I live in the predominately white city of Seattle, WA, which is home to the usual assortment of arts institutions, from performing arts venues to independent galleries to collecting museums. A common refrain amongst arts-goers of color is that these arts institutions “weren’t made for us.” It’s a sharp assessment.
The history of the arts institution is rooted in white, Western, land-owning classes for whom the exhibition of art cannot be separated from imperial power and the violence of capitalist extraction, the gross display of financial and cultural capital, and to the consolidation and maintenance of certain forms of the cultural supremacy of whiteness. The contemporary art institution continues to be scripted by this legacy, institutionalized through, for example, the financial barriers to entry and to hierarchical governance structures that are deeply wedded to institutions of higher education and to generational wealth. If you have money you can enter the institution; if you have money and/or credentials, you can climb the hiring ladder; and if you really have money and/or credentials you can be on the board and functionally supervise all operations. The phrase “it wasn’t made for us” usefully spotlights how the racialized and classed history of the art institution continues to shape curatorial and operational processes—and has historically determined who walks through the doors.
My curiosity lies in how the phrase “It wasn’t made for us” condenses the long and varied history of the institution into a personal politics of refusal, where the phrase functions as rationale for not fully engaging with the art and artists on display. “It wasn’t made for us” becomes a stand-in for engagement with the work and, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, whiteness and white people become the focus of the art experience.
The context of the exhibition and an institution should always inform our experience of the work; we can never experience or interpret art as existing in a vacuum. It’s precisely for that reason that “it wasn’t made for us” raises questions for me: it obviates the presence and experience of the speaker, a person of color, whose sheer presence in the space re-networks the history, practices, and expectations embedded in the art institution. This statement becomes all the more curious to me when it regards work produced by artists of color. What are the resonances of attending a performance or visiting an exhibition by an artist of color and saying that, by virtue of it being exhibited in an arts institution and/or being staged in a predominately white city, the work “wasn’t made for us”? What are the resonances of attending a performance or visiting an exhibition by an artist of color and saying that, by virtue of it being staged in a predominately white city, it “was made for white people,” which is another way of saying the work “wasn’t made for us”?
I ask these questions from the perspective of someone who tries to build people’s comfortability with the vocabularies of “art appreciation,” giving people opportunities to learn the technical language of, say, the elements of art while also providing structures of support where they can develop those terminologies in deep conversation with their subjective experiences. My organization, The Black Embodiments Studio (BES), believes that everyone has the capacity to be a skilled art critic—much of the challenge is breaking down well-earned assumptions that criticism is only the purview of people who have received advanced degrees or who are embedded in socio-cultural scenes where opportunities to take up space (as, say, a critic) abound. Intervening into “it wasn’t made for me” has increasingly become part of the project of BES. The phrase cannot be a full stop, it has to be a stepping stone.
So much of the work of small arts organizations like BES is implicitly dedicated to building people’s confidence. For BES, that confidence is directed at the rather technical processes of defining and describing art and certainly writing about it. But it is also very much dedicated towards giving people confidence over their experience, that the minute they walk through the doors of any given art institution, their perspective matters. They deserve to be there as much as the next person and, with that, their thoughts about the work in question are valuable. This is the point where measuring “success,” which we all too often have to do to justify the work that we do to possible funders, feels impossible. How can we ever measure and document the ways that someone’s thought process has shifted from “the art institution wasn’t made for me, so I don’t feel the need (or the right) to engage with it on its terms” to “the art institution wasn’t made for me so I walked through the doors and made it for me”? This is the lightning in a bottle that BES is always trying to capture.
Kemi Adeyemi is Associate Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington and Director of The Black Embodiments Studio, an arts writing incubator, public programming initiative, and publication platform dedicated to developing discourse around contemporary black art and artists. Her practice use performance as a site and methodology for theorizing the contours of contemporary black queer life. She wrote Feels Right: Black Queer Women & the Politics of Partying in Chicago (Duke University Press, 2022) and co-edited Queer Nightlife (University of Michigan Press, 2021) with Kareem Khubchandani and Ramón Rivera-Servera. Her most recent writing has appeared in GLQ, Women & Performance, and in the Routledge Handbook of African American Art History.
Adeyemi's work extends into the realm of contemporary art practice. She works as choreographer Will Rawls’ dramaturge, and has written on and for artists including Tschabalala Self, Jovencio de la Paz, Indira Allegra, Brendan Fernandes, and taisha paggett. She curated Amina Ross’ 2019 solo show at Ditch Projects, and co-curated Unstable Objects in 2017 at the Alice Gallery.
The Black Embodiments Studio is an arts writing incubator, public programming initiative, and publishing platform dedicated to building discourse around contemporary black art. They focus on creative alliances meant to build sustainable peer-support networks, commissioning new work from artists and writers, and developing ethical public programming practices that do not exploit their labor.