George Jacobson. Jacob Lawrence and Jay Leyda in Brooklyn. 1941. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

What Should Museums Do?

Let’s take art history apart and reimagine it.
Leah Dickerman Jun 18, 2020

“To look around the United States today is enough to make the angels and prophets weep,” wrote James Baldwin in 1978. The same might be said now, as we see one catastrophic crisis roiling after another—an apocalyptic climate threat; the loss of lives and livelihood during the COVID-19 pandemic; and a mass outcry of protests ignited by a string of senseless killings at the hands of police, stunning in their callousness and repetitiveness, which in turn have been punctuated by brutal backlash. Of course, these things are not sequential but rather overlaid and entwined, each with unequal impact on Black communities. Together they expose the fissures of American society and suggest the shattering of a long-held social contract.

As our museum community grapples with the question, What should museums do?, Baldwin might serve not only as a prophet, but also as a teacher and mentor. I like the image of a Virgil-like poetic guide through the circles of hell, explaining how to move forward with the exquisite patience you can sometimes see in the footage of his old TV interviews.

Self-examination surely isn’t enough, though that will make us better citizens, colleagues, neighbors, and family members. The work most needed from museums and other institutions is structural. Structures aren’t neutral, even if they present themselves as such and we tend to think of them that way (as recent studies on algorithmic bias have shown, including those discussed here). Structural racism is distinct from individual racism in that it is indifferent to motivations, feelings, and guilt. As Baldwin puts it, “I don’t know what most white people feel. I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”

For museums, and art museums in particular, focus is needed in two primary areas. The first is on our institutional culture, as many have noted in recent weeks. How do we change the composition of our staff, and restructure it in ways that offer a diversity of perspectives at all levels and across all domains of our organizations? Some steps forward include new hiring practices that make sure candidates of color are part of every pool; greater transparency about pay and promotion rates indexed to race and gender in order to provide accountability over time; and a mandatory reporting structure for the museum sector at large for all claims of both discrimination and harassment. Truly changing the composition of our thought leadership also requires greater inclusion and welcome of the staff members of color within our ranks: Progress there requires open and frank conversations, including asking Black colleagues what they need in support of their work. It also means encouraging white colleagues to examine their own relationship to race—to grapple with what whiteness means. For our own institutional resilience and the ability to reimagine ourselves, now is the time to be bolder on both of these fronts. Yet while this work is critically urgent, it belongs to many types of organizations.

If police enforce structures of power, museums enforce myth.

The second area requiring focus is the particular sphere of influence and responsibility of museums, and of art museums in particular. How can we harness the power of art and artists—and the museums that serve as platforms and caretakers—to shape an inclusive vision of America? Because of who we are and what we do, to do this means reckoning with the past.

If police enforce structures of power, museums enforce myth. And it is myth that sustains systemic racism in this country: the idea, written across our history as Americans, that Black people are somehow lesser. Many have spoken about this, including Bryan Stevenson, in an activist mode, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., in a historical one. Stevenson said in a recent interview, “We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and half centuries that we enslaved Black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that Black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people…. For me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals.” The point is both that it was an invention, and that myth matters. Or, as Baldwin puts it in a characteristic vein, “If I’m not the n----- here, if you, the white people of this country, invented him, then you have to find out why.”

Changing America means dismantling the myths of white supremacy, challenging its images and imaginary. And here museums have a special role. It’s not necessarily that we individually subscribe to any of these beliefs. And museums can be justly proud of the increased racial diversity of collections, exhibitions, and programs seen in recent years: At MoMA, scholarly exhibitions of the work of Betye Saar, Charles White, and Pope.L, to note a few, play a role in incrementally shifting the canon, and the range of new acquisitions in our reopening display speaks to intention and commitment.

Nonetheless, assumptions creep in almost without notice in the way we think about the map of our concern, the way we speak about issues of quality and value, and the way we tell the history of art, or who we chose to speak about what kind of art. This is the legacy of the structure of our field. Most damaging, perhaps, is the degree of intellectual segregation we tolerate, years after our institutions have been legally integrated, as the poet Crystal Williams has helped me see. Art history is divided, and it’s not in museums alone. In universities and schools, a primarily white art history is taught in art history departments. Art History 101 might pause for a class on the Harlem Renaissance or more recently include the names of Black contemporary artists, but to really learn about Black artists, about Black intellectual, political, social, and cultural history, you have to go to a department of African American studies. Faculty and grad students may not know each other, job markets and journals are separate and unequal.

Harlem Artists’ Guild and Artists’ Union members picketing, late 1930s. Gwendolyn Bennett is at center, Norman Lewis is on the right; behind them in a white hat is Frederick Perry.

Harlem Artists’ Guild and Artists’ Union members picketing, late 1930s. Gwendolyn Bennett is at center, Norman Lewis is on the right; behind them in a white hat is Frederick Perry.

This structural segregation stymies us as a field and as a nation. To move forward, to know America, we need to understand our history and acknowledge the discrepancy between creed and practice. There isn’t a separate Black history of America. America—its cities, culture, and populations—is Black.

Within museums, today’s structural segregation impacts who we hire, their realms of expertise, and what they understand their remit to be. And the narratives we create.

There isn’t a separate Black history of America. America—its cities, culture, and populations—is Black.

One example, though there are many others: The artist Jacob Lawrence met Jay Leyda in line at the WPA’s payroll offices in 1938 or 1939, and they became friends. Leyda was MoMA’s great curator of film, who had just returned from a stint in the Soviet Union with Sergei Eisenstein’s film crew. While Lawrence was working on his Migration Series (1941–42), his epic 60-panel work on the mass exodus of Black Americans from the South, Leyda was busy translating Eisenstein’s montage theory for the volume that would become The Film Sense (1943), and acquiring prints of Eisenstein’s landmark Battleship Potemkin (1925) for the Museum’s collection. Knowing this makes it relevant to discuss the relationship between Eisenstein and the filmic structure of Lawrence’s work—the sense of a march of time, the return to a leitmotif—to imagine putting these things in dialogue. Yet it is hard for art history to cross what we have fixed as boundary lines, from the Russian avant-garde to Depression-era Harlem, to tell stories this way, even if that’s how artists worked and continue to work. The networks of ideas don’t map onto the silos of art history. Or, instead of Europe, might we think about the Great Migration itself, and the way it brought the images, sounds, and tastes of the South into an urban framework, as the crucible for American modernism?

Such intellectual division has an impact outside of the cultural world. In a recent opinion piece, Jamelle Bouie turned to Baldwin’s 1960 essay reflecting on discord and unrest in Harlem at that moment. “None of the police commissioner’s men,” writes Baldwin, “even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in twos and threes controlling.” He is separate, as Bouie notes, as a matter of history and culture. Apathy and ignorance are the price we pay for segregation.

We can do better. If we are really going to examine our exhibitions, programs, and acquisitions through lenses of racial equity, we need to acknowledge the ways that art history has failed us. We need to take it apart and speak openly and publicly about the exclusions of our field and our institutions—the domains of knowledge neglected, experiences and stories untold, decisions made. And then we need to reimagine it, and tell it differently. I’d propose we start over decade by decade, and rewrite Art History 101 as a truly integrated story. That’s a job museums can do.

Op-Eds present personal reflections on art and culture from staff and members of the broader MoMA community. The opinions shared are those of the author, and are not intended as statements from The Museum of Modern Art.