Signs of the Times
by Ashley Stull Meyers
Published March 23, 2017 at http://www.artpractical.com/feature/signs-of-the-times/
January 21 of this year was a historic day for Americans of all political leanings. For those who sympathize with or are protected by liberal-leaning ideology, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington served to illustrate that they were not alone—that an arguable majority of the nation shares their discontent. For those in celebration of the previous day’s inauguration and speculative incoming agenda, it signaled precisely how steep the incline toward a true national conservatism will be. Nearly 3.3 million people nationwide converged on the streets of their respective cities as a collective demonstration against inequities and improprieties—particularly those against cis-gendered, white women.
Images of protesters and their signs flooded social media channels; news outlets of varying reach and audience picked them up in equal measure. By January 22nd, several museums and cultural institutions had announced that they would acquire leftover or donated signs as a marker of the momentous spectacle. This choice surprises even for collecting institutions with an existing interest in historical documents. For public institutions, collecting political ephemera is fairly provocative. Museum acquisitions are inherently transactional, be it financially, conceptually, or both. Institutions either purchase artworks and artifacts outright, receive them as donations with their financial value declared, or accept them as gifts with acknowledgement of the institution’s and the donor’s growing relationship. Even when no money changes hands, its not unusual to expect a future quid pro quo.
All this brings to the fore questions surrounding what, how, and to what ends our cultural institutions collect. The criteria by which we ascribe value to the objects and ephemera we deem worthy of preserving is increasingly murky in the age of contemporary art. Rules for collecting and presenting objects in the contemporary era are also uniquely changeable. The way this changeable nature intersects with the exacting impulses behind creating historical record calls for a closer look. The signs from the 2017 Women’s March on Washington will live on in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University, the library at Emory University, and the Royal Alberta Museum (Canada), to name just a handful. Feminism in this moment has become a relatively non-controversial cause célèbre (as evidenced by marketed efforts by entertainers, including Beyoncé and Taylor Swift). Witnessing the concept of feminism enter mainstream consciousness would be encouraging, were it not for its timely alignment with capitalism and female purchasing power. If we are rightly skeptical of this popular embrace, shouldn’t we show equal skepticism of cultural institutions suddenly championing feminism? Our skepticism is further warranted by many institutions missing the opportunity for intersectionality in their engagements with feminism.
Many public institutions supporting the arts and historical preservation (including a few mentioned above) operate under the classification of a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt educational organization. This can mean various things about their funding structures, but unilaterally precludes them from political endorsement. The code reads in part, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” While this seems to have precious little to do with artwork acquisitions or project support, the code has recently been cited as a thinly veiled conflict of interest by a board member of the Museum of Moving Image in New York in response to her hesitation over a recent exhibition. He Will Not Divide Us, a project by celebrity actor Shia Labeouf and artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, was touted to be a four-year long livestream of verbal resistance to rumored incoming presidential policies. In manifestation however, the livestream (with its equally neutralizing title as rallying slogan) was relatively innocuous. A statement of resistance in this case signified the resistance to national division. Whatever its conceptual strength, the museum discontinued the installation on February 10, 2017, and museum trustee Claire Shulman was quoted saying: “I was upset when I found out about [the installation]. It was a mistake to do it. It’s unsafe for a public institution to do a project like this. It’s inappropriate for the location. It’s a city building. It’s a city institution. It’s one of the finest institutions in the city.” Shulman noted the museum’s tax-exempt status and expressed concern over artist projects alluding to partisan politics. This is one of several instances of such squeamishness in the past couple years. In September of 2016, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis curator Jeffrey Uslip declined to participate in political conversation around his contentious exhibition of artist Kelley Walker, whose work appears to many to trivialize the terror that people of color experience under systematically oppressive police actions. Uslip subsequently resigned. Critics contend that our museums and the administrations that guide them only adopt political gestures when the stakes are low, when the institution won’t be expected to contextualize these gestures, or when celebrity involvement brings the endorsement of popular attendance and media praise.
With these recent incidents in mind, institutions acquiring signs from the 2017 Women’s March on Washington deserve praise for their engagement of grass roots community and their deviation from the norms of collecting practices. The Women’s March itself, however, presents many of the same problems with respect to intersectionality and visibility embodied in the modern museum as an institution. In a crowd of millions, not every participant’s rhetoric (or demeanor) will be neatly aligned with the comprehensively packaged fundamentals of the cause. The 2017 Women’s March suffered from one such misstep in its prominent featuring of pink, knit “pussy hats”. Protestors marched in the thousands proudly proclaiming the beauty and strength of the female form, detailed by the hats’ kitschy biological likeness. It’s noteworthy that in times of contemporary crisis, art often returns to its cathartic and utilitarian roots in craft. The hats missed, however, that an intersectional feminism and its inalienable rights includes womxm who do not have vaginas, and women whose reproductive organs aren’t “pink.” An artful gesture of celebration and solidarity meant to corral like minds excluded transgender women and women of color. With much the same irony, many of the 2017 Women’s March signs were exclusionary to struggles that event should have championed.
