Stacey L. Kirby’s “Research and Development” installation for The Department of Humanity. Photo by Alex Maness.

Stacey L. Kirby: The Department of Humanity | North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh |  Saturday, May 6–Sunday, May 7 

“We tend to get lost in museums when we think museums are about art,” Stacey L. Kirby says. “Art museums are actually about humans.”

But the problem that the Durham performance artist finds with most museums is that people have been displaced in them.

“Humans are not centered in museums; the objects are, the art is,” she says. “I think that does us all a disservice; it really disconnects us.”

Kirby, whose work “The Bureau of Personal Belonging” won a juried $200,000 grand prize at ArtPrize 8 in 2016, is speaking with an insider’s personal knowledge of the scene. In addition to creating a series of pop-up civic office installations over the last 16 years to document and validate the identities, experiences, and civil rights of the marginalized, Kirby has done conservation work at a number of museums across the country, including eight years with the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA).

Her latest work, The Department of Humanity, debuts over two afternoons there this weekend, in a series of 45-minute guided experiences. The work is based on her research and experiences with a broad range of artists, curators, archivists, managers, and patrons who have given her the chance to scrutinize the cultural underpinnings of what an art museum is.

It’s a particularly appropriate moment for such a work: to commemorate its 75th anniversary in 2022, NCMA undertook a reimagining of itself as an institution, accompanied by the largest reinstallation of its permanent collection since the museum’s West Building opened in 2010.

Museum director Valerie Hillings also got a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund Kirby’s work: a two-year critical interrogation of the premises and practices underlying the museum’s daily work.

“Valerie has experienced some of the more controversial works that I’ve done,” Kirby says. “I think it’s pretty incredible she was willing to invite me in, to sort of hold their feet to the fire.”

Starting in July 2022, Kirby and the agents in her “Research and Development” office installation at the museum interviewed visitors, artists, and staff, including custodial workers, through conversations and an “official” survey form. It asked patrons questions like “Who has the power here?” Referencing the museum’s recent high-profile rebranding as “The People’s Collection,” the form pointedly asked participants, “Who are ‘The People’? Are you included?”

It’s long been a point of pride that a $1 million allocation by the state legislature in 1947 made North Carolina the first in the country to fund and start a state art museum. But its first acquisition, “Mammy,” a 1923 oil on canvas by Gari Melchers that was donated by one of the museum’s chief first sponsors, clearly stands now as a document of racism: In the portrait, an elderly, bespectacled Black woman holding a discomforted white, blue-eyed baby. According to Kirby, it hasn’t been publicly exhibited since the 1960s.

Establishing an art museum is largely a series of actions taken by people with power, privilege, and wealth. Though museum spaces are all but inevitably created to preserve and celebrate the culture and aesthetics of their founders, they also frequently encode their prejudices.

Kirby says that an art museum is “a series of agreements—some spoken, some unspoken—that are made with many different types of people: artists, staff, visitors, funders, donors, board members, and legislators, not to mention the people of a ‘people’s collection.’”

But such institutions don’t always fully follow through on agreements made with a number of partners, including their own staff and communities. In recent years, museums have been criticized for little or selective outreach, and problematic pay gaps and working conditions have resulted in an unprecedented rise in unionizing at major museums across the country, including the Whitney and Guggenheim in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kirby has designed her latest work to give patrons the chance to examine some of the agreements the NCMA and its partners have made with one another. In the process, she hopes to cultivate museum patrons’ sense of their status as active stakeholders.

“It was really interesting that most people did not check the box on the questionnaire identifying themselves as the museums’ funders, even though their tax dollars go to it,” Kirby says. “I want to empower them to think that they actually do fund this institution, that there is some ownership over the space.”

After stops at self-styled “social location” and “declarations” offices, where patrons can reflect on their varying social identities and declare belongings they bring with them into the space, participants launch on a self-directed experience through the museum’s galleries.

In this second part, guides lead patrons through backstage sections of the museum that visitors don’t usually get to see, including an underground tunnel that links its two main buildings. 

“Being in the tunnel is part of transparency of process, to give the public a little more insight into how things are physically moved and also the different environments that staff work within,” Kirby says. “Transparency is really challenging for museums because they’re so used to being encouraged to keep things private.”

Indeed, only a fraction of the museum’s collection of 4,000-plus artworks is ever on display. Going behind (and beneath) the public galleries is also intended to counter what Kirby calls “the feeling that [museums] need to be perfect as institutions—this performative front, like, ‘we don’t make mistakes.’”

Owning her own experiences as a museum worker in The Department of Humanity, Kirby concludes, “I’m trying to encourage people to be accountable for being human. We do make mistakes. We just need to call that out, be accountable to it, and commit to doing better.”

The written responses patrons can leave at the end of their experience may help the museum’s stakeholders do just that.

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