“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” – an exhibition held on April 7th at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, in honor of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old medical worker who was killed by police nearly a year ago , opened – got together quickly, but in a way “tempered by conversation,” said its curator Allison Glenn.
Centrally, it was Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, whose input provided the title of the show; and the painter Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Taylor will anchor the exhibition. Two advisory committees – one national, one in Louisville – ran the show, in part to avoid the swarms on which museums have failed in their efforts to address trauma and inequality in their communities and in their own practices.
But “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” – whose list of about two dozen artists mixes big names (for example Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson) with other lesser-known ones (Bethany Collins, Noel Anