A Battleground,” an exhibition at the buzzy Volta NY art fair. Roberts’ work provoked a burst of attention from national-level critics, collectors and curators. Immediately, Studio Museum of Harlem director Thelma Golden acquired several works for her museum’s permanent collection and she included Roberts in the critically-noted group show, “Fictions.”

Roberts was given a museum solo show, “The Evolution of Mimi,” at Spelman College Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2018. A year later London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery began representing her, and she received a prestigious Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency.

Roberts artwork — which can fetch up to $150,000 for a painting — is now in the permanent collections of museums such as the Whitney, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. On her roster of celebrity private collectors are Beyoncé and the Obamas.

Roberts’ is a familiar narrative: An artist has to be recognized by the greater, elite art world before gaining institutional recognition at home.

Deborah Roberts, When you see me, 2019. Mixed media and collage on canvas. 65 x 120 inches. Framed, 67 1/4 x 122 inches. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
Deborah Roberts, “When you see me,” 2019. Mixed media and collage on canvas. 65 x 120 inches. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

In spring 2019, the Contemporary Austin offered Roberts a solo exhibition. “I’m” is curated by Heather Pesanti, the Contemporary’s chief curator, who is White. In addition to a curatorial essay by Pesanti, the exhibition’s catalog will feature contributions by a roster of notable Black leaders and art scholars: Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, University of Texas art history professor Eddie Chambers, and London-based curator Zoé Whitley.

The Contemporary received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the exhibition.

“I’m” is Robert’s first solo museum exhibition in her home state of Texas. It is also the first solo exhibition at the Contemporary Austin by any Texas-based artist. And Roberts is only the third Black or African diasporic artist to have a solo show at the museum.

* * *

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the general upending of institutions by the pandemic, numerous social media accounts sprang up to challenge racism and sexism in the art world, or to advocate for artworker rights.  Some include @museum_detox, @museumworkerspeaker, @_fortheculture2020,  and @cancelartgalleries.

On August 17 on one such Instagram account, @changethemuseum,  which has more than 35,000 followers, an anonymous allegation of racism against the Contemporary was posted:

“I was interviewing for a curatorial position at The Contemporary and I said I had a focus on Latino art. The interviewing curator said that’s not what they concentrate on and that the culturally-specific institutions within the city handled enough of that kind artwork.”



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A post shared by Change the Museum (@changethemuseum)

The post ignited wide conversation in the Austin arts community, most publicly in an Aug. 27 panel discussion hosted by Mexic-Arte Museum entitled “Racism in the Art Community.”

On the panel was Cherise Smith, professor of art history and chair of the University of Texas’s African and African Diaspora Studies department. Smith is also the founding executive director of UT’s Art Galleries at Black Studies, where Roberts had a solo exhibition in 2017.

“I was dismayed but not surprised (at the post),” Smith said. “I think it’s an honest representation of how the Contemporary sees itself, that it mostly shows art by white people and it does not always equitably show art by people of color.”

* * *

I stopped by the Jones Center on Sept. 14 as Roberts’ mural was being installed. In a text exchange with her earlier, Roberts told me she would decline to comment for this article.

Pesanti, who was there to oversee, had agreed to take my questions about the @changethemuseum post. The day we talked, Pesanti hadn’t yet viewed the Mexic-Arte panel (a recording of it is available on Mexic-Arte’s YouTube channel). She said that she had no idea who the author of the @changethemuseum post might be, adding that the curatorial assistant position was discontinued a couple of years ago.

“I think the museum is sorry that someone felt that way and experienced that,” Pesanti told me. “As for the recollection of that specific comment, I don’t know where that came from and I’m not sure how that person perceived that.”

For a few years, the Contemporary had a joint venture with UT’s graduate art history program, the Mercer Curatorial Fellowship. A UT spokesperson confirmed to me that the Mercer was a diversity-directed fellowship that provided a paid part-time curatorial internship at the Contemporary, with the two institutions sharing the costs. UT put the program on pause in 2018 to re-direct its small stipend to other graduate financial aid programs.

Pesanti said she could only speak to the museum’s exhibition programming. Since arriving in Austin 2013 (she came along with former director Louis Grachos; both were from Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery), Pesanti has held the museum’s senior leadership curatorial position.

“Since I got here I’ve aimed to represent the spectrum,” she said. “My shows have included Abraham Cruzvillegas from Mexico City, Wengechi Mutu who lives in Kenya; queer artists like Nicole Eisenmann, and Rodney McMillan (who is Black). My group shows have had everyone from most continents, from Asia to U.S./Latino to European to African.”

“I feel really proud of our programming,” she said. “Of course we can do better and every museum can do better.”

Yet, the majority of the artists the Contemporary has exhibited have been white. The museum has only exhibited three artists who are Latinx or Latin American. (Mexican artist Cruzvillegas had a solo show; LA-based Ruben Ochoa was part of group exhibition, as was Sofía Táboas of Mexico City.)

After the 2017 Women’s March, public pushback percolated around the authenticity of the museum’s commitment to social justice and gender equity vis-a-vis the Jm Hodges sculpture “With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress)” that is on top of the Jones Center. Ariel Evans, at the time an art history graduate student at UT, wrote a public essay pointing out that in the Contemporary’s first four years, it had only granted solo exhibitions to one woman artist and one artist of color.

