In this article, and others to follow I want to bring you into the world of those effecting hyper-localized, yet globally impactful change in the world of art. Through the lens of these creative and talented innovators, I want to share and explore a different way of looking at the world we live in, to explore the new patterns of communications, and social and cultural memes that reflect their different ways of thinking.
My hope is that, with this type of exploration, we can further a broader discussion of complex issues while also delving into deep and difficult ideas. I want you the reader to have access to creative change-makers and have a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanisms and ideas they are inspiring. Take a journey with me, while I open a door on some of the leaders in our world that are working at the intersection between art and social activism.
In this piece, I set out to capture what art is doing to understand the new realities of our divided society so I sat down to chat with friend and colleague, Laura Raicovich, President and Executive Director of the Queens Museum. Laura and the work she is doing at the Queens Museum is unique for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the building itself with its historical brickwork, and that it was built into and as part of a public park, the Flushing-Meadows Corona Park in New York City. I wanted to find out how the leadership of such a museum grapples with the politics of the moment, and what role the community that surrounds and immerses with the museum plays in the expression of that engagement. Important to this interview is the fact that Queens itself is one of the most diverse and multicultural communities of New York City; perhaps one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Creating a Safe Place for Expression
There is a presumption in cultural circles that all art institutions are bastions of liberal thought – focused on entirely leftist views. This is ironic because if we look at some of the major museums, we will soon discover that their most passionate supporters are perhaps some of the most politically conservative leaning individuals in the U.S. With this in mind, I asked Laura how a facility representing and serving hundreds of cultures at once could manage to balance; to create a safe space for political expression without wearing one specific political hat or another.
“I feel like there is a basic assumption made about museums and other institutions. For museums specifically, they are presumed to be a neutral space for the engagement of culture. The problem with that idea about a museum as a neutral space is that museums have never been; they represent a specific culture or locality’s notion of what is important to preserve. That is always subjective. There is no such thing as a neutral museum. Connoisseurship was never meant to be neutral. Art has always had a role to play about showcasing power.
If you talk about the Roman Catholic Church, the use of art in its own declaration of its own power is super clear, and the instrumentalization of art vis a vis power or ideology is ages old. So even the museum as the “conservator or facility that conserves culture”; is not completely neutral. I would say that a museum needs to be very clear, and it can’t vaguely claim neutrality. But you do have to be clear about what your values are. Every museum and non profit institution has a mission and values.”
Like art itself, these answers were a step back from the question; offering a broader viewpoint on the dynamic between politics and art, which is often at times much more cyclical and reciprocal than merely functioning as a mirror or an expression of any side or position of politics or social concern. Laura explained how for the Queens Museum, that’s a positive thing, albeit complicated.
Finding a Point of View — Open To Everyone
“Often institutions avoid being clear because they don’t want to offend somebody with a different viewpoint. I think that’s the opposite of what needs to happen. If we are clear about the values from which we come, if we have projects that reflect those values, then sometimes controversy comes up around that, and it’s totally logical. Where controversy plays out most significantly is when the institution didn’t intend on it, but it happens naturally.
For example, the St. Louis Museum of Contemporary Art just had this big kerfuffle about a curator presenting the work of a particular artist, and how the intentions of that artist were not framed outright to the viewing public. The relationship of the museum to the messages of the art portrayed were very ambivalent and people were very upset about it. When you have that lack of clarity, that’s where things can get really confusing to people, and that’s where controversy comes up. The idea that museums can create dialogue and discourse is good but only if you’re really clear about the fact that it’s happening. Museums are not neutral. We need to claim them as such- be clear and intentional. We are not monolithic.”
With the election heat of today, I pushed for more specifics on how the rhetoric and divisiveness of current politics plays out in the decision making and experience of this particular museum; one that is quite different from, say, the Whitney in the Upper Westside of Manhattan.
