Institutions need to follow artists’ lead to make a material impact on the world

Museums can learn a lot from artists like Mark Bradford, Shan Wallace and Rick Lowe about how to more effectively engage with their communities

Shan Wallace, Golden Time of the Hour, 2018 Courtesy of the artist

Shan Wallace, Golden Time of the Hour, 2018 Courtesy of the artist

All around us, the twin pandemics of racism and Covid-19 are roiling the American landscape, laying bare its fundamentally uneven ground. Just as massive and righteous protests do the difficult work of forcing the country’s largest institutions to change, they inevitably call cultural institutions into question too. In the case of art museums, discrimination, indifference, and irrelevance are deeply embedded in their history, and too many museums have answered this catalytic moment with quick words and symbolic gestures alone, a flailing, desperate response that throws into relief the work not done for decades to address inequity and injustice across the fine art world. Those of us who work in museums must take a painfully honest look at all we have been doing wrong and commit to a very different course. The most important part of that essential effort is listening to Black and other marginalised artists in America who use art to make a material impact on the world. Our future hinges on our willingness to break with our disciplinary conventions, follow their lead, and upend the foundational assumptions that guide our work.

Action comes naturally to artists; from Jackson Pollock to Amy Sherald, they have struggled with physical reality every day, pushing against their materials—paint, steel, pixels—finding their limits and also their possibilities. When Mark Bradford represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 2017, his exhibition, Tomorrow Is Another Day, featured paintings with swarming, pockmarked surfaces; one room-filling work hung from the ceiling, bulging out to confront viewers with a vision of disease and unease, literally pushing them to the margins of the space. The façade and grounds of the pavilion, a mini-Monticello, were intentionally distressed, littered with cigarette butts and coffee cups. Looking back, it seems as if Bradford predicted the ruin of American promise visible to all today. But his art was more memory than prophecy, based on the artist’s personal experiences with the Aids crisis, the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, and various forms of precarity, and a clear-eyed vision of history—after all, Monticello was the home of a slave owner as well as a president. As he put it to a journalist at the time: “There’s always been a Trump in my life.

Bradford knew that art could do more than reflect social change, though, it could feed it. His Art + Practice space serves foster youth as they transition to independence and also showcases contemporary art, naturally intertwining the two. He isn’t alone—artists look at the world intensely, converting observation into engagement. Artist Rick Lowe saw the possibilities of Houston’s underserved Third Ward and restored 22 small homes in a way that preserves the community’s history and restores its beauty. His Project Row Houses has created a platform for artists’ projects and studios, community events, and housing for young mothers—the pragmatic hand-in-hand with what Lowe calls the “poetic”.

Artists can be nimble as well: amidst economic disaster this spring, newspapers and social media posted photographs of people waiting in a miles-long line to pick up food at the San Antonio, Texas Food Bank. The next day, artist Ethel Shipton went to her studio, picked up some scraps, and made a wooden box with a yellow arrow reading “For the Taking”. She bolted it to a post on a street corner and filled it with food; now neighbours pitch in, and other neighbourhoods have put up their own boxes.

In Baltimore, artist Shan Wallace makes photographs and collages that trace black life in the city, from intimate family moments to the tradition of marching bands to the transformation of the public bus system. An archivist and activist as well as an artist, Wallace is determined that the complexities of black life will not be erased from official history.

These are the artists, and the ideas, that museums must follow, abandoning the fantasy of the universality of museums as objective testimonials to a standard art history. It is not incidental that Bradford, Lowe, and Wallace, who are black, and Shipton, who is Mexican American, have experienced mutual aid as well as exclusion, in addition to being imaginative and skilled makers. Their life experiences have equipped them to face injustice and need, and to act. They offer examples of immediate and practical action, asking us all to acknowledge reality, suggesting we are all capable of direct encounter and action, that we are not helpless.

Museums must recognise the citizens and communities where they live and respond to the call for institutional actions to reflect institutional missions. Baltimore, Houston, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Memphis, Los Angeles—every museum will need to work out what that looks like for their institution and their city. At The Baltimore Museum of Art, we have started to enact this vision, perhaps most publicly by deaccessioning works in our collection to buy art by black artists and women who were neglected by earlier drafts of art history. We opened a branch location at Lexington Market, a social crossroads in the city, which artists like Wallace will programme, and at Bradford’s urging, partnered with the Greenmount West Community Center, seeking to provide access to art for children there and to help fund start-up costs. We are listening to the lessons that Greenmount teaches about radical hospitality, learning to serve an audience beyond the upper-class art patron. Yet still, what we have done is only a start. To undo centuries of inequity requires action multiple times a day, from who we select as a vendor to who we hire to what we acquire; what’s important is symmetry and consistency. The ultimate goal is the sum of countless small daily decisions that can begin today.

Artists and activists are pointing to the fissure between what museums say and how they actually do business. We can close this gap, aligning material realities with outward-facing representation, by following the need- and value-led example of artist-driven initiatives. Museums have always worked best when they commit fully to the most significant artists of the present, and today it is becoming clear that this means not only collecting paintings and sculptures but taking up artists’ ethos of social engagement and direct action. If we do that, we will change. If we do that, the question of whether and why we matter will answer itself.

• Christopher Bedford is the director at The Baltimore Museum of Art and Katy Siegel is the Thaw Chair at Stony Brook University and a senior curator at the BMA.