Louisville’s Speed Art Museum announced a new exhibition Tuesday. It will reflect on Breonna Taylor’s life, her death at the hands of police and the city’s racial justice protests.
“Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” which runs April 7 – June 6, is guest curated by Allison Glenn, associate curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
Glenn said she was “blown away by the idea and the concept” when Speed director Stephen Reily approached her about it and told her it was important that she speak with Breanna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.
“To me, the fact that he, as a museum director, understood the importance of already having that relationship, or the goals to develop that relationship, was a clear indicator that the museum was in the right place with their ideas around developing this exhibition,” she said
Going into the process, Glenn was “aware of what this exhibition cannot do.” And it was her conversations with Palmer that helped her see what it could do.
“It cannot change what happened to Breonna Taylor… It cannot change the decisions made by the attorney general,” Glenn said. “What it can do is it can listen. And so early on in the process, I asked Miss Palmer… what it meant to her and her daughter’s legacy. And from that response, I crafted the idea of promise, witness and remembrance.”
Also central to the development of the exhibition was a steering committee of local activists, artists, mental health experts and community members, led by Louisville artist, social worker and Speed’s community relations strategist, Toya Northington. Additionally, Glenn assembled and consulted with, what she’s calling, a “national advisory panel” of fellow arts professionals and advocates: including Raymond Green, cousin of Alton Sterling; La Keisha Leek, artist and cousin of Trayvon Martin; co-founder of The Wide Awakes and For Freedoms, Hank Willis Thomas; art historian Dr. Allison K. Young; painter Amy Sherald; arts strategist Mecca Brooks; and filmmaker, curator and arts administrator Jon-Sesrie Goff.
“I knew that I needed, this particular instance, a lot of feedback,” Glenn said. “I knew because of the timeline, because of the subject matter, that I needed to build a team.”
The exhibition will fill all five galleries of the museum’s original 1927 building. And while Glenn couldn’t offer too many details on the artwork itself, she said the show will feature both Louisville and national artists.
“This exhibition is very much tied to the site that it is created [in], and the site is the city of Louisville, Kentucky,” Glenn said. “I come to this exhibition in solidarity with the family of Breonna Taylor in solidarity with the community in Louisville.”
In a release, Reily said the police killing of Taylor in her own apartment and the protests that followed “have changed the course of our city.”
“We need healing,” he said. “At the Speed, we hope that Allison’s practice of engaging artists with public reality will help our city – and the people we serve – find a way forward.”
Glenn isn’t expecting the exhibition to bring healing to Louisville. However, she believes the artworks will be testaments to what unfolded here in the last year.
“It is definitely witnessing and listening and hearing, and that is the intentionality,” she said. “My life’s work is about working with artists and ideas. And the reason I do this work is because I believe that art shows us another way of seeing things… And if we can offer space for multiple perspectives, we can offer each other so much more.”
The museum made the first announcement about its 2021 exhibition season last December; four major shows including an exhibition of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photography, credited with helping preserve Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and the sculptural paper costumes of prominent contemporary Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, which opened last week.
The Speed published its first annual Race Equity Report in August. The report highlighted objectives for improving inclusivity, diversity and equity at the museum, including within its exhibitions and collections.
Shortly after the December exhibition announcement, WFPL asked Reily about how those four exhibitions aligned with the goals stated in the Race Equity Report. At the time, he had hinted at a fifth exhibition “built around an extraordinary work [by a Black artist] that addresses the moment Louisville finds itself in and the nation is struggling with on racial equity.”
He said those four initial shows were in the planning stages before the equity report was compiled and released, but that the two group exhibitions — the currently on display “Collecting – A Love Story: Glass from the Adele and Leonard Leight Collection” and “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art,” which opens in the fall — feature BIPOC artists.
In the “Supernatural America” exhibition, more than 20% of the artists are BIPOC, Reily said, and about 43% of the works are by female artists. As for the exhibition of the Leights’ glass art collection, 14% of the artists are BIPOC and 49% are women, Reily said.
“Our commitment is that we would be able to look backwards and forwards at any two-year window [of exhibitions] and say, ‘Did we meet this commitment?” he said. “And in terms of acquisitions… diversifying the kinds of artists and images in our permanent collection is an ongoing commitment that we’re going to report on.”
Reily said another aim is to reevaluate how the museum identifies artists in its materials.
“So part of that commitment is… figuring out constantly how to manage and update our own records to reflect the ways that artists want to identify themselves and also the way we see the world.”
Museums across the nation have had reckonings over race and equity the past year, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, more recently, Indianapolis Museum of Art-Newfields in neighboring Indiana.
Newfields president Charles Venable, who used to lead the Speed, resigned following a job posting seeking a new IMA director who could “attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience,” the Indianapolis Star reported. Employees and community members had also penned an open letter saying that change would not be possible with Venable at the helm.
The Speed will soon have its own vacancy at the top too.
Reily announced that he would step down as director of the museum at the end of March, telling WFPL that he had achieved much of what he set out to do as director so it felt like the right time.
Reily told LEO Weekly recently that the committee leading the search for a new director “went through implicit bias training itself and has consulted with a national organization that advances leaders of color in the cultural field.”
The goals mapped out in the Speed’s race and equity report will guide the museum going forward, Reily continued, which means staff, the boards of Trustees and Governors, and docents will also undergo antiracism and implicit bias training.
This story has been updated.
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