Tacoma Art Museum faces protest over lack of diversity in ‘Art AIDS America’

Kia Labeija’s “Kia and Mommy.” Labeija is one of only four African-American artists out of 107 in “Art AIDS America,” now on view at Tacoma Art Museum.
Kia Labeija’s “Kia and Mommy.” Labeija is one of only four African-American artists out of 107 in “Art AIDS America,” now on view at Tacoma Art Museum. Courtesy

“Art AIDS America,” a Tacoma Art Museum show about how AIDS changed art history, is bringing the museum a different kind of controversy than expected.

Tacoma artist Chris Jordan has drawn attention to an imbalance of racial diversity in the exhibit, which opened in October and continues through Jan. 10.

Museum staff say they want to talk about the issue, but the show can’t be changed. Jordan says the problem goes deeper than just one exhibit — it’s about whose stories get told through our society’s art and about Tacoma’s own values.

The problem, he says, is that while African Americans have suffered 41 percent of all AIDS deaths and account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, of the 107 artists in “Art AIDS America” only four are African Americans.

African Americans make up 41 per cent of all AIDS deaths and account for 44 per cent of all new HIV infections Four out of 107 artists in “Art AIDS America” are African American

“AIDS has absolutely affected art history within black communities,” said Jordan, an African American artist who was the 2015 winner of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation art award. “This is beyond negligent. They’re not concerned with (black) stories. … This is not individual racism. It’s about a system within the museum that’s developed a white normativity. It’s a reflection not just of the museum but of Tacoma itself.”

“(Co-curator Jonathan Katz) and I were looking at challenging the art historical narrative rather than making a show about the AIDS crisis,” said Rock Hushka, the museum’s senior curator, who has spent the last 10 years organizing the exhibit in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Hushka is white. “We wanted people to think about the impact of AIDS on American art.”

“Could we have included more artists of color? Yes,” added museum director Stephanie Stebich, who also is white. But, she said, “it’s not possible to adjust the exhibit at this late stage. An exhibit is like a book, it’s fixed.”

The museum included a piece by Jordan in its local counterpart to the “Art AIDS America” show.

Stebich asked Jordan to meet with her and board members after the holidays to discuss the issue. In the meantime, about 25 protesters marched inside the museum during last week’s ArtsWalk. They lay down in the gallery to symbolize black deaths and posted alternative artwork on the walls. Stebich sees the march as a success for the museum.

“We reached out to the community to invite conversation around HIV/AIDS,” said programming director Samantha Kelly. “The fact that the protest happened means we achieved those goals.”


Of the 658,507 people with AIDS who have died since the epidemic began in the 1980s, 270,726 have been black, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 50,000 new HIV infections every year, 44 percent are in the black community — more than any other racial group, despite the fact that blacks make up only 12 percent of the population. The highest risk group for HIV is black transgender women.

This disproportion is due to multiple factors, said Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, in a 2012 NPR interview. Those factors include a culture of silence, lack of testing, mass incarceration of African American men during the war on drugs, the cost of health care and the presentation of AIDS as a white epidemic.

Hushka and Katz said they never intended “Art AIDS America” to be a presentation of AIDS as anything but an influence on art history. Along with a lack of African American artists, not many blacks are in the art itself either, a fact that struck Jordan at the opening.

“I walked into the show, excited that it was happening, a historical moment,” Jordan said. “I was proud that the museum was doing this. … I kept walking around, waiting to see more black artists, black trans women, and I only saw a couple of pieces. I felt like I was back in the 1980s, where my life didn’t matter.”

We were looking at challenging the art historical narrative rather than making a show about the current AIDS crisis.” -

Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka

Upset, Jordan raised the point at a panel discussion at the museum in November. Hushka wasn’t there, but the panelists suggested Jordan talk to the curator about it. He created artwork in response to the show: one was a painted resin collage called “Edges of a Silhouetted Earth,” referencing the lunar eclipse and toxic materials to “lament and celebrate the black lives being cleared from our remembrance by the whitewashed narrative of the HIV/AIDS crisis,” according to Jordan’s artist statement. It was accepted for “Struggle and Strength,” the local counterpart exhibit.Another work — a digital collage drawing parallels with the media’s tendency to focus on white deaths during the Ebola crisis — was posted on the walls during the protest.

Art is not a neutral zone where everybody gets along. There’s a lot of erasure and violence that contributes to how our people’s stories are told.” -

Artist Chris Jordan

Hushka emailed Jordan to set up a conversation, which was reported last week on a local blog. In it, Hushka said he had not known about the statistics when compiling the show. Not satisfied, Jordan asked the Tacoma Action Collective — of which he’s not a member — to organize the protest.

“Arts movements have been the center of raising public visibility throughout the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” said the collective in a statement read and distributed during the protest. “(But TAM’s) exhibit largely displays HIV as a white crisis from the ’80s.”

In response, the museum in a press statement thanked the group for raising the issue and offered to “continue this discussion and facilitate the group’s expression in the broader conversation.”


The problem, said Jordan, goes beyond “Art AIDS America” and into museums nationwide — a lack of diversity in museum personnel.

“There needs to be a shift in hiring practice,” said Jordan. “You need people of color on staff to do this work of museums of capturing history.”

Stebich agrees.

“We all know in the museum world that we have a long way to go in diversifying museum staff,” said Stebich.

In a recent museum survey, 10 out of 54 staff members identified as non-white (black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian). Recently the board governance committee made a formal goal in recruiting new members. Currently only one board member is African American, out of 31 regular members, three life trustees and five trustees emeritus.

The museum is building a pipeline for future staff diversity by encouraging interns and after-school students from more diverse populations.

Jordan also is asking current staff go through training to see things through a more diverse perspective.

And he raised the issue of more diverse art in the museum in general. Hushka told Jordan that in the last 10 years the museum has “continually shown works by people of color,” and the museum has acquired a dozen works by black artists over the last five years. The last big show to focus on the work of African American artists was the Gee’s Bend quilts exhibit four years ago. Coming next fall is “30 Americans,” showcasing 30 contemporary African American artists.

Traditionally, museums collect and preserve, but they also display. And when they choose to display works that reflect the values of less-inclusive times or cultures, they face a dilemma: how to present work that is valuable but nevertheless offensive to contemporary culture?

It’s a problem the museum faced a year ago with the building of its new Western American art wing, based on a collection that includes many works depicting Native Americans in a stereotypical, inaccurate or condescending way by European artists. The museum has tried to address this problem by engaging Native American locals and artists in commenting on the art, and recently mounted an exhibition that balances Eurocentric views of Native Americans with those of contemporary Native American artists.

They have also tried to raise the subject in their programming for both the new wing and “Art AIDS America,” such as presenter Micha Cardenas, a transgender woman artist of color.

But in a museum, art speaks loudly.

“Art is not a neutral zone where everybody gets along,” Jordan said.

Stebich and Hushka said they’ll share this conversation with curators at the exhibit’s future venues in Georgia and New York.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti