Curating in an Era of Change: In Conversation with Stephanie Cunningham by Ashley Stull Meyers

IMAGE COURTESY OF STEPHANIE CUNNINGHAM

IMAGE COURTESY OF STEPHANIE CUNNINGHAM

Ashley Stull Meyers:  Let’s take it from the top and hear a little bit about your history as an arts worker and how Museum Hue was born.  What was the thought process behind founding a formal effort?

Stephanie Cunningham: Early in my career in museums I noticed the homogeneity of many cultural institutions: mostly white and ivy league or private school graduates. Prevalent not only in educational and curatorial sections of the museum, but across the board, except for security and janitorial, where there are many immigrants from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, and people of African descent. Growing up, I always imagined that in the arts it would be different than the rest of the world. It would be a place where everyone and everything was accepted and valued. Right? Wrong! Museum Hue really started from that: my infatuation and frustration with museums. We work to propel the visibility of people of different racial backgrounds working in arts & culture as well as speak out against the biases in cultural institutions. We know that these organizations play an intricate part in creating the national identity of a country and want our perspective included, not just the perspective that stem from voyeurism.

It’s been really exciting that people see a need for Museum Hue and are leveraging us. Museum Hue has monthly interactive events but also lives on the internet in a big way, nationally and internationally. We started less than two years ago, but we have almost 6,000 followers on Twitter alone. We’ve introduced a broader audience to the field and assisted people in gaining opportunities and employment. While I’m tremendously grateful for support and our growing following, it is also troubling that in 2016 there is even a need for Museum Hue.  It is especially odd when you consider that we started in New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, but there there is a lack of diversity in the arts.  If New York City is having this issue, we can only imagine the rest of the country.

There are spaces like the Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), that are providing a space for our communities that have been ignored in many other museums. However, they are not getting the financial support and visibility they deserve.  It’s a particular sort of institution that’s repeatedly given the money, backing, and support. Mostly, those that are larger and whiter. But now the national dialogue is about diversity and inclusion within those white centered spaces. That’s great, but how can they really change the culture of an institution that have been practicing exclusion since their inception? That takes time, work, investments, and commitment to avoid just plopping people of different racial make ups into the space as staff and visitor?  We notice already that institutions doing that experience high turnover rates. Larger, whiter, and better funded institutions can learn a great deal on how to effectively and authentically engage different communities from culturally specific institutions. Instead of trying to become authority over telling different stories they should if possible begin to support the institutions already doing the work.  

ASM: One thing I want to do is compliment Museum Hue as a job site because there are others that exist, like Call for Curators, which is now behind a paywall. It becomes another layer to have to problematize who’s getting access to this sort of information.

SC:  Museum Hue has three prongs: Community, Culture, and Career. We are building community amongst each other, introducing Hue’rs to different cultural programs/activities, and assisting individuals in becoming gainfully employed in the arts. 

ASM: Speaking about the problematic history of many museums – the early methodology behind their collections, what their institutional values are – there are a lot of people who feel that the political movements of People of Color should want nothing to do with those spaces. Even with the lovely and generative involvement of Black artists or Black curators, there’s the sense that the site itself is too fraught to combat. What are your thoughts on political work of art that deal explicitly with Black Lives Matter taking place in a “MoMA”?  Is something like that better served in Black catalyzed spaces, away from a particular sort of gaze?  Is it more powerful that way?  Or do you think there is an unfortunate (non-monetary) value in entering white cube space?

SC: I recently read Taylor [Aldridge]’s article in Art News and I think she made a lot of great points about that sort of work becoming trendy and financially viable.  I think that if we allow the wrong people and places to be our mouthpiece on these issues, they just become fashionable topics.  As Taylor mentioned in her article, seeing people sublime, mixing and mingling around Sanford Biggers work, Black pain inadvertently becomes entertainment.  I think that is something that will definitely begin to happen if Black artists are only given an opportunity at tokenized intervals.  Do artists need opportunity and visibility, and do those institutions offer that?  Absolutely! But, what we are also already seeing is that White artists get to champion these social justice issues with equal or sometimes greater opportunities.  We have to be honest with that too. While Black and Latino kids right here in New York City were getting killed for doing graffiti, Keith Haring came to New York City, borrowed some of their aesthetics and methods, and became a superstar. Artists of all backgrounds and identity want their labor to be rewarded.

ASM: We should also talk about the differences in viewership for different spaces. When curating an institution with a large public presence, I think exhibition planning should beg the question, “Who are these exhibitions for?” It’s easier to answer when the subject matter is historical, but regarding content that’s hyper-current, it isn’t always immediately clear. My question is, does a murky understanding of and allegiance to your viewership make a contemporary political exhibition too messy? Should curators and museum educators wait until we can historicize these moments properly?

IMAGE COURTESY OF STEPHANIE CUNNINGHAM

IMAGE COURTESY OF STEPHANIE CUNNINGHAM

SC: History is happening right now, and if artists are responding to it now, so can the institutions that support them. Institutions often wait until it’s “safe” to show certain works but that sort of historicizing only serves to wag your finger from a distance. Also, I would like to see institutions begin to delve into their own problematic history of their collections and spaces. Have public and candid introspection. There are amazing museum professionals who have begun speaking to these issues, so hopefully they are allowed to do so more in the near future. I think because museums are beacons of national identity in many ways, they need to have an increasingly honest accounting of all parts of that identity and all moments of its growing pains.  Museums need to be a part of dismantling false narratives.

ASM: Do you think there is a broader issue with institutional planning?  Often, large, public institutions don’t have the flexibility to address things in as timely a manner as we’d like them to.  Perhaps, that’s the work of a smaller, scrappier kind of operation. If a MoMA sized institution is structurally unable, what sort of investment should we be making in satellite or project spaces? Is it worth sacrificing visibility for flexibility?

SC: It’s worth mentioning that a lot of museums do already have satellite spaces. That’s valuable. But, there’s something uncomfortably literal about pushing socio-political trauma to the fringes. Another thing to keep in mind is that, if these institutions were in tune, on the ground, and connected to what was happening outside their four walls their exhibitions and programs would be better aligned with current events. For example, with the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), where I serve as the Curator of Education, we had an exhibition called Arresting Patterns about the over incarceration and harassment of Black and Latino men, which is a national and international issue. As a component of our public programming, we held a town hall about police brutality and making changes in the community. A day before the Town Hall there was another police shooting. We were going to have that discussion regardless of the shooting, but it aligns with the times and was generative.  At AAMP we are providing a comfortable space for uncomfortable conversations. We also created a Self-Care Guide for our visitors that acknowledges the trauma that Black people experience, which has an enormous effect on their well-being. If museums become in tune, they’ll be able to blend their exhibitions in meaningful ways, without breaking them or starting over.  I think too often, some exhibitions curators work in silos and museum educators and programmers are expected to pick up the slack. Why not plan exhibitions with education and public programming departments? They should develop hand in hand, with audience and community also mentioned every step of the way.

ASM: I’m glad you bring up trauma because lately we are inundated with image after image of Black bodies in death. As socially and morally traumatic as the events themselves are, we are reintroduced to those feelings through ubiquitously reproduced and thoughtlessly circulated images. For that reason, in my own curatorial practice, it feels urgent to me to facilitate the production of Black images for and by Black people. You’ve posted on social media more than once, “Black joy matters.” You’re probably not the first person to say it, but I thought it was a tremendously important sentiment in evaluating Black makership right now. Can you speak a little bit about that as a concept and why it matters for contemporary artists of color?

SC: Absolutely. I feel that sometimes we go through pain as a community and we want to be united in it. It’s important for us to be in that moment, but also to be able to care for ourselves and find joy again as a community.  That goes for artists just as much as anybody. Maybe more so in this case, because of the specificities of their labor. I think it’s incredibly important that we begin to take back our narrative, as you said. Despite all the things we’ve been through, I am reminded everyday how resilient Black culture is. We should all be crazy right now. But, we’ve been able to transfer our pain into our creativity… into our music, into Jazz, into Rock and Roll, into all these different things we’ve created.  It ends up in our cuisine, and our artist practices.  

It’s super inspirational to me to see Black makers channel some of this energy into performative work. Blood memory is a real thing.  These kids come out with a new dance every year, and pop culture thinks it’s new – but it actually has origins in West Africa, and sometimes the kids themselves don’t even know. It’s in their blood. And so, for us to continue to be able to take our narrative back and not seemingly be a people that are always suffering, always dying, always mad – it’s crucial.  Despite all of those things, we have been able to create more than Western history has even begun to give us credit for.

ASM: Thank you for that. To tie all this back to your own work, what sorts of things have you witnessed grow and change since you started Museum Hue? What are you feeling particularly proud of?

SC: One fairly recent thing we created is our Huesday Tweet Chats, which take place on Tuesdays. We have discussion about arts and culture, and its allowing for us to create a community as strongly online as in real space. We’ve also created Museum Girl’s World, where we’re encouraging young Women of Color to see arts and culture museums as a real opportunity for employment, and to recognize that they belong in those spaces as much as anyone. Michelle Obama along with The Smithsonian had a day where they welcomed all girls of Color into museum spaces in DC, free of charge, and we were very inspired by that. Museum Hue is attempting a similar initiative here in New York. We’ve also been lucky to have more opportunity to speak directly with museums about issues of diversity and corrective steps to take from the inside out. I headlined a talk at The American Alliance of Museums on the topic and was really pleased with the turnout.

ASM: That’s fantastic.  My very last question is one that I’ve asked of all these interviews. Can you tell me the names of a few artists or art workers that you want give a shine for a moment for everything they’re doing?

SC: I definitely want to shine a light on Dr. Marta Vega, the director and founder at the Caribbean Cultural Center. I want to say the name of James Bartlett at MoCADA.  I have so much respect for Thomas Lax for the work that he’s doing regarding MoMA’s collection in the era of Black Lives Matter.  Rujeko Hockley from The Brooklyn Museum is doing important work. Sandy Jackson Dumont at The Met is incredible. There are so many. I don’t think we have enough lights.            

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Stephanie A. Cunningham is the Curator of Education at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. She has practiced inquiry-based learning methodologies at the Brooklyn Museum, New-York Historical Society, City University of New York and New Jersey City University. She has led training workshops for the Guggenheim Museum and Weeksville Heritage Center.  Stephanie is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue, an organization that works to increase diversity in patrons, professionals, and cultural producers in the creative economy.