Even in this age of unprecedented communication, when the world’s been shrunk down to the size of a hand-held phone, there are topics of conversations we Americans like to avoid.
Race tops the list.
When tragedies strike — the Charleston shooting, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore or the Dallas police murders — we tend to take shelter behind slogans — Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter — instead of engaging in truth-seeking conversations about inequality and injustice.
This fall, Tacoma Art Museum is not shying away from the topic of race; in fact, TAM is seeking contributions from artists, musicians, writers and scholars from all over the Pacific Northwest to enter the museum and confront the topic head-on.
The purpose of this solicitation is to enhance TAM’s newest exhibit, “30 Americans,” which will be on view from Sept. 24 through Jan. 15.
The exhibit will showcase 45 works by 31 trailblazing artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Carrie Mae Weems. Through sculpture, photography, installations and paintings, these contemporary artists give the viewer multiple perspectives on the African American experience.
“For some, this exhibit will be comforting and exciting; for others it will be provocative and uncomfortable,” TAM’s Chief Curator Rock Hushka says in a press release.
TAM is no different from other museums that want to move away from their well-earned reputations for being out-of-touch elitists, mainly displaying the masterpieces of dead, white, Euro-centered males.
Nothing wrong with those guys, but they are not the only ones with something to offer.
TAM’s public relations manager, Julianna Verboort, said diversity has always been a part of our strategic plan. But the museum was rightly criticized last year for its “Art AIDS America” exhibit not being diverse enough. Of the 107 artists showcased in the exhibit, only four were African Americans, though they make up fully 44 percent of AIDS diagnoses.
TAM also has faced criticism for inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in its new Western American art wing. They’ve since crafted an exhibition called (Re)Presenting Native Americans which is currently on view through October 30.
Instead of deflecting the criticisms, TAM took them to heart and made amends. Since 2015, senior staff has attended trainings and workshops focused on racism, where it comes from and how it persists. The museum analyzed the power it has as a cultural establishment and how it could contribute to perpetuating racism.
In March, TAM also issued an open call for a community advisory committee whose purpose is to recognize that the museum is a cultural gate, and to find more ways TAM can reflect and engage the entire community.
These actions show TAM is responsive and willing to take action. It is a stronger institution for it.
There’s a glaring absence of African American art — not just at TAM, but in museums across the nation — and this neglect does have an impact. Museums are cultural sanctuaries; they are the de facto arbiters on what a city deems aesthetically worthy.
We are the losers when any perspective is silenced or invisible.
Art museums have the ability and responsibility to lead us to lenses different from our own. TAM has done so with this exhibit. “30 Americans” will break stereotypes, help us see our common humanity and hopefully get us talking.