A pair of petitions have emerged since July that challenge white supremacy and demand concrete changes in the local art world.
The Raleigh-centered petition, which was developed by a local coalition, and the statewide petition, which was created by a new group called North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation, both took shape in the context of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, when deep-seated fractures in all kinds of institutions started cracking open.
But the petitions rest on the ongoing history of white supremacy in the arts. Museums and galleries have long been far more likely to invite Black artists into image-burnishing guest exhibits than into their collections, board seats, and leadership roles.
That has started to change in the last several years, since Black Lives Matter emerged as a cultural force and a wave-making Mellon Foundation study found that 76 percent of staff at the Association of Art Museum Directors member institutions were white. This prompted the AAMD to exert more oversight over racial diversity, and certainly institutions have been falling over themselves to capitalize—whether meaningfully or superficially—on the new cultural cachet of all things Black.
But with their heavy freight of history and wealthy donor networks, museums change notoriously slowly, and their racial-equity record remains dismal. Another study, released last year by a group of art historians and statisticians, found that 85 percent of works in major museum collections were by white people, while African Americans accounted for merely 1.2 percent. And while a 2018 follow-up to the 2015 Mellon study of staff found gains for women and people of color, white dominance suffered attrition of only 4 percent.
Of the two local petitions aiming to move the needle faster, one appeals to North Carolina arts institutions generally while the other focuses on CAM Raleigh and the Raleigh Fine Arts Society specifically. One imposes a deadline and consequences while the other does not. But both carry hundreds of signatories, likeminded goals, and the same underlying message: Black artists and their allies have heard promises before, and they are tired of waiting.
It was an offhand comment by an exhibit chair from the Raleigh Fine Arts Society that prompted hundreds of local artists and supporters to unleash stored-up demands for change at CAM Raleigh.
The RFAS’s annual North Carolina Artists Exhibition, which continues virtually through August 23, features a diverse group of 57 artists from the state. The prestigious exhibit was curated by Nat Trotman, who is the curator of performance and media at the Guggenheim Museum.
On June 6, as Black Lives Matter protests gripped Raleigh, Jan Woodard, the RFAS exhibit chair, reflected on the relevance of Trotman’s juror statement to “the issues we are facing in these troubling times” in an otherwise-routine email update to the artists.
Quoting Trotman’s assertion that the artists in the exhibit “ponder issues of mortality or speak to the daily struggle to simply and sustainably exist: what we might call the matter of life and death,” Woodard then added her own comment: “Wow! Is that not the truth with the National Guard protecting our Capital city from destructive riots?”
The casual characterization of the protests as “destructive riots” and the seemingly favorable view of militarized policing prompted outrage among many of the artists, who wrote to Woodard and CAM director Gab Smith to demand redress.
Smith replied on June 8, writing, “CAM is fully committed to justice and stands in solidarity and support of Black Lives Matter. CAM never has and never will condone militarized violence. CAM is also fully committed to and stands in solidarity with all artists who show their work here.” She also invited the artists to share ideas for how the non-collecting museum could “galvanize and support our community.”
Woodard replied the next day, apologizing for the offense and saying she meant to express “how powerful your individual and collective voices are during this time of anguish.” She said she had learned from the experience and was “committed to listening and learning.”
Then came a more formal apology, signed by both Woodard and RFAS President Elizabeth Purrington.
“We recognize that, in order for RFAS to remain relevant in the arts community, we must better reflect the diverse community we serve,” it said in part. “While we are taking immediate action toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, we understand that real change will take long-term commitment and education.”
This isn’t the first time CAM has promised change after community pushback exposed its racial blind spots. In 2018, the museum gave a solo exhibit to Margaret Bowland, a white artist who paints portraits of Black people in what can only be called whiteface, often with racially loaded signifiers, and then refuses to acknowledge that they have anything to do with race. CAM presented these paintings with almost no context and rushed together a public discussion only after they sparked controversy online.
“I don’t care about Margaret Bowland as an individual artist,” one artist said at the heated community forum. “I’m more interested in systems, and in what does it mean for an institution that has a mission to curate art for a wider community to be responsible for the art they bring in.”
At the time, CAM director Gab Smith acknowledged to the INDY that the museum had “a small staff of three white people” and a 30-person board consisting of “one African-American woman and several brown people.”
“[W]e have to reflect the community better than we do,” she said. “And we need our community to help us with that.”
But that breakdown hasn’t changed, and the things the community asked for then are the same things they’re asking for now.
Released July 13 on the Facebook page of arts-equity advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent, the public petition takes aim at CAM’s “overwhelmingly white board and staff, history of co-opting Black experiences, [and] passive stance on equity,” among other race-related issues.
Titled “Public Letter and Demands to Raleigh Fine Arts Society at CAM Raleigh,” it says that Woodard’s email “reminded many artists of the systemic racism that permeates the art world, prompting us to look closely and critically at these art institutions.
“Woodard’s statement demonstrates that the RFAS values the protection of property over Black lives,” the letter says. “By twisting the words of the juror and, by extension, the artworks in the show, to support this view, the RFAS has co-opted the work of artists, in particular BIPOC artists, to suit their own ends. This act should be understood as one in a long lineage of practices by institutions that exploit the work of BIPOC artists for their own institutional position and power.”
While allowing that RFAS and CAM are separate institutions, the letter said that both are part of the same structure of white supremacy and called for “transparent actions” to address it.
