(Photo credit: Isaac James Creative. AAMC Foundation)
An email has this banner image across the top. What are you likely to think? If you are me, you recognize “my world.” A lecture hall, filled with name-tagged, slightly bored people. What are they thinking? “Why won’t scholars stick to the 20-minute limit?” “Someone made this argument 30 years ago, and better.” “Where is that wine reception? I need to beat the line.”
But I opened this particular email because of the subject line: In-Conversation: “Art & Social Justice” presented by Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) Foundation. Now there is a topic worthy of a large auditorium. The accompanying text describes a promising program including a diverse group of participants representing various institutions and perspectives: “The event brings together five prominent arts leaders to have a conversation around the power of art – created and presented by artists, arts organizations, scholars, activists, and of course, curators – to instigate action, produce impactful outcomes, bring attention to critical issues, and open conversations by offering different points of view.”
Museums have been the subject of harsh critique for their perpetuation of oppressive systems, for their practices of exclusion. This is particularly the case for art museums, with their colonialist, Eurocentric perspectives, their elitism, their whiteness. Has progress been made? Indeed. Does more work need to be done? Absolutely. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter has some suggestions.
So the AAMC initiative is part of an ongoing conversation about the role that curators and other arts professionals play in maintaining the status quo, and in spearheading change. As the most public face for my own discipline, art history, museums, through the efforts of the AAMC, could advance the progress of a socially-engaged art history, one which actually benefits the communities where it is practiced.
The roundtable description does not specify which critical issues are of most concern. “Social justice” as a term generally means “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Art museums in this context are a mixed bag. They are famously lacking in diverse leadership, serve the interests of the very wealthy, and regularly make headlines for accusations of race and gender inequality, and cultural appropriation and insensitivity. And yet they are, too, the front line for some of the best progress that has been made in recognizing and acknowledging their own complicity, and developing programs and practices to promote accessibility, accountability, and respect for all cultures. Two recent examples offer case studies: the objection at the Whitney Museum to the painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz and the objection at the Walker Art Center to a sculpture by Sam Durant that references the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862. Both examples and their resolutions demonstrate the tricky navigation of intersectional issues of representation, power, and voice.
So can museums use curatorial, educational and other practices to actively promote social justice? That, admirably, is what AAMC sought to examine in this event. I, for one, hope that there were some concrete outcomes, some action items.
Now back to that picture. The other notable aspect is its unbearable whiteness of being. It is difficult to confidently identify a single African-American, and only one or two persons of color can be spotted in that audience. As a convening of the American Association of Museum Curators, it is a visual indictment of the organization’s own lack of progress. Did they slyly intend that self-critique in their choice of images? In other words, what were they thinking? Well, they weren’t. The response to my query was that it is “our own stock photo that we use often for programming.” That lack of attentiveness to visual rhetoric sends the message that the organization’s intended audience reflects the very absence of diversity that is one of the roots of the social justice issues they intend to discuss. Who is allowed a seat at this table?
 Judith Pineiro, Executive Director AAMC, e-mail June 8, 2017.
Karen J. Leader is Associate Professor of Art History, and Faculty Associate in the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Her activities on behalf of art history and the humanities can be found here. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @proftinkerbell.