Reflection on Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues

Photo by Ian Douglas Photo by Ian Douglas

Artist as Activist: Futuring the Face of Protest
By Ali Rosa-Salas

Six months after the murder of Mike Brown, “Black Lives Matter” has been a national rallying cry against state sanctioned violence in the US and beyond. In a kind of collaborative choreography, thousands commanded public space by stopping traffic, lying in the streets and chanting in affirmation of black and brown lives.

In the midst of performative interventions, the inevitable question is: what next? With the Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues series entitled “Artist as Activist: Futuring the Face of Protest,” panelists Piper Anderson, Jenny Koons, George Sanchez and Syreeta McFadden weighed in on the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement in contemporary art world. At this historical tipping point, what is the responsibility of art institutions to instigate dialogue and action around social justice?

Sunday’s discussion opened with a meditation on the Black Lives Matter ethos. “Black Lives Matter is a concept and state of being that affirms life,” said panelist Syreeta McFadden. The civil rights issue central to the Black Lives Matter movement is an interrogation of state sanctioned police violence disproportionately suffered by people of color. Systemic change must not only be understood as a change in legislation, but also a shift in consciousness.

A concern for space–and in particular, inequitable access to institutionally sanctioned art spaces for artists of color–emerged again and again in the conversation. Together, audience members and panelists discussed curatorial, operational and infrastructural strategies that can promote more heterogeneous contemporary art audiences.

The politics of public versus private space in the contemporary art world are inextricably linked to the concerns of activists mobilizing against police brutality, and even more so to the New York City dance community. For example, the enforcement of NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s “Broken Windows” policing has resulted in a 300% increase in the arrest of dancers who perform on the subway, the majority of whom are young men of color. Due to their exclusion from the art institutional fold, this community of artists is often not afforded the privileges and protections endowed to public art grantees. If art serves to affirm existence, policies like Broken Windows squarely deny this right by staking a claim in defining what is “legitimate” art and what is public disruption.

Historically mandated as “keepers of culture,” art institutions can and must be key sites for transformation in the cultural consciousness called for by the Black Lives Matter movement. Not only do they exist at a unique position- one that bridges public and private spheres–but they also ultimately set the stage for what kinds of creative life is affirmed, archived and protected. Presenting institutions must assume accountability for how infrastructural and curatorial imperatives can perpetuate systemic oppression that devalues the creative production of people of color. The notion of “objective” aesthetic taste must be understood once and for all as a fallacy. Contemporary notions of beauty, artistic value, and intellectualism are inextricably linked to ideologies on race and human value that can be transformed to be inclusive to all art makers.

As inspired audience members rose to christen the theater with Audre Lorde’s words at the conclusion of Sunday’s discussion, it was clear: we are already doing this work.

Continue the conversation with us on Wednesday, March 18 at 1pm on our Twitter chat @newyorklivearts. Then join us at New York Live Arts on Sunday, March 22 at 5pm for Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement.