LOUISVILLE, Ky. – People talk a lot about getting back to normal before Covid. But our traditional art museums can forget this. After a year of intense racial justice, a crippling pandemic and crippling economic shortages, aging and hidden institutions are scrambling just to stay afloat. And the only way for them to do that is to change. Forward movement strategies are needed. One is at stake here at the Speed Art Museum, in the form of a quietly passionate show titled “Promise, testimony, memory”, which could, with profit, be studied by other institutions in survivalist mode.
Conventional encyclopedic museums like the Speed, Kentucky’s largest and oldest art museum, are glacial machines. Their major exhibitions have usually been planned for years. Borrowing items from other museums can be a tangle of bureaucracy. “Historical” performances, by definition, are generally limited to the events and cultures of the past. “Promise, witness, memory” revises all this. It accelerates the production of exhibitions, focuses on the present and, in so doing, reaches new audiences vital for the institutional future.
Combining works from the Speed’s permanent collection with loans in several cases directly from artists and galleries, the exhibition was put together and installed (beautifully) in just four months. And it was intended as a direct response to a contemporary topical event: the murder, by Louisville police, of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black medical worker, in March 2020. A posthumous painting of Taylor by the artist Amy Sherald is the showpiece, accompanied by photographs of the local street protests sparked by her death and the lenient treatment of the white officers involved.
The availability of Sherald’s painting, which is widely known for its first portrait of Michelle Obama, was the impetus for the show. Originally commissioned by Vanity Fair, it appeared on the cover of the magazine’s September 2020 issue. Sherald herself has expressed interest in having the painting on display at Speed, and in November the museum hired Allison Glenn, associate curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., Who , with amazing speed and sharpness, built an exhibit around her in Louisville, comprised entirely of black artists, with funding found to keep admission free.
Accessibility, cultural and financial, are crucial characteristics of the show. Until now, museums have generally ignored the country’s changing demographics. The history that our large art museums of general interest promote, through their preservation and display of objects, is primarily white history, with views of all other stories filtered through it. But this biased perspective is no longer representative of the audiences that museums must, in a purely pragmatic way, attract in order to survive.
Museums also tend to underestimate radical shifts in awareness and interest in the past. In a century of social media, attention seems increasingly focused on the 24-hour news cycle. How can this new consciousness be reflected in classical museums, which pride themselves on being slow-reacting monoliths. It is only by remaining flexible, ready and able to adjust, absorb and adapt that our artistic institutions can thrive.
In “Promise, Witness, Remembrance”, speed provides an example of this dynamic. Working closely with Taylor’s family and with Toya Northington, Speed’s community relations strategist, Glenn quickly formed advisory boards of artists and activists from the town itself and across the country. In Speed’s permanent collection, she found solid material to draw on, including works by several artists associated with the city. The pieces included a gorgeous, warm draped painting like an embrace from 1969 by Sam Gilliam, who grew up in Louisville; a sculpted bronze head of a Black Union soldier by Ed Hamilton, who still lives there; and a suite of strategically edited Ebony magazine pages by Noel W Anderson, who is now based in New York City.
Glenn then began to apply for loans. In a time frame that most museums considered incredibly tight, deals were signed and pieces started to arrive. The last to be installed, shortly before the opening, was the portrait of Sherald which is about to be jointly purchased by Speed and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, with the help of a million dollar donation from two philanthropists, the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation (led by actress Kate Capshaw and her husband, director Steven Spielberg).
The resulting exhibition is not huge – around 30 pieces – but the museum has given it a privileged space, clearing three galleries of permanent collections on either side of its central atrium filled with sculptures to welcome it. This ensures that the individual works have room to breathe. He also symbolically offers a gesture of welcome from a traditional museum to an exhibition of contemporary black art. (In contrast, two years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed a truly royal retrospective of Kerry James Marshall, not where it really belonged in the special exhibition galleries at the museum’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue, but in what was then his Breuer annex on Madison Avenue.)
Glenn organized the show into three parts related to the themes of the title, all offered by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. The work in the first section, “Promise,” suggests the much-vaunted humanistic ideals of a nation and the abuse of those ideals. A 2011 mural by Nari Ward spells out the first words of the Constitution, “We the people,” in letters made of multi-colored laces. In Bethany Collins’ “The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal” (2020), militant nationalist songs are etched, as if written with acid, into the pages of a book.
The second gallery, “Witness,” freely focuses on the theme of cultural and political resistance, recent in the images of Louisville photographers – Erik Branch, Xavier Burrell, Jon P. Cherry, Tyler Gerth (1992-2020) and TA Yero – documenting the city’s Black Lives Matter 2020 protests; and historical in the case of Terry Adkins’ sculptural stacked drum column referencing a 1917 NAACP march in New York City to protest a nationwide scourge of lynchings.
The third section, “Souvenir”, is dimly lit and little hanging. Here, what looks like commemorative floral tributes – a sculptural by Nick Cave and one painted by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons of Cuban descent – flank a wall projection of Jon-Sesrie Goff’s video “A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield” , a brief and moving meditation on the 2016 mass killing at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC
Sherald’s portrait of Taylor, which she depicts in a breeze-blown turquoise dress against a turquoise background, hangs just beyond, in a chapel-like space, otherwise empty except for some wall text in the form of a biographical chronology composed by his mother. The whole show is basically designed to lead to and enshrine this image. You can see it in the distance, an eye-catching blur of color, the minute you enter three galleries further, and approach it via a processional route.
I find myself resisting such consecrations, whether human, artistic or historical. So I was glad the show didn’t end there, but with a two-channel video by artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph titled “BLKNWS® ” in a bright room, with a view to the outside, a flight down. Hoarse and edgy, the video is an alternate and rapid take on what the media omits or distorts in their reporting on black life and experience.
As part of the Speed exhibition, his mock diary recalls what museums, too, leave behind. As far as I know, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is the only large-scale corporate show to date that addresses the significant episode in our contemporary national history of Taylor’s violent death and community response to it.
And it’s worth considering that the Speed show coincides with the Minneapolis trial of the white cop accused of killing George Floyd, another landmark event that – again, as far as I know – no major institution. has not yet addressed at a glance. If you are wondering why our museums these days too often look like dated artifacts with a precarious future, Covid-19 cannot take all the blame.