Specifically, the letter calls for both entities to hire Black consultants, undertake racial-equity training, increase Black leadership, create timelines for pay equity, practice more transparency, and cut ties to the Pope Foundation, among other concerns.
The last item is aimed not at CAM, but at RFAS, whose members volunteer for arts organizations and serve on boards across the state. The organization is funded by donations and an endowment created by the founding members of the John William Pope Foundation, which is chaired by Art Pope.
The conservative businessman and political donor, who was recently elected to the Board of Governors, has a long history of supporting policies that harm marginalized communities: bankrolling the 2010 Republican takeover of the N.C. legislature, climate-change-denial campaigns, and more. [Editor’s note: Art Pope contests these claims; see his letter.]
Calling this “a hypocrisy that is impossible to reconcile,” the letter calls for RFAS to “address their funding relationships, their lack of resource allocation to BIPOC communities, and the ways that their organization upholds white supremacist values through their organizational structure and programming.”
While RFAS has not responded beyond its apologies and promises to learn and improve, CAM created a new “Equity” page on its website that addressed the petition’s demands one by one.
“Thanks to all of the North Carolina artists and community members for the love and support and for holding CAM accountable as we work together to dismantle systemic racism and to build racial equity in arts organizations like CAM,” it begins.
Speaking to the INDY through Art Ain’t Innocent, the artists behind the letter said they appreciated that CAM’s response was public but still found it underwhelming. While the museum gives some timelines for racial-equity training and hiring BIPOC vendors, it lists what it has done rather than what it will do to “include marginalized communities in equity efforts,” and it only gives a general “commitment” to increasing Black board members beyond one in its December elections.
“CAM’s equity statement response does not include an apology,” the artists point out. “We appreciate that they recognize that they have a lot to learn, but—as with the Margaret Bowland exhibition two years ago—it would also be appreciated if they could acknowledge their role in causing real harm.”
CAM’s equity page also promises to reach out to more Black-led arts organizations to collaborate.
But as the artists who started a separate but similar effort, North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation, politely explained via Zoom last Friday to people from the institutions they’d called out, museums need to work hard to put their own houses in order before they subject more Black artists to tokenizing, even traumatic conditions.
Just as politely, the artists reiterated that there would be real consequences if they didn’t.
On July 4, not long before the CAM/RFAS letter, a new website appeared at ncblackliberation.com. Signed by the seven experienced North Carolina artists who spearheaded it—Marcus Kiser, Jessica Moss, Carmen Neely, Sherill Roland, J. Stacy Utley, Chris Watts, and Antoine Williams—and hundreds of others, it begins, “The signed North Carolina-based working and originating Black makers, performers, and artists are committed to building an equitable arts and cultural sector. It is our labor, dollars, sweat equity, and culture that make both burgeoning and prestigious North Carolina organizations culturally viable.”
Citing the “history of predominantly white-led institutions benefiting from the disenfranchisement of the Black artist and community,” the letter calls for arts institutions to push racial equity beyond exhibits to include vendors, consultants, and other contractors. It calls for paid internships, free admission for BIPOC, internal racial-sensitivity training, and diverse programming. It calls for “material investment” in increasing Black leadership and collecting Black art. It also solicits donations to the NCBAFL and provides a list of resources, from reading material to other petitions.
“It is your organization’s responsibility to design, develop and enact a clearly articulated racial equity plan (based on your capacity, size and funding) with measurable goals in the areas of hiring, organizational culture, leadership and organizational transparency over the next six months,” the letter says, and suggests hiring BIPOC consultants to aid in the effort.
After six months, organizations that have made significant efforts to implement these changes will be “publicly honored and promoted” by the NCBAFL.
Those that haven’t will face consequences: The NCBAFL will notify high-level donors of racist policies and procedures and ask board members to divest.
There were some notable absences among the representatives of N.C. arts power centers who showed up for the NCBAFL’s Zoom Q-and-A session last Friday afternoon, though one of the organizers the INDY spoke with gave them the benefit of the doubt—perhaps they wanted to engage privately, or perhaps they understood the work and didn’t have questions.
Indeed, the benefit of the doubt pervaded the session. The organizers framed it by stressing that the issues were systemic, not personal, and that they understood arts institutions change slowly. They explained that the deadline was meant to be concrete, not punitive, and that they were seeking measurable effort, not perfection. They maintained the friendly, gracious tone of people accustomed to maneuvering their message past the barricades of white fragility.
Still, while most of the museum directors and curators seemed excited and game, one was notably rattled by the threat hanging overhead and said so. The implication was familiar: We’re all on the same page, so why can’t we play nice?
The reaction shows both the uphill battle the artists face and the need to climb it, though institutions would do well to lift most of that weight themselves. The artists, after their long experience of marginalization and their unpaid labor in creating concrete benchmarks, have done enough.
Speaking with the INDY, Gab Smith affirmed CAM’s commitment to using the NCBAFL letter as a guideline and promised to share more about its plans in the coming weeks. “We understand the structure around how CAM engages BIPOC leadership must also evolve,” Smith says. One hopes it will stick this time: As Black artists have clearly explained and history has borne out, goodwill won’t suffice.
Correction: This story originally conflated the activities of the Pope Foundation with the activities of its chairman, Art Pope, and failed to provide sufficient evidence for a claim about his funding relationship to House Bill 2.
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