Cultural institutions with the infrastructure for collecting have the power to amend these oversights. Collections in this sense act as a historical record, and the institutions that house them must grapple with if and how to appropriately revise evidence of former biases. In choosing to acquire ephemera from the 2017 Women’s March, the museums and libraries involved should take care not to do so clumsily. To step into the role of historical arbiter is a loaded proposition—one must remain aware of the various power dynamics, educations, and canonical hierarchies that inform these decisions.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriages would be upheld in all 50 American States—a landmark decision many years and many courts-of-appeals in the making. The 5-4 ruling was anticipated in national consciousness by years of protests in support of equal rights for LGBTQ persons. The slogan “Love Wins” adorned flags, textiles, and buttons flown and worn by allies—the same sort of ephemera that cultural institutions have now chosen to collect when attached to a more heteronormative demographic. Some will argue that the events of the summer of 2015 are too recent in history to be strongly considered, while others postulate that neither the turnout nor the duration of these protests deliver the arbitrary metrics to bring those protests on par with this year’s march. If the merit of such quantifiers is in question, the initiatives of Black Lives Matter present an additional case study.
The data tracking website Elephrame has catalogued and listed roughly 1,892 Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide in far less than as many days. Though no single demonstration has numbered in the millions of attendants, the frequency and longevity of the effort arguably demands the same respect and attention from the gate-keepers of historical document and preservation. The movement was catalyzed in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the high-profile murder of Trayvon Martin. #BlackLivesMatter was introduced to the web shortly thereafter, and spread with viral urgency in the subsequent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Resistance actions formed across the country and continue today, as present as at the outset, nearing four years later. Yet, very few institutions have leapt for the opportunity to collect the signs, banners, and other ephemera signaling the fight against a tenuously disguised genocide. Are the crises which we consider momentous cultural markers limited to those with which one can ally with little risk?
Not long ago the New Museum sanctioned a noteworthy political action. On July 10, 2016, artist-in-residence Simone Leigh facilitated Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, an evening of performances, workshops, and self care catalyzed by over 100 Black, female makers. The event was political in name and presence. Though not conceptualized by the institution through which it was presented, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter provided a necessary and digestible acceptance of the notion that Black lives and cultural contributions do matter, and that by extension, the political organization for which the event was named should also be afforded a respectful lens. Much of this work was not tangible or able to be preserved to the degree of a traditional acquisition, but will live on in the programmatic archives as a moment of financial support and visibility amidst turmoil. Who, then, can we lift up as a laudable example of political consciousness and a more holistic collections strategy for objects?
The Interference Archive of Brooklyn, New York, which opened in 2011, is an active archival space for conversation and exhibition. Their mission is one focused on “exploring the relationship between cultural production and social movements.” Admittedly, their mandate stands specifically to fill the gaps that traditional collecting institutions neglect. Their mission statement notes, “Through our programming, we use this cultural ephemera to animate histories of people mobilizing for social transformation. We consider the use of our collection to be a way of preserving and honoring histories and material culture that is often marginalized in mainstream institutions.” Their existence, and the roughly 10,000 posters, flyers, publications and photographs they’ve amassed, is a form of resistance. Unlike a number of its peers in the not-for-profit library and museum sector, the Archive understands the importance of adaptation. The Archive’s commitment to art in the time of crisis is specialized, but their collections mandate offers an example to other collecting institutions. Their collection examines any manner of movements that sought to upend or better navigate oppressive powers. Their catalogue endorses political action not through affinity for one single cause, but through the respect that the accumulation of varied political ephemera signals. Institutions who’ve chosen to care for ephemera from the 2017 Women’s March must be prepared to account for this decision with equal thoughtfulness.
At the unexpected closure of He Will Not Divide Us at the Museum of Moving Image, the artists blackened the livestream and transposed the words, “The Museum Has Abandoned Us” atop the void. In our current time of crisis, it appears, thankfully, that neither our cultural institutions nor those who catalyze resistance through makership have abandoned us. The acquisition of protest signs from the 2017 Women’s March, however, bears close examination for the types of resistance we remember and value. As cultural institutions elevate this political ephemera through collection, they must ask themselves whether they are building an expansive and intersectional politics to match their new-found institutional identity.