Barbara Earl Thomas's show The Geography of Innocence opens at SAM this November.

The open letter to Artist Trust demanded that the local grant-making nonprofit “dismantle long-held practices that have unjustly impacted Black, Indigenous, and otherwise racialized peoples.” Within a month, 433 people in Seattle’s arts community had signed the letter, including a tide of former employees and grant recipients.

The impetus was this: In February, five jurors had convened and picked two Artist Innovator Award winners, who’d get $25,000 each—a major prize. Soon, the trouble started. Artist Trust’s board claimed there was a conflict of interest between a juror and an awardee. The board said they’d restart the process with a new panel. Four of the original jurors, all people of color, reached out: What was the conflict? 

Eventually, the board replied that artist and University of Washington professor Anida Yoeu Ali hadn’t disclosed an indirect conflict. Problem was, she had; the other jurors concurred. The board responded that, yeah, the process had problems, but the jury’s selection was still void. 

This back and forth slogged on. At the end of June, Ali and Shin Yu Pai, a poet and juror, joined with Satpreet Kahlon, a sculptor and previous Artist Trust grant recipient, to draft that open letter. It called for, among other things, more transparency and “major restructuring” toward “anti-racist, anti-colonialist frameworks.” 

In August, following news stories on the dispute, Artist Trust issued an apology, had some staff change, and reinstated the jury’s original selections. It’s begun third-party investigations of its processes and this fall will hold public forums about how it can improve.

In this criticism, it’s not alone. This year, the arts collapsed, among the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic. In the pause, and amid calls for racial equity, national and local institutions have gone through upheaval. Questions already simmering came to a boil: How can these arts nonprofits, at least nominally for the public good, create lasting structural change, going beyond abstract statements about “doing better”? 

Kahlon told me she’s “focused on holistic change, not just in Artist Trust, but in the way that nonprofits function overall.” But concrete shifts have come slowly. It’s hard, uncomfortable work. And nonprofits can get caught up in their own benevolent auras. “I think there’s an attitude, because we’re nonprofit workers, that we’re doing the good work, and that we’re doing fine,” says Amada Cruz, who took over as Seattle Art Museum’s director and CEO last year. “And every now and then you have to be pushed out of that comfort zone.”

Anida Yoeu Ali, Satpreet Kahlon, and Shin Yu Pai.

 

I was drinking morning coffee when the press release hit my inbox. SAM's board of directors, it said, voted to dissolve the museum by 2022 and transfer all its assets to local BIPOC arts organizations. I thrilled not out of malice (I like SAM), but at the audacity. Is this what major change looks like? I reached out for an interview. Then I kept reading. Did SAM really misspell Amada Cruz’s name “Amanda”? Wait, twice? Then the final paragraph: “This is a work of speculative fiction…. We do not need more representations of diversity, equity, and inclusion from institutions that hoard wealth and resources—we need transformative actions.” It was a prank, satirizing the museum.

Though the museum doesn’t know who sent the critical missive, Cruz says it raised “some really interesting points” about inequities between large and small organizations. In 2018, SAM held around $340 million in assets and had $28 million in yearly revenue. It will weather the pandemic shutdown, Cruz says. Some smaller ones likely won't. Others I spoke with pointed out problems with how funding gets distributed: The wealth of longstanding institutions can be a self-fulfilling prophecy—big budgets garner big fundraising and big giving. Legacy institutions continue legacies; smaller ones struggle to forge them. And plenty of big Western museums have, as the release mentioned, “structures that naturalize and reproduce colonialism.” SAM is better than many, particularly compared to European institutions, but a few items in its collection were originally stolen in violent colonialism. Some items have been repatriated to cultures; others haven’t (repatriation is complicated—not just a matter of handing art back).  

SAM, for its part, is trying to change from within. Its equity work is partly what attracted Cruz to the role. The museum now has four women of color in leadership roles, including Cruz and Priya Frank, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

For the last four years Frank has headed the museum’s equity team, working on everything from microaggression training to representation in collections to a paid emerging arts leader internship. “Those are specifically for folks that are underrepresented in museum fields,” Frank says. So far it’s working: SAM’s hired three of its nine graduates. Even Frank’s role is new, announced in August. She and Cruz said they could find only one other museum in the country with a director of equity.

So far that’s what a lot of concrete institutional change looks like: investigations and shifts within the system, opening up space for diversity. But this year a Portland organization, spurred by a former Seattleite, pushed the conversation further.

Trying to take decolonizing beyond a metaphor, the board of Portland's Yale Union transferred ownership to NACF.

 

In June, Flint Jamison was in one of many planning meetings on how to dissolve Yale Union, a Portland contemporary art center where he served as board president. He mentioned the fake SAM press release. “We were all like, ‘Whoa, this is what we’re trying to do.’”

Yale Union had begun in 2008. East Portland redeveloped, gentrified around it. Across the street an empty lot where goats grazed became a mixed-use complex. YU’s staff and board—including Jamison and Yoko Ott, a longtime Seattle artist who’d moved to Portland—became increasingly queasy about their role in the area. When developers arrive, an arts space becomes a neighborhood amenity. In 2018, Ott, the executive director, offered a solution to their anxieties: Why not go all the way with decolonizing and transfer the space to a Native-run arts organization? “She kind of was calling us on our shit, in a cool way…. ‘You guys think you’re asking the riskiest questions?’” Jamison says. “‘This is as risky as it gets for an institution that has property and can’t exist without it.’” 

Ott died unexpectedly in 2018, but first she presented the idea to T. Lulani Arquette, the president and CEO of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a Vancouver, Washington–based nonprofit. “I was shocked and grateful and humbled and, you know, a surge of emotions,” Arquette says. Next year, YU will dissolve, and the building will become the Center for Native Arts and Cultures, with exhibition spaces and a performing arts theater and community rooms. Arquette says the space is aimed at helping people to better understand “Native art in its vastness and uniqueness...especially Native contemporary art.” 

Arquette hopes current conversations, and actions like the YU transfer, will spur bigger shifts in nonprofits, toward more equitable funding. “It’s usually the white organizations that have been able to raise the most money.”

Barbara Earl Thomas stands in Falling Bodies in the Matrix.

The path to a better model remains obscure. Arquette mentioned a community collective, a trust where money is shared transparently. Others, like Kahlon (of the Artist Trust letter), want to see organizations push for the government to distribute funds, eventually making nonprofits unnecessary. 

Yet most everyone I spoke with felt hopeful that current conversations were less destructive than generative. This November, pandemic willing, Barbara Earl Thomas will show her new exhibition at SAM, The Geography of Innocence. Part of the installation will render, in starkly beautiful paper cutouts, children’s faces. She wants to create a space to meditate on what we as a culture project onto children, especially Black kids, before they can handle it: a responsibility or “sinister intent” that they do not have. In the exhibition she wants us to look upon the kids’ actual state, on innocence. 

She likens this moment, with its calls for more equitable structures, to the creative process. “Right now, we’re in the chaos phase.” But if we trust the process, and push through the confusion, eventually a clear idea emerges. Then, says Thomas, you follow it, and “not only do you have a truth, but you see a whole new set of questions.”

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