Since March, the magnetic swaths of color that are the acclaimed quilted portraits of artist Bisa Butler have filled my social media, as Black friends far and wide converge on The Art Institute of Chicago for the “Bisa Butler: Portraits” exhibit.
Those same friends began filling social feeds last month with photos of the Art Institute’s newest exhibit — National Portrait Gallery paintings of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, and wife Michelle Obama, here on the first stop of a five-city tour.
Weary over the uptick in the COVID-19 Delta variant, yet knowing I could not miss viewing these significant works of art, I went last weekend to check them out, late to a party that speaks to a racial reckoning occurring at museums nationwide.
In the year since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer, museums have not been immune to America’s reckoning with systemic racism across all sectors of society — charges of bias that have long plagued their collections, exhibits, programming, staffs and audiences leveled one after the other at some of the most iconic cultural institutions.
They came in a wave of open letters from current and former BIPOC staff (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), a tsunami of grievances forcing illustrious establishments like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum into agreements addressing racism in hiring and promotion, museum acquisitions and community outreach.
After decades of complaints that the statue at its entrance symbolized white supremacy, New York’s American Museum of Natural History was finally forced to remove the figure of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse, flanked by an Indigenous man and a Black man below.
In the nation’s capital, charges of racism at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art drew the Smithsonian’s first Black secretary, Lonnie G. Bunch, III, into the fray and also hit the National Gallery of Art, the second most visited art museum in the U.S, where the previously all-white leadership team has transitioned to more than half BIPOC.
Chicago museums also faced demands to examine their institutional roles in preserving systemic racism and their dismal records on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.
An open letter from youth in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s cultural leadership program for Chicago teens led that museum to cut extracurricular ties with the Chicago Police Department after a photo of museum staff posing with a donation to CPD surfaced.
At the Art Institute, an open letter from staffers criticized the disparate impact of pandemic layoffs on young, low-wage and BIPOC staff, while some current and former students and staff leveled charges of unaddressed racism at its School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In a May 25 story on its survey of 22 museums about their progress made on diversity efforts post-George Floyd, The Art Newspaper found striking gains in museum exhibitions and acquisitions of works by artists of color.
The National Gallery of Art just this month acquired its first work by an Indigenous artist, for example.
The survey found museums making progress on anti-racism conversations within those institutions — several, like the Met, hiring new DEI directors. Others, like the Art Institute, which hired the group ArtEquity, are working with DEI consultants.
And many have increased the number of top posts held by people of color, such as the Guggenheim, which hired away Museum of Contemporary Art senior curator Naomi Beckwith, to serve as its deputy director and chief curator.
Staffing at the nation’s museums have long remained overwhelmingly white. In 2018, only 28 percent were people of color, according to a study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Art Newspaper survey found less progress in the past year on diversifying museum audiences — also historically overwhelmingly white — hindered by the pandemic.
The most recent study by the American Alliance of Museums, a 2010 report, found visitors 79 percent white, 8.6 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Black, far from reflecting cities.
Opened in November and closed a day later due to COVID’s uptick, the Bisa Butler exhibit is prominently housed in the Stuart and Nancie Mishlove Galleries atop the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase. The 22 “paintings,” vibrant splotches of fabric stitched into images of ordinary people, tell the Black experience via such themes as youth, family and community.
The museum re-opened to the public Feb. 11, so the exhibit, the museum’s first ever exploration of such works by a Black American artist, was originally scheduled to close in April but now runs through Sept. 6.
The Obama Portraits, part of the only complete collection of paintings of U.S. presidents outside the White House — and representing the first time ever that Black artists were commissioned for the Smithsonian portraits — took up residence in the Modern Wing last month.
Artist Kehinde Wiley’s arresting likeness of the former president and Chicago native seated against lush backdrop of flowers; and artist Amy Sherald’s depiction of his wife — grey-skinned, in Sherald’s trademark negation of race — wearing a starkly patterned, flowing gown against sky-blue background, delivers inspiration.
Sherald’s similarly grey-skinned painting of Breonna Taylor for a cover of Variety magazine last fall was jointly purchased by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Art Museum in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
I have only ever visited the Art Institute — which welcomes 1.6 million visitors in a normal year — drawn by a particular exhibit that speaks to me. Many of my Black friends say the same, though others, art lovers, have memberships.
Mirroring museums nationwide, Art Institute President James Rondeau acknowledged on its website last summer, the art world’s legacy of white privilege and exclusion, pledging meaningful change. Last month, Rondeau posted a full update on those DEI efforts.
They include a revised mission and a new equity statement, new acquisitions of works by BIPOC artists, a new division of People and Culture, and a new department of Inclusion and Belonging, and a listening tour with Chicagoans in six underrepresented neighborhoods to determine structural and perceptual barriers to accessing the museum.
Also cited was the recent election of longtime trustee Denise Gardner to chair its Board of Trustees, the first African American and first woman to lead the governing body of the museum and its school.
According to a 2017 survey by the American Alliance of Museums, 46 percent, nearly half, of all U.S. museum boards were all white. An art collector and businesswoman, Gardner, former vice president of Soft Sheen Products, founded by her husband’s parents, is believed the first Black woman to chair a major museum board nationwide.
Sharing the Bisa Butler and Obama Portraits experience with the sea of Black visitors, I thought of the impact these self-reflecting works could have on the young people I mentor in disadvantaged South and West Side communities, where I am always blown away to learn a mentee has never been downtown.
To rise to this moment, cultural institutions must continue to examine what is on their walls, and redefine the precept of art history.
When the COVID menace subsides, I’d like to see my social feeds bursting again with Black pride as we hasten to museums to view and share reflections of the Black experience.
Hopefully, we’ll have sought out innovative outreach to communities who might not now believe a downtown museum is just as open to them as anybody else. And hopefully, when they get there, they’ll see themselves not just on the walls.