Cast in bronze and standing more than ten feet tall, Simone Leigh’s sculpture “Sentinel IV” now stands observant over the courtyard in front of Anna Hiss Gymnasium at the University of Texas.
The latest acquisition by Landmarks, UT’s public art program, the statue is modeled after a Zulu ceremonial spoon, a symbol of women’s labor. Elegant and somewhat enigmatic, “Sentinel IV” aligns with Leigh’s practice of using vernacular objects of the African Diaspora to honor Black womanhood.
Anna Hiss Gymnasium was UT’s first women’s gym, and the siting of Leigh’s elongated figure resembles a woman’s body. It’s an unmistakably a female presence in a place of historical female resonance.
To celebrate the sculpture’s installation in July, Landmarks held a virtual artist’s talk with Stephanie Sparling Williams, a Black art historian and Associate Curator at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, who served as a curatorial contributor to the project. Williams asked Leigh how she felt having her work acquired by and permanently installed at the University of Texas when several Confederate statues that had long stood in a prominent campus spots were only removed in 2017.
“I have heard that Texas is not considered the South,” Leigh said, “but for me it is a part of a kind of (Southern) landscape that I feel equally intrigued by and threatened by. One of the questions that came to me around this installation was [whether] I feel the sculpture was safe.”
Leigh’s sculpture is the first created by a Black woman to be acquired by Landmarks, and the first to be permanently displayed on UT campus. And its acquisition is part of a considered plan begun three years ago to diversify the university’s public art collection.
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When Black Lives Matter protests erupted last year in response to the murder of George Floyd, many museums and cultural institutions rushed to release public statements in solidarity with the protestors.
An awakening to racial and social justice issues also prompted questions about the authenticity of art institutions’ actual commitment to change. Equity statements have become standard on museum websites. And many institutions have announced the formation of committees, the hiring of consultants, the plans for staff (and sometimes board) training in DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusivity and accessibility).
But museums are notoriously slow-to-change institutions, and genuine DEIA initiatives have been slow to materialize.
Landmarks launched in 2008 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a long-term loan of 28 modern and contemporary sculptures to UT. They were the first non-figurative sculptures to be displayed as public art on the campus. And they were mostly by white male artists. At the same time Landmarks began a “percent for art policy” whereby 1 to 2% of construction and renovation money went to buying and commissioning art for public spaces, a considerable amount given UT’s history of seemingly constant expansion.
Landmarks commissioned a stunning Skyspace installation from James Turrell and purchased several major pieces from top-tier artists including Sol LeWitt, Mark di Suvero and Mark Quinn.
Andrée Bober, Landmarks founder and director, began working towards diversifying the university’s public art collection within a few years of its launch.
“I realized the gender imbalance in our collection. So our remedy was to invite more commissions of women artists: Nancy Rubins, Ann Hamilton, Beth Campbell, Jennifer Steinkamp, and others,” she said.
Then, in 2019, Landmarks began to reexamine its approach to equity, catalyzed in part by a complaint received from a pair of students, who were white, about Peter Reginato’s “Kingfish: An Homage to Tim Moore.” The abstract painted steel sculpture — one loaned by The Met — was inspired by an actor from “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the radio-turned-TV show that drew criticism for its racist caricatures of African Americans. The show eventually was pulled from production after successful protests from the NAACP and African American activists.
Bober said the student’s complaint sparked conversations with dozens of people on campus and off. “It helped us reexamine our program, policies, and ourselves for racial biases,” Bober said
Soon afterwards Landmarks enlisted New York-based diversity and equity consultant Eboné Bishop, who after two years is still working with the Landmarks staff and its advisory committee.
Bishop is selective about her clients. “The leadership has to be there from the beginning,” she said in a video interview. “There’s got to be not just words, but actions.”
One of the most publicly obvious ways an art institution demonstrates diversity is with the art it collects and exhibits. Bober drilled down on the demographics of Landmarks’ collection; then compared them to the demographics of Texas, Austin, and the UT community. As a relatively young art collection, Landmarks is currently more diverse than many art museums whose holdings date back decades. Of the artists Landmarks has exhibited and collected, 64% are male and 36% female, and 54% are White.
“The demographic information is a tool, it frames the conversation when we think of building the collection, but the actual work has to be more nuanced than just numbers,” said Bober.
Nevertheless, Bober said the goal is to target underrepresented artists for future projects, starting with women artists of color.
A less obvious — though perhaps more impactful—goal is changing the internal culture of the organization itself. Ongoing diversity education has been required of current Landmarks staff for more than a year. Assessing staff salaries and what Landmarks pays performers and artists has been prioritized.
Highly important for Bober is the manner in which Landmarks engages with the public. “Since Landmarks started, we’ve strived to dismantle barriers to the elitism that’s embedded in most traditional arts systems,” she said. “Our public art is of course free for everyone, and we’ve also made all of our programs and events free and open to the public.”
But how those events are planned needs to change too, Bober added. For example, seeking collaboration with another organization after the particulars of a public event are set isn’t truly equitable. “If we want to engage we have to establish a partnership first, then step back and see what’s created together,” Bober said.
Bishop noted that many arts organizations resist opening their planning process. “You can’t necessarily control everything,” she said. “You just have to show up with best intentions and make the best effort.”
“There’s always work to be done, there’s always something more to interrogate,” said Bober. “[DEIA] work is a skill set — another way of seeing the world and understanding what we’re doing and how we can do it more effectively and ethically.”
“We have to learn how to bring equity into the conversation and make our institutions serve the complex audiences that they are meant to serve.”
Landmarks has a diversity statement on its website, but it’s not emblazoned front and top as so many are. And that’s a deliberate strategy.
Said Bober: “We’re not making proclamations, we’re not only turning things into talking points. We’re just doing the work.”
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Leigh’s artwork is multi-layered, created in a mode she describes as auto-ethnographic. She uses often neglected objects to interrogate ideas about history, race, gender, labor, and monuments, and ultimately elevates powerful narratives of Black women.
During her artist talk for Landmarks, Leigh spoke of how the opportunity to create monumental artworks for outdoor public display is a recent development. Long overlooked by the art world, Leigh, 54, has finally seen her career take off. Now, she’s had her work acquired by New York’s Guggenheim Museum and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. And next year she’ll be the first Black woman to ever represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Leigh referenced the discourse around monuments in the last couple of years: which statues are taken down, and which are now installed as public statements. Of “Sentinel IV”, Leigh said: “This is definitely something I’m really proud of.”