Capturing the Pedagogy of the Moment
Laura explained, that “There is no line between life and politics, no line between art and life and politics. Certainly room in my world- there is a lot of different art that I love that I think is important for me and others to see in the world. For the Queens Museum, we have a particular agenda because of who we are; a public museum in a public park serving a non traditional audience. That provides a very rich space to make decisions about how we create programs, those that are as diverse as the communities we serve. Part of that has nothing to do with the politics of today, but with the pace and how we approach them- both responsively and structurally.”
With this topic in mind, we discussed how the responsive and structural programming work together, by integrating the pressing politics of today into the actual programmatic architecture of the institution itself.
“An example that is both systemic and in the moment, played out especially and sadly last spring. When xenophobia in the US was at a very high point, particularly in relationship to Muslims, we sadly saw this play out in our city, particularly in educational environments. For the Queens Museum, that’s our largest department, and we serve over 30,000 school children, engaging with every single public school and also a slew of independent schools, including special needs. What we were seeing in some of our interactions, particularly with teen and middle school kids, particularly from Muslim schools, was a real fear rising amongst those kids about their own identities and their literal safety in the world. We felt we had to respond to contend with that, so we developed a program with educators to provide a space for affected kids to work that out, and to create more awareness in the broader education environment that this is a reality for students and we can’t just go on like things are normal. Islamophobia is effecting a big segment of the population. That’s an example of the kind of programs we run, that are responsive but also involved in bigger picture structural questions. That applies to the issues, and to the very role a museum can play in addressing issues.”
Engaging Your Community
“Another example specific to the dialogue of this presidential election and to the dynamic of how our museum responds both systemically and in the moment, is one of our programs that addresses immigrant’s rights; an uncomfortable topic today. We rent a small storefront about a 10-minute walk from the Museum. It’s devoted to workshops and providing a community space for everything from getting OSHA construction certification, legal advice on immigration status, zumba classes, or seminars on how to get involved in one of the various kind of community activism projects taking place on our campus, such as approaches to healthcare for women. Education and justice are heavily codependent. That’s where the mix of our engagement is most profound.”
“For example, our city councilwoman pushed for more resources for the park, which is the 3rd largest park in NYC. As facilitators for the museum and the use of those funds, we at the museum wanted to make sure the locals who use the park have a say in what the funds would be used for. So a year before the alliance and the associated funding was announced, one of our community organizers worked with a nonprofit in New York, the Design Trust for Public Space, to create an informal design school for neighborhood folks, from different neighborhoods around the park.”
This was a way to get tens of thousands of people really involved in a conversation that is very important to them, and also give these people skills to engage with and talk about the improvements they want to see. If our community members didn’t have the opportunity to discover and study their own understanding of the issues and the systems we are all grappling with, it would be very difficult for them to communicate with the power structures. So these programs function to close the gap, to shift from ideas that might seem outlandish or inappropriate, and level the playing field. If the communities are able to tie their wants into the way things actually work, or modify ideas in a way that fits with the system of the parks department or the city, then they can be more successful with that engagement by functioning as a civic entry point, our museum is actively creating a space to facilitate long-term change, and at the same time, working with the immediate and pressing issues of today- those that need to change from the inside out.”
Supporting the Art and Artist as Provocateur
As she continued to expand on this important dilemma, I realized how blatantly intermarried the process and presentation of art really are when it comes to directly engaging with the issues and crises faced by the community today. And for the artists that are coloring in and outside of the lines to create or facilitate the programs, that engagement is essential.
“Artists have an enormous role to play. Artists are imagineers of a new reality. Artists think about the way that power can be restructured so that it functions differently. It’s about disrupting but it’s also about the fundamental question- how do we do this differently? One of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement stated that we are not looking to flip the power structure, we are looking to change it. That’s a very important distinction because that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to reimagine the possible, and artists are great at doing that. They come up with all kinds of interesting ideas, those that I don’t think a white paper or investigatory journalist would think of, or think of in such creative terms. That why we need artists involved in social engagement, because they can push agendas of how we can reimagine power structures, instead of pushing one structure or program above another. Artists can help us see something in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s what artists are good at. If equitable answers to the greatest question of our society don’t exist, our role is to create a way where they can”
Check out the latest show: The Art of Citizenship: Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens Museum