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Illustration by AMY FAN.

Relooking for Relevance

Also available in:  Chinese

In 2021, the Point asks writers to imagine post-pandemic futures. Below, Art Institute of Chicago curator Yi Cao discusses the refashioning of museums in the wake of social movements calling for decolonization and racial equality.

Since the Corcoran Gallery of Art, one of first art museums in the United States, was founded in Washington, DC, over 150 years ago, art museums have become lifelong learning companions for a few, places for occasional visits for some, and fading memories of school field trips for many. Despite making efforts to stay relevant and welcoming, the undeniable truth—especially concerning to museum professionals—is that art institutions have remained an indistinct, almost foreign place for most.

As a museum professional who believes in what art can and should offer to all, I had never imagined a place where not a single art museum was open. Yet the Covid-19 crisis made this a reality, making me shudder to think: If the pandemic persists, art museums that weren’t a “necessity” for everyone might be among those institutions deemed dispensable. Alternatively, when the pandemic comes to its end, if museums haven’t demonstrated that they are for everyone, what would justify their ongoing existence through a more critical and parsimonious post-pandemic lens?

Intertwined with the global pandemic has been a painful reckoning with histories of colonialism and systemic racism in art museums in the US. From the punctuated Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd to the Stop AAPI Hate protest against anti-Asian/American violence, cries for racial justice have crystallized in society at large. This cultural context has led to open letters to museum leaderships calling for a reform in the inequitable workplace and artists’ withdrawals from exhibitions that contradict their values, leading us to once again face museums’ long history of excluding and marginalizing people of color. So in thinking upon this current situation, we need to ask: what more can art museums do? And what differences can they make in a post-pandemic future?

For starters, museums can rethink and reactivate their collections as part of defining their identity in the community where they are located and reconsider what role they play amid the nexus of complex histories, individual lived experiences, cultural priorities, and social currents. The canonical Western-centric presentation of art history that holds sway in most cultural institutions has always been committed to rigid boundaries that protect systems of hierarchy and authority. One implication is that traditional museum-collection displays are typically chronologically and taxonomically arranged, when that is not the only manner in which objects can be displayed. Without acknowledging how cultures were legitimized through coloniality or influenced each other, the artworks stand bereft of historical references, cultural context, and transparent information on their acquisition.

This reality should compel us to consider the following: When a statue (or painting) evokes a triumph of war in a gallery setting—and the culture of the victims’ ancestors is presented on a different floor and a separate setting—the museum’s inability to reconcile these conflicting narratives and unequal forms of presentation has been echoed and amplified by the people calling for social justice in the streets. Consequently, our charge within the museum today is to meaningfully grapple with this disconnect and provide substantive solutions to these internal and external problems. Our museums must occupy this crucial terrain and provide a newfound coral reef where dynamic learning occurs, providing a space for dialogue, reflection, and reconciliation.    

Contextualizing art and artifacts outside Western civilizations’ imperial gaze should also be considered an institutional imperative when reconsidering Asian Art collections in American museums. The classification of various Asian ethnic and cultural groups by geographic areas, and layout and progression of galleries reveals a still lingering Orientalist perspective that contradicts the postcolonial discourse and multicultural social movements happening outside the museum walls. In addition to showcasing the commonality of Asians between various “Asian” countries, it is vital to challenge the Western concepts of what constitutes “Asia” or “Asian art.”

Many museums have taken steps in this direction, and many iconoclastic practitioners in the field have experimented with such approaches. When I encountered a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a portrait of Tillie Speyer, a local philanthropist, and an etching of teenage female workers making lace in a factory, displayed side by side in “Dig Where You Stand,” an exhibition curated by Koyo Kouoh in the 57th edition Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, my attention was called to the lace seen on the respective dresses that Queen Elizabeth and Speyer were wearing and in the hands of the Puerto Rican female workers. Running counter to traditional museum displays, this assembly problematized the romance of lace by identifying its origins within colonized labor.

Digging through collections that are rarely presented and recontextualizing works from their holdings that have untold stories can offer museums ways to provide new interpretations, to unlearn, take risks, and empathically innovate. These are occasions for opening up feminist, postcolonial, and transcultural approaches to curating, as well as artist interventions and community collaborations. Collections should be viewed as fluid, and the related questions of acquisition, deaccession, provenance, exhibition design, and interpretation work are all opportunities for self-reflexive examination. Collections can and should be radically open-ended, empowering museums to be more nimble in adapting to cultural phenomena and catalyzing dynamic learning around these cultural changes.

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