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  • Jun 02, 2020

Black Lives Matter to Cultural Organizations in the United States

HERB TAM, George Floyd, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy the Museum of Chinese in America, New York.

As protests have rocked hundreds of cities and towns across the United States over the last week in response to police and vigilante killings of African-Americans, many leading cultural organizations, art museums, and galleries in the US are openly calling for solidarity with communities of color and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cultural organizations have issued statements or made social media posts to support the protests or grieve the deaths of those killed, often utilizing images by artists of color.

Lonnie G. Bunch, the secretary of the country’s largest museum organization, the Smithsonian Institute, published a statement on May 31 that mourned George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade—who were all killed within the past three months—and “far too many preceding them whose needless deaths were brought about by unjustified violence.” In Minneapolis, where Floyd died of asphyxiation due to a white police officer kneeling on his neck on May 25, the Walker Art Center said it was grieving with the Twin Cities (the neighboring Minneapolis and St. Paul) and that “the violence we have all witnessed should not be tolerated.”

Museums with close ties to communities of color have been particularly outspoken in showing solidarity. In New York, The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), sent out an email on June 1 featuring a Black Lives Matter banner and affirming the organization’s stance “against anti-Black violence and the institutional racism that supports it.” The letter named African-Americans killed in recent months, including Floyd; Arbery, who was killed in southern Georgia while jogging in his neighborhood by three white men with ties to the local police; Taylor, a nurse who was fatally shot in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, when police raided the apartment in the middle of the night to execute a “no-knock warrant”; and McDade, a black trans person in Tallahassee, Florida. The email included a portrait of George Floyd painted by the museum’s curator and director of exhibitions, Herb Tam.

The Studio Museum in Harlem noted that "Since its founding, the Studio Museum has exhibited work by black artists committed to bearing witness to acts of protest. The act of protest is a loud cry for justice, one that demands to be heard and felt." Located uptown in Spanish Harlem, El Museo del Barrio issued a statement by executive director Patrick Charpenel saying that the country was witnessing “the byproduct of this country’s long-standing history of systemic racism in the form of relentless violence against members of the Black community.” The Bronx Museum of the Arts stated that it “unequivocally believes that Black Lives Matter” and that it was mourning those killed. The Brooklyn Museum’s social media post  began, “There’s so much to be said, and let’s start with this fundamental truth: #BlackLivesMatter.” The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s stated that it was standing “in solidarity with the uprisings happening across our land and those fighting against system racism and disempowerment of Black communities and communities of color,” while also acknowledging as an organization that the efforts to eradicate institutionalized racism are “long overdue.” The Queens Museum blacked out its social media channel as part of the #blackouttuesday social media campaign and postponed a talked scheduled for June 2.

Other museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the New Museum also created posts and addressing the protests and joined social-media campaigns, though they also received critical comments accusing them of virtue signaling that contradicted some of the organizations’ internal policies and practices. The New Museum, for instance, has had contentious labor issues and the Whitney was embroiled in a massive controversy in 2019 over its ex-vice chair of the board of trustees, Warren Kanders, who owned a company that manufactured teargas reportedly used by US border agents against Central American migrants. 

Commercial endeavors have similarly been supportive of the protest movement. The New Art Dealers Alliance has been posting links to petitions and gofundme pages connected to Ahmaud, Taylor, Floyd, and the Minnesota Freedom fund, as well as Black Lives Matter. Many commercial galleries are also making donations to organizations and posting either a black square or Black Lives Matter message to their social media accounts. David Zwirner gallery said it had donated to groups including Black Lives Matter, National Bail Out, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, while Lehmann Maupin shared that it had donated to the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Art for Justice Fund.

With no end to the protests in sight, president Donald Trump and several Republican lawmakers have called for the deployment of the military to crack down on demonstrations and curtail expressions of dissent. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has defended aggressive and violent police tactics, has imposed an 8pm curfew after looting and vandalism hit parts of central Manhattan on Monday night. Los Angeles has a 12 hour curfew since Monday night, lasting from 6pm to 6am.

HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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