* * *

The Contemporary is the offspring of two institutions that merged in 2012: the Austin Museum of Art, and Arthouse. For decades the Austin Museum of Art had tried — and failed — to build a downtown museum while also maintaining Laguna Gloria, a 12-acre lakeside site anchored by a 1916 historic villa. Arthouse, a non-collecting contemporary art center, was left financially bruised after renovating its Congress Avenue building into an architecturally sleek gallery venue.

By the time it had rebranded as the Contemporary in 2013, the new organization also had a $22 million new endowment, the profits from the prime downtown lot the Austin Museum of Art had been holding on to for years.

Museums are slow moving entities, even ones on the smaller side like the Contemporary. Exhibitions are years in the planning. Permanent collections remain as markers of previous decisions made by leaders — and driven by ideas — long past, and often woefully faulty.  Deaccessioning — the permanent removal of art from a museum’s collection — is a thorny ethical issue that should never violate the public trust. Also, museum boards are notoriously established, slow to adapt, and rarely reflect diversity. The Contemporary’s 40-member board is nearly all white.

When Louis Grachos arrived in 2013, the Contemporary began to move swiftly. With a $9 million gift from the Betty and Edward Marcus Foundation, the long-neglected Laguna Gloria grounds became a sculpture garden. Acquisitions were made of work by blue-chip artists including Ai Weiwei, Paul McCarthy and Liam Gillick. The exhibition program reflected the contemporary art world’s international circuit of fairs and biennials, along with a noticeable number of artists represented by multi-national mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth.

A $1.3 million grant from the Moody Foundation funded a renovation of the Jones Center. Another $3 million of Moody money paid for the beginning of an ambitious revamp of the Laguna Gloria grounds. And the museum guided the creation of the Suzanne Deal Booth/FLAG Art Foundation Prize, a biennial $200,000 unrestricted award, one of the art world’s largest.

Grachos left the Contemporary in 2018 to head the Palm Springs Art Museum in California.

Then in June of this year, that museum, and Grachos, were criticized in the national art press not only for silence in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests but also for a museum work environment that was toxic for people of color.

* * *

When well-meaning white individuals and institutions try to “credential” themselves as not-racist — naming the artists of color you have exhibited, for example — it’s the definition of what scholar Robin DiAngelo termed “white fragility” in a 2011 academic article, which later became the title of her best-selling book.

Such “credentialling,” by DiAngelo’s formulation, is a strategy employed by white people to evade looking closely at how they themselves have benefitted from systemic white supremacism and avoid examining their own complicity with racial hierarchies.

“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic,” writes DiAngelo in “White Fragility.”

Embedded within the solidarity statements sent in the wake of the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests, was plenty of “credentialling” coming from museums around the country.

In a June 6 article, Sightlines reporter Mary K. Cantrell took a look the solidarity statements from Austin museums and how they rang hollow to some Black arts leaders. Austin is always eager to champion its progressivism yet the city has a history of segregation and deep-rooted racial injustices, and that extends to its cultural institutions too.

Latinos make up 34% of Austin’s population; Blacks represent 9%.

“White people and people in positions of power must undergo multiple trainings so that they can become less fragile when their privilege is called out,” said Carre Adams, who heads the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center. “Dismantling racism is neither for the faint of heart nor a practice, but a life-long commitment.”

* * *

Just a few weeks before the world went into lockdown earlier this year, Sharon Maidenberg was announced as the Contemporary’s new director. She took the helm full-time on Sept. 1, after moving with her family from the Bay Area where for 13 years she had been executive director of the Headlands Center for the Arts, an international artist residency program.

Maidenberg, who is white, mentioned the book “White Fragility” when she sat down with me on Sept. 16 for a socially-distanced hour-long interview outside at Laguna Gloria. The book is one of many references she has been absorbing as she plans diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for the museum’s staff and its board.

“I’ve been calling it D-E-I-A,” Maidenberg said. “The ‘A’ is for accessibility. We need to address who can get to our facility, and can people with different abilities move around the grounds, and what is the invitation we put out to the public about who is welcome here.”

Maidenberg told me she “wasn’t shocked” when she read the @changethemuseum post.

“Many art organizations might be good at showing the work of people of color. But the next conversation has to be ‘what is your organizational culture?’ Equity has to start internally.”

She also said she is trying to find the person behind the comment.

“We owe it to (that person) to connect with them,” she said. “You have to be accountable and take responsibility for the effect your institution had on someone even if what happened came before me. I care about how they feel.”

(I could not locate the post’s author despite pursuing numerous sources, including the managers of @changethemuseum, who don’t require submitters to provide contact information.)

Originally from the East Coast, Maidenberg has an undergraduate degree in African American and Diasporic studies. She said she watched the Mexic-Arte panel discussion recently one evening after she had put her young son to bed.

“I hope over time we will not be seen as a White institution,” she said. “Going forward programmatically, I expect that you’ll see what you’ve seen in just the past couple of years with Heather’s work, which is a more diverse roster of artists. And a lot of next year will be focusing on Austin and on Texas.”

Roberts’ exhibition, Maidenberg said, “is a tremendous opportunity for the museum to stretch muscles that might be a little atrophied, or might not have existed at all around how to really think of carefully, thoughtfully, rigorously about inclusion. In hindsight, I think there could have been a much more holistic approach to thinking about identity.”

“We have a lot of work to do.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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