Even though we have had to be physically apart, it has been unbelievably gratifying to connect virtually with other Black art conservators this past year. This group that we’ve formed has helped give me much needed support to be able to speak out honestly about racism and inequity in art conservation. We have created a space for ourselves. This space and the connections that we have made are truly amazing. I can see the ripple effects all around me and feel like I’ve been able to carve out my own niche from where I can push for social justice and Black liberation in cultural heritage. Although this year has been difficult, vision planning with other Black conservators makes me feel like real change is possible. This past year has exposed many inequities in cultural heritage. I urge institutions to not forget these lessons and to embrace our original call to action.
An unprecedented world-wide pandemic and shockingly blatant social injustice shed to light, causing tsunami like waves of cultural and societal changes, these will mark the year 2020 forever. Amidst this catholic upheaval, I also experienced drastic personal transitions and challenges over the past year. At the height of the Pandemic lock down, I moved from coastal Virginia to the US Midwest, to begin a new arc of my conservation career by joining the staff of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Newfields, in Indiana.
I drove into Indy in late May, and immediately was greeted by the sights and sounds of protest over the infamous murder of George Floyd. This was combined with cries against the death of Dreasjon Reed, a young Black man unjustly killed by Indianapolis police earlier that same month. During my first week at Newfields I was informed that the only Black curator was about to resign due to racism she experienced from persons of the Museum Administration and the Board of Trustees. Early in 2021, a job posting for the Museum Director position at the IMA – Newfields, which included statements revealing systemic, institutional racism, was leaked to the Media. This came only about 6 months after Newfields had retained a private consulting firm to begin diversity training for all Museum personnel. Though the resulting uproar and controversy led to the ousting of the Museum CEO, I was questioned by family and colleagues about whether I myself would leave Newfields after all that had occurred in so short a span of time. I remain at Newfields, without any strong regrets, as the Museum does have a lot in its favor. The staff with whom I work on a regular basis, my conservation Dept. colleagues especially, are top quality. Still, I hope to see the DEIA situation there continue to improve in the near future.
Incidents such as these are at the root of why the Black Art Conservators group joined together to author our initial statement against racism in the field of art conservation and the entire domain of the Cultural Arts. The formation of the BAC group is one of the best things to result from the problematic past 12 months. It has been a real joy to meet and discuss our lives and careers, and how we might make positive impact on our profession. For years I had been resigned to accept the status quo, but this group has generated renewed energy and optimism for demanding and working toward change. In doing so, we will strive to help new Black Art Conservators to grow and succeed personally and professionally. We also will use our collective skills, expertise and knowledge to help promote the conservation of art and artifacts originating from oppressed and underserved peoples, communities and cultures. Many thanks to my BAC colleagues and all who support and join with us in these endeavors.
It has been an incredible year filled with personal and professional change. I am so grateful for the support of the Black Art Conservators over the course of an exhausting and trying time. As a collective we have planted the seeds of connections that will hopefully grow into future collaborations, and individually, I am in awe of how much we each accomplished over this past year. I am thrilled to see the first steps being implemented by many institutions but recognize this journey will take a thousand steps.
I feel bittersweet thinking about the past year. So much has changed about me personally. I’ve done a lot of reflecting, thinking, and I can honestly say I’m a different person than I was a year ago. I wish I could say the same for what I experience in the outside world in relation to being Black. I still see Black bodies being murdered by police, and people doing all the mental gymnastics they can to justify the murder. I still see blatant discrimination against Black bodies for simply being: take this year’s Olympics for example. I still see people claiming to be allies, who are not really allies because as soon as they get uncomfortable the allyship goes out the window. Granted, I am not naive and I did not think all of this would magically disappear in a year. But I did hope for significant change in a positive, more equitable direction.
Speaking specifically to the cultural heritage field, I did see more Black people hired into positions of power. However I remain unconvinced those institutions are doing much to change the aspects of white supremacy culture that are baked into the institution. I saw, and was a part of many discussions, panels, etc about how museums can do better, how white allies can do better, how graduate programs can do better, etc. What I have yet to see on a large scale is the follow through. I have yet to feel like museums, white allies, graduate programs, etc are actually doing better. I was expecting to see leaps and large strides, but have been shown baby steps at best.
To wrap up this reflection I want to focus on what I am hoping to see in the years to come. I’m hoping for more honesty and transparency anywhere and everywhere. In hiring practices, institutional communications, professional organizations, graduate program application information, and individual interactions to name a few. I want to see less centering of white feelings and more sensitivity to Black ones. I am hoping for less asking-what-we-should-do and more giving-the-right-people-resources-and-space-to-get-it-done. I am hoping to experience 0 microaggressions at the next AIC conference, if I decide to attend.
After a year filled with many declarations of solidarity and programs confronting the biases of the cultural heritage professions, I’m cautiously optimistic about real change. At both the regional and national level, we have been engaged in programs confronting Confederate monuments, discussing the future of conservation, and addressing the demographics of the field. There were times when there were more Black conservators on the video chat screen than could be counted on one hand, which might seem mundane, but those moments meant a lot to me. A few years ago, three of us eating lunch at a conference would declare ourselves to be a “Black Caucus Meeting.” I’m also heartened by the energy and enthusiasm of the emerging professionals within our group.