When Does Representation Stop Mattering? 

OTTAWA — Shortly before the pandemic shuttered museums and galleries around the world, the Mellon Foundation released its nationwide survey on the ethnic, racial, and gender makeup of art museum staff across the United States between 2015 and 2018. Understanding diversity as quantitative data via binary categories of men and women, white and POC, the survey tracked an increase of diversity hires from 26 to 35 percent at surveyed institutions. While representational change was most visible in education and curatorial roles, the facts and figures confirmed on paper that museum leadership was comparatively less dynamic in executive roles, where turnover is low and change comes slowly. 

Percentage-point analysis of identity politics can only tell so much of the story. In considering the spike in museum leadership changes and the overt discourse on diversity and equity since 2020, I find myself asking at what point does representation stop mattering if the end goal of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is not liberation? 

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What’s missing in this current moment of hiring underrepresented groups are the rates of retention and exit interviews of minority staff in predominantly white institutions. How do their workload and expectations to perform “diversity” differ from their colleagues’ roles? In both the museum world and academia, the rush to hire underserved groups is not accompanied by adequate support systems. Blatantly harmful patterns of exploitation and tokenism run amok in these institutions under the banner of solidarity. In many circumstances, the onus has fallen on new and outnumbered diversity hires to “fix” the institution, but, in Sara Ahmed’s words,  “When you expose a problem, you become a problem.” 

Speaking to these ideas in a recent lecture at Carleton University titled “Should social movement work be paid?” anarchist, abolitionist, and law professor Dean Spade critically explored whether the imagined “we” of collective care should be financially compensated to do the necessary work of mutual aid in times of crisis. Activism’s co-optation by institutions can be visibly seen in virtue signaling statements and social media posts, especially in systems where the cultural value of activism can be reified as fungible tokens, box checking, and other forms of exchange value. 

Tania Willard, “Liberation of the Chinook Wind” (2018), commissioned by Blackwood Gallery for The Work of Wind: Air, Land, Sea (photo Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy Blackwood Gallery)

The groundwork for the talk stems from Spade’s 2020 book on the subject of mutual aid, which defines it as “a collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” The basic principle that our needs as human beings are not being met should not be a radical proposition, and yet, under capitalist logic, only those who can afford profit-driven prices can satiate their desires for everything from housing to healthcare. The question of whether social movement work should be paid is a false flag. The very existence of the question should provocatively challenge those of us working in liberally progressive industries such as art and academia to reconsider whether our own roles and politics move in tandem with the goal of liberation. Are we working alongside the insidious appetites of capitalist patriarchal institutions that shield themselves with underrepresented minorities? Or are we working against these patterns to dismantle and abolish exploitation and greed? 

The lecture was an expansion of Spade’s ethical position on the necessity to see and support each other’s humanity. Over the past 20 years, he has consistently critiqued the toxicity of capitalist-driven political systems that deny people access to food, shelter, even love, if profits cannot be gained. The spectrum of his activism, encompassing police and prison abolition, trans and queer liberation, racial and economic justice, has moved toward what I understand as the dismantling of normative legal boundaries that define who we help, who we care for, and who we see as human. 

The intention of social movement work is to abolish harmful barriers, but as Spade noted, there has been a turn toward the professionalization of activist work and its co-optation through institutional funding. I can’t help but draw parallels to the proliferation of DEI executives being positioned across museums, art councils, and universities. While some of these people have been working tirelessly for their communities, just as many serve only as symbolic representations of change. Spade presented some much-needed critiques of grassroots collectives that internally implode after receiving funding. Increasingly prevalent are junior activists who believe becoming the full-time salaried executive of a nonprofit organization and being awarded a major community investment grant is a viable, and even desirable, career goal. In the art world, many organizations and individuals espouse a rhetoric of liberal inclusion, but do so from a position that implicitly supports racial capitalism, patriarchy, and ableism as a form of financial stability. Under capitalist constraints, publicly funded institutions such as museums and universities have been transformed into a series of successful or unsuccessful applications, financial summaries, and annual audits. This is not to diminish the radical potential of art and education, but sorely lacking is critical reflection on the structural impact of social movement work that serves primarily to sustain its own momentum. 

Cauleen Smith, “Afflict the Comfortable/Comfort the Afflicted” (2018), installation view in Cauleen Smith: Give It or Leave It at LACMA, 2021 (photo Natalie Haddad/Hyperallergic)

Interesting developments are occurring with the emergence of Forge Project to Ruth Arts, each reimagining how art lives and moves beyond the traditional circuits of the marketplace. In focusing on artist-driven programming and funding criteria rather than prescribed formulas for merit and impact, the re-shaping of social support must come from all sides. After a decade of working across different nonprofits, all too often I saw countless projects and frameworks deteriorate, and not due to lack of funds, but due to a lack of radical imagination.

For example, in the deeply bureaucratic city where Spade’s lecture took place, the centrist aversion to Spade’s repeated refrain “to attack and take,” quoted from the anonymously authored text Fragments Against Reparations: Thoughts on Anti-Blackness and Black Liberation, dominated the post-talk Q&A. Speakers from the floor appeared to be more concerned with the potential harm of attacking and taking on capitalist systems than with the harm these systems propagate. One particular speaker  — whose comments even received applause at the end — spoke primarily on an individual level about how difficult it was for her to do social movement work overseas after her children were born, and how she (like many in the room) now works from within governmental structures to effect change. There was no acknowledgement of how racism, poverty, patriarchy, and the law continue to pose difficulties for most single mothers long after she individually achieved gainful employment. She was both worried and angry at Spade’s proposition to see capitalists as enemies. She even critiqued the lecture as overly based in an American and “inner city” context, a critique fraught with anti-Blackness and the perpetual myth of Canada as a post-racial haven. 

Admittedly, it was this speaker’s response to Spade that prompted my own response here. She reminded me of all too many voices in art and academia who spoke righteously of their past individual oppressions, but who do not in fact care about collective liberation, only its rhetoric and cultural value. Art and education are essential to our survival, but respectability politics are not. 

As museums and universities continue to recruit and hire more diverse people into their settings, it bears repeating that anyone, no matter their skin color or self-identification, is capable of enforcing the logics of capitalism and racial hierarchy. Representation statistics cannot be the only measure of social change. As partisan politics become increasingly divisive, transformative change cannot be left to individuals within institutions as long as their mandates are irreconcilable with collective care. 

Tania Willard, “Liberation of the Chinook Wind” (2018), commissioned by Blackwood Gallery for The Work of Wind: Air, Land, Sea (photo Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy Blackwood Gallery)

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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