Reopened Art Institute of Chicago balances the needs of the global audience with the needs of the local community
Edward Hopper’s Nightjars. Grant Woods’ american gothic. at Georges Seurat A Sunday on the Grande Jatte.
All of the most recognizable images in the history of art.
All in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
All from the hand of a white artist representing whites.
As art museums across the country pledge to become more welcoming to black audiences, the Art Institute of Chicago faces a question: how does it best balance showcasing its most precious treasure? great successes in the art history of white artists – Monet, van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso, Pollack, Warhol – with works by black artists, representing subjects more relevant to the 30% African-American community it serves locally?
“The awareness with which we view what we show in our galleries and the way we interpret the artwork in the gallery has become more important, instead of being on the to-do list, it’s the number one, ”Sarah Guernsey, assistant director and senior vice president of curatorial affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago told Forbes.com.
The museum reopened to the public after its coronavirus shutdown on July 30, several years in multi-faceted efforts to be more inclusive of black voices. It is important to the Art Institute that this inclusion begins from within.
“For us, it’s not just about an external approach to the public, but also about the culture of our internal staff,” Guernsey said. “We want to make sure that our internal culture supports the way we want to invite external guests. “
A new initiative in this direction is the development of a department called “People and Culture”.
“It is intended to work towards having a better staff culture with equity, inclusion and anti-racism at the heart, highlighting the need for our culture and our staff engagement to have an impact on how we let’s showcase the art in the galleries, ”Guernsey explained.
The museum also has a fairness forum, where employees volunteer to take positions that advance the institution’s anti-racism work. Within the fairness forum is a group called “stories and content”.
“It’s a group of people who, when we address some of the issues of social identity in exhibitions or acquisitions, if we have issues that we want to look at more broadly, are willing to work on difficult topics without it being overwhelming. or just a conservative who thinks he or she knows what to do, ”Guernsey said.
Efforts continue with the Color Affinity Groups of staff, providing a space for employees of color to meet and talk, “and we are working to create another place of dialogue where we hold meetings with the manager and staff. black to talk about their concerns. because we realize that everyone reacts to the brutal murders of George Floyd and others, but it affects our black staff more than anyone, ”noted Guernsey, adding that“ we are working very hard to focus the black voices in it. inside the museum, to make it a welcoming place for staff where they feel supported… really think about black staff and not speak for black staff.
One of the museum’s oldest efforts for inclusion is its ‘Leadership Advisory Committee’ which dates back to the 1990s. This group of black supporters consults with curators and the Learning and Engagement department of the audience on acquisitions, exhibitions and programming with the aim of decentralizing decision-making.
Subtle, but important, customer service adjustments were also made to put black performers on a par with their famous white counterparts. One such example takes shape in visitor guides highlighting what to see in an hour.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the museum every year. Many of them are primarily looking to review in person the pictures they have read in books and seen on posters before moving on to the next attraction in town.
“Years ago you were watching the ‘what to see in an hour’ (guide) and that was it 19e Masterpieces of the Century by Seurat, Monet, and we very intentionally stepped away from simply listing those same 10 objects each time in the suggested ‘what to see in an hour’ tour, Guernsey said. “As much as it is our job to share famous works of art with the world, we also want to educate people on works of art that they may not have noticed or considered. “
One such example is Archibald Motley’s electric, jubilant, violet juke-joint utopia. Night life, a previously less famous painting of a black artist now raised to the stature of Monet’s haystacks or van Gogh’s bedroom.
“There are ways for works of art to become famous and part of that is to bring them to the public eye and allow people to learn more,” Guernsey said. “We take this seriously, we can’t just share the most famous objects that everyone expects, we want to share more to broaden the canon and broaden our visitors’ understanding of art history.”
To this end, the Art Institute will present a rich program of exhibitions of black artists through 2020 and 2021. Richard Hunt, Joseph Yoakum, Bisa Butler and the Presidential Portraits of Obama – his by Kehinde Wiley and his by Amy Sherald – all take center stage. Hunt is from Chicago, Yoakum lived there later in life until his death, and the Obamas, of course, came to Washington, DC from Illinois.
“We’re a great national art museum, but we’re Chicago-centric,” Guernsey said. “It’s our civic role, but it’s also just a proud part of who we are to turn to the voices of Chicago.”
Although not a Chicagoan, a mostly unknown black artist takes center stage as the museum opens with an exhibition alongside El Greco and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, two mainstays of the history of traditional art, is Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011).
“Malangatana: modern Mozambique” brings together over 40 key paintings and drawings, serving both as the first study of the artist’s early work since his death and as the first solo exhibition of a modern African painter at the Art Institute.
The museum vividly describes his work as “an aesthetic defined by a dense assemblage of figures; spooky representations of animals, humans and supernatural creatures; and a palette of bright and dark colors.
“Our exhibit looks at the early part of his career against the backdrop of the social, cultural and political conditions in Mozambique which he commented on in some respects,” said Felicia Valentine Mings, Academic Curator, Department of Academic Engagement and research. Forbes.com. “It’s a tumultuous moment because it was the height of the anti-colonial struggle.”
The exhibition covers the period 1959-1975, 1975 being the year Mozambique finally gained independence from Portugal, one of the last African countries to break free from colonial rule.
Malangatana’s unforgettable and gruesome characters fit perfectly into an art history that connects him to Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and Dali.
“He would most likely have absorbed some of that material while genuinely caring about his Ronga cultural background and bringing in the monstrous forms, the dense composition, the fantastic themes drawn from culture and folklore and bringing that together,” said Mings. “It’s really exciting to think about how we can see his work in dialogue with modern African artists who were practicing on the continent at that time as well as with European artists with whom we see resonance.”
“Malangatana: Mozambique Modern” is on view until November 16.
Richard Hunt’s exhibition is tentatively scheduled for an opening date on September 18, 2020, followed by Bisa Butler on November 14.e. In 2021, the portrait exhibitions of Joseph Yoakum and Obama are scheduled to begin in June.