In late August 2020 I began the fight to get my exhibition Imagine Otherwise (a multimedia group exhibition, which thinks with Christina Sharpe’s groundbreaking book In the Wake On Blackness and Being, to express the boundlessness and fierceness of Black imagination and love despite ongoing anti-Black violence) back on the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art’s (moCa) exhibition schedule. I had previously spoken to the press about the lack of curatorial competency and the internal culture of racism at the museum. In staff meetings I also highlighted various racist practices I experienced in the museum from my coworkers, senior management, and the board. In retaliation, interim director Megan Reich and chief curator Courtenay Finn quietly cancelled my exhibition. Earlier in the spring they had moved Imagine Otherwise to fall 2021 and told me they would ask the Gund Foundation to extend my fellowship, which was slated to end in March 2021. But after I spoke out about some of the racism at the museum, Reich told me my fellowship would not be extended and that my exhibition would not happen.
As the first Black person working in the curatorial department and only Black staff member outside of a front-of-house or administrative role, I was alone and unsupported. Often people celebrate “first Black …” appointments while failing to consider the internal dynamics, the realities of existing in these white workplaces. Normally someone like me, a Black person who would not assimilate, would have been silenced for good. I would have lost my opportunity to curate the show I had come to the museum to create. But these times are different and I am unlike anyone to ever work there.
The racism was not new. Indeed, in the institution’s 50-year history in this majority Black city, not one Black person had ever worked on staff in the curatorial department before me. There is, to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s expression, a “brutal asymmetry of power” at the museum and throughout Cleveland’s arts ecosystem. White people dominate all of the positions of power in all of the city’s well-funded institutions. On trend with kindred institutions, moCa’s leadership, who create and sustain a racist environment, celebrate themselves for token, temporary measures of “inclusion,” such as hiring a Black person for a provisional position or occasionally amplifying Black artists and other artists of color through exhibitions and programming while hoarding structural power.
The museum’s culture of anti-Blackness became more obvious last summer during the global uprisings against the murder of George Floyd. At that time museums became subject to increased public scrutiny due to the coordinated global flurry of “solidarity” Instagram posts. Indeed, former director Jill Snyder repeatedly described that moment as “disruptive” in her June 19, 2020 resignation speech to the staff through a Zoom webinar. Just a week before, Snyder, unable to manage the growing external and internal critiques of racist remarks she had made in meetings and in the press, informed the staff that after 23 years she realized she was not qualified for her job. She apologized, but asked us to be patient with her as she learned. Most people outside of the museum didn’t know about the complete managerial meltdown going on inside. News stories touted Snyder’s departure as making room at the table for new leadership. Reich, another white woman, second in command to Snyder and who has worked at moCa for over a decade, assumed the role of interim director.
In my August 2020 report to the Gund Foundation, which funded my position, I proposed to restructure my fellowship into a curatorial residency and pitched my Black Liberation Center (BLC). I would create and lead a series of programming as an alternative to reporting to Finn. In that plan, I also pleaded to get my exhibition Imagine Otherwise back on the museum’s schedule. While the Gund Foundation supported this redirection, Imagine Otherwise remained in limbo. Eventually I readdressed the situation with Reich, who agreed to most of my BLC proposal and yet refused to budge on the exhibition. I asked her: “Are you cancelling an exhibition featuring Black artists and a Black curator? Because that’s a good story.” Suddenly Reich relented. I got Imagine Otherwise back. Less than five months later it was breathing.
In some ways I do not know if fighting to get my exhibition back was worth it, though I love many aspects of it. I made Imagine Otherwise a citywide exhibition, forcing moCa Cleveland to put some financial support toward two of Cleveland’s Black cultural institutions. In addition to the strong artistic elements from the artists Shikeith, Imani Dennison, Amber N. Ford, and Antwoine Washington, I think my exhibition can serve as an alternative model for curators working in white museum spaces who ground their praxis in caring for Black communities. But creating this exhibition under hostile conditions came with heavy burdens. In a December 2020 exhibition opening planning meeting, I told coworkers that I worried about having any type of opening reception for Imagine Otherwise with them. At the previous patrons dinner reception in January 2020, the manager of the development department seated me and the Indigenous and Black artists featured in my earlier exhibition at a small table next to the kitchen. The white leadership and white guests sat together at a larger table. Despite months of “diversity” sessions, several white coworkers gaslighted me. They told me they didn’t remember that, didn’t notice that, and wanted me to move on.
A week later, in a separate meeting, instead of apologizing for that segregated event, Reich stated that she didn’t have anything to do with organizing the dinner reception and that the development department typically does problematic things. Because of the ongoing racism at moCa, I feared how Imagine Otherwise would fare at the institution. In my follow-up email message to Reich, I again identified a path forward:
The best response from those invested in the oppressive force of anti-Blackness involves a genuine acknowledgement of one’s role and an active commitment to the unraveling of the violence. That is part of the “wake work” that Christina Sharpe discusses in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. This exhibition is a gift to moCa since it is a serious invitation to do the real work. It is an intervention.
Over a month later, Reich responded that she’s working tirelessly with the diversity consultants and that I should speak to them.
In early March, I reached my limit when Reich tried to push me out of my exhibition programming. Around that time I also learned that she had initiated discussions with a third party about distributing the remaining funds of my Black Liberation Center project to them. No one, especially Black people occupying so-called diversity positions in white institutions, should have to surmount a series of underhanded hurdles to do our work. I appealed to the board and received an uninformed and condescending reply.
It was exhausting. Finally, I did the best thing. I recalled my friend artist Tricia Hersey, who is well known through her Nap Ministry project, by asking myself: “What would Tricia do?” I know she would not keep fighting to work through this violent place. Indeed, she would have never bothered with moCa’s machinations in the first place. As she states in one of her sermons posted on Instagram: “We don’t want a seat at the table. The table is full of oppressors. We want a blanket and pillow down by the ocean. We want to rest.” Her ministry guided me; I stopped. There was nothing more any self-respecting, critical race studies Black scholar and curator who cares about herself, could do at that place. Similar to other white museums, moCa’s leadership allows representations that challenge anti-Blackness to be exhibited, but refuses to divest that violence from its structure.
Perhaps it is perfect that right now moCa Cleveland literally has an exhibition about how Black people navigate this anti-Black world. I found my answer to Christina Sharpe’s meditation, which is the heart of Imagine Otherwise: “What happens when we proceed as if we know this, anti-Blackness, to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which we to attempt to speak, for instance, an “I” or a “we” who know, an “I” or a “we” who care?” I, moCa Cleveland’s first on-staff Black curator creating exhibitions, know the farce of the institution’s “inclusion” rhetoric. I refused to subject myself to more institutional violence. I imagined my otherwise. March 31, 2021 was my last day. It was also my last day working at all-white museums. After years of being the only Black person, only person of color in numerous white museum spaces, I got free!
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Author: LaTanya Autry