As Austin museums react to the Black Lives Matter movement, bigger issues emerge

Statements of support for Black Lives Matter from local museums reveal a long, tough road to achieving equity


Black Lives Matter protests have erupted across the country recently in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hand of police in Minneapolis and the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In Austin, protesters chant “Justice for Mike Ramos,” the latest unarmed person of color to be killed by Austin police.

After the #BlackoutTuesday campaign kicked off a social media frenzy, many cultural institutions and museums reacted to pressure from protestors on social media to release public statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

It prompted national museum leaders to react. “As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough,” wrote Chris Anagnos executive director of Association of Art Museum Directors, in a statement issued June 1. “We have dabbled around the edges of the work, but in our place of privilege we will never live up to the statement that ‘museums are for everyone’ unless we begin to confront, examine and dismantle the various structures that brought us to this point.”

Sightlines reached out to museums in Austin to ask them to expand on their solidarity messaging. And we also reached out to Black museum professionals for their reaction.

Lise Ragbir, director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, said the unprecedented combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest has forced many institutions to re-evaluate their offerings.

“When museums and public spaces were shut down, notions of access moved to the forefront of how museums engage with audiences,” she said. “I really think there’s no room to deny that cultural institutions have to change what they’re doing.”

Art Galleries at Black Studies recently revisited its own mission statement in order to focus on the organization’s core tenants now that in-person access to its site is not possible. The result is The Narrative, an upcoming digital collection of resources, articles, art and film.

The Blanton is developing an online archive of programming from previous exhibitions including “Witness: Art & Civil Rights in the Sixties” from 2015, and its 2018 show of Vincent Valdez’ monumental painting “The City,” a four-part canvas that portrays a group in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods. The museum is also turning its education program Doing Social Justice into an online resource.

Vincent Valdez, “The City I,” 2015–16 (detail), Oil on canvas, four panels, 74 x 360 in. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster in Honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, with additional support from Jeanne and Michael Klein and Ellen Susman in honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2017 © Vincent Valdez. Photo by Peter Molick, Courtesy of the artist and David Shelton Gallery, Houston.

“The Blanton will continue to present the work of Black artists from our own collection and other institutions; upcoming exhibitions include ‘Diedrick Brackens: Darling Divined’ and ‘Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful,’” the Blanton statement said. “For these, we again plan to develop programming with community leaders and partners, in keeping with our commitment to the representation of diverse voices and viewpoints.”

Women & Their Work said it would promote the work of Black artists who had previously exhibited in its gallery on social media and its website.

“Each of us must continue to examine our own complicity in institutional racism and listen in humility recognizing that being able to work in the arts is itself a great privilege,” director Chris Cowden said in a statement.

The Contemporary Austin used the past week to raise awareness of events and resources organized by Black community members instead of promoting its current virtual programming. In a statement, the museum listed artists of color it has worked with and programming it has hosted in conjunction with the Jim Hodges’ installation “With Liberty and Justice for All (a Work in Progress)” which sits prominently on top of the museum’s  Jones Center in downtown Austin.

“We feel that it is critical that we not let the frenetic pace of social media guide our response to the turmoil in our city and across the nation. Instead, we plan to talk with our friends and partners in the Black community, asking them how our institution can help in a more active and productive way,” the Contemporary’s statement said. “We, like most U.S. art museums, have a great deal of work to do to improve the diversity of our own staff and board of trustees, and we are committed to making significant steps in that direction.”

In January 2021, the Contemporary Austin will present Deborah Roberts’ solo exhibition “I’m,” the first Austin artist to be featured by the museum since its 2013 reformation as the Contemporary.

The Bob Bullock Museum, who has yet to make a public statement of solidarity, will extend the current run of the traveling exhibition “This Light of Ours,” featuring activist photographers of the Civil Rights movement.

Sarah Story, executive director of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, said that museum staff will undergo an eight-week workshop to examine its roles and responsibilities in addressing systemic racism in museums. The museum will also begin a process of revising its current mission and vision to better reflect where the museum is in 2020.

“Internally, we are beginning an institutional process of reevaluating our mission and vision, to create a clearer set of values for the museum that reflect our goal of equity and inclusivity,” Story said.

