Former DIA and MOCAD employees on “the work of making equitable spaces” at arts institutions | Michigan Radio
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Former DIA and MOCAD employees on “the work of making equitable spaces” at arts institutions

Jul 28, 2020

As the nation grapples with how its institutions treat people of color, the surge in conversations about how systemic racism exists in our social structures isn’t confined to the criminal justice or health systems. It’s also affecting the arts community, including in Detroit, where current and former staff and volunteers at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) have formed public campaigns asking for change at these institutions.

As part of an ongoing series on what systemic racism looks like in our society, Stateside spoke with writer and curator Tizziana Baldenebro, multidisciplinary artist and designer Maceo Keeling and digital experience designer Andrea Montiel de Shuman about the racism they have experienced and witnessed in the art world, as well as how implementing institutional change at arts organizations could better serve artists and communities of color.

Montiel de Shuman said racism in arts institutions isn’t always visible to the public, but employees might deal with it frequently at an organization’s internal level.

“One particular example that I can remember was, as we were preparing a large exhibition for the public, there was a case of clear cultural appropriation,” Montiel de Shuman said. “A Black curator brought up that we were going to be diving into this issue, and then I remember clearly the director stopping him and explaining--or just stating--that he did not want us to use the words ‘cultural appropriation’--‘because what is cultural appropriation, anyways?’ Nobody in the room was able to respond against, or to continue, that dialogue--many of us were scared.”

Montiel de Shuman worked at the DIA until recently--upon leaving, she wrote an essay about her experiences and concerns about the museum’s management. Staff members have also spoken out about the DIA through an anonymous group called DIA Staff Action, which has gathered a number of online resources related to staff concerns.

Baldenebro and Keeling, former Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellows at MOCAD, are members of MOCAD Resistance, a group of current and former MOCAD staff and volunteers speaking out about conditions there. 

Keeling said he’s noticed arts organizations attempting to “pigeon-hole” his work based on their perception of his racial identity.

“I have experience with institutions wanting to play up my racial identity or inadvertently or explicitly tie my work to racial, historical, slavery, social justice things, without my doing so,” Keeling said. “It’s somehow pulled into this sort of rather narrow narrative about what Black art has to be about.”

Baldenebro said she had multiple experiences at MOCAD where she felt "tokenized" because of her race.

“There were meetings where [the executive director] would introduce us as the Ford fellows who were brought in to bring the diversity to the curatorial vision, and not because we’re incredibly bright individuals who are accomplished, or all of the things that we’ve achieved,” Baldenebro said. “So it really does become this conversation about, ‘Oh, you were brought on because of the color of your skin or because of your background.’”

Montiel de Shuman and Keeling both noted that arts institutions like museums are often funded by a small number of wealthy donors, who, as a result, have the power to influence decision making and conversations at the organization. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Keeling said.

“Museums already have multiple revenue streams,” he said. “There’s obviously cases that have collections, there’s land endowments. There is also increasing the participatory programming and charging small amounts, pay what you can, and expanding and diversifying other streams of income instead of just saying, 'Our museum is going to be predominantly funded by donors and foundations.'"

“The work of making equitable spaces is not going to be easy,” Baldenebro said. “It’s always going to involve some risk-taking, and it’s always going to involve some hurt individuals who are unwilling to release some of their power and agency … but I do think that it’s happening, and this is the moment to really address it in every environment where we see racial inequities and injustice being held.”

MOCAD has released a statement on its website regarding requests for the organization to address racism within its structure. The DIA website includes a statement on equity from director Salort-Pons. Stateside has reached out to MOCAD and the DIA for comment, and we will have them on the show in the future if they accept our invitation.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.