In fall 2019, the Umlauf organized the first solo exhibition in the U.S. in nearly two decades of noted Black painter Michael Ray Charles.

Detail of Michael Ray Charles, “Forever Free (Desire),” Latex paint on canvas, 2019.

However, Ragbir points out, simply exhibiting the work of Black artists does not address the deeper institutional inequities of most museums.

“Presenting work by Black artists is not enough. It has to be part of a larger ethos,” she said. “It feels like too little too late. I think there has to be a deeper dig into some of the core issues.”

Carre Adams, lead curator and education manager at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center, compared museums to houses with faulty foundations.

“We have to consider what these houses are made of,” Adams said. “Arts entities without Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous staff cannot simply invite professional creatives into a fold that will ultimately harm them.”

Cherise Smith, chair of UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies and the founding executive director of Art Galleries at Black Studies, also pointed to the lack of diversity among local museum staff, particularly when it comes to executive, curatorial and internal leadership positions.

“The core issues are the intellectual mission of these institutions, and that has to do with the intellectual work that non-white people might contribute. A number of institutions (in Austin) are not necessarily kind players in the city’s museum landscape. Representation in programming alone is not sufficient.”

Smith pointed out the Contemporary’s “Rodney McMillian: Against A Civic Death,” as a successful example of a local museum reaching out to minoritized communities. She also pointed out how the Blanton failed to include the NAACP in its presentation of Valdez’s “The City, I,” until the New York Times made the museum aware of its oversight.

What’s needed, Smith said, is to have people of color in curatorial, executive and museum leadership positions.

“If these institutions do not have people of color on their boards already, that is something that they should long past have done,” said Smith. “They should have people of color on their acquisitions committees and engage with a larger community, not just a specific aspect of the community. And I have concerns about how larger institutions in this city edge out smaller, more ethnically specific institutions in Austin.”

As one of the few culturally-specific art museums in town, Mexic-Arte Museum offered a letter of solidarity to its members, stating support for Black Lives Matter and a commitment to documenting racial injustice and offering its space as a center for community discussion and connection.

“We all have the responsibility to ask the hard questions and learn from each other. As a museum, we document, interpret the histories of our communities, contribute to changing injustices and institutional racism,” wrote Sylvia Orozco, Mexic-Arte executive director.

The Neill-Cochran House Museum, which houses the only intact slave quarters in the city, is engaging with the difficult history of its site.

“Our country, our communities, are hurting, both from COVID-19 and… the systemic racism we as a country have battled throughout our history,” wrote Neill-Cochran director Rowena Dasch. “So, as we reopen (now), we do so soberly and while hoping that Austinites will consider us a tool for learning more about our shared history in order to chart a better path forward.”

While Austin museums mentioned plans to reach out to Black community partners, none specified how, when or who those community partners would be.

Ragbir, who has been on many such community committees and advisory boards, said museums need to now stand up and do the work themselves.

“Predominantly white institutions really are in a tricky position right now, reaching out to Black constituents and community members. I’m tired of being a resource for white communities,” she said. “I don’t know that I have that bandwidth right now for the generosity needed to validate their actions. I don’t know if I can step out of my own anguish to go and help a predominantly white institution feel better about themselves.”

Adams also echoed the need for white people to bear the responsibility for their own change.

“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,” he said. “Ideally, once people are equipped with this knowledge they will have the ability to spot and dismantle injustice. In practical terms, these organizations must develop a set of mission, vision, and value statements that serve as guide posts for their commitment to racial equity and justice.”

“Dismantling racism is neither for the faint of heart nor a practice, but a life-long commitment,” Adams said.

Smith noted that in the end, the barrage of solidarity statements feels incomplete.

“I would ask (the museums) to consider who these pleas of solidarity are for. Are they for their white constituents? Or are they for the people of color that they’ve never engaged with over the years?”


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Cherise Smith did not compliment the Blanton Museum’s handling of the Vincent Valdez exhibition.

Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell is an Austin-based freelance writer and journalist. She has journalism and women’s and gender studies degrees from the University of Texas and a fondness for covering local arts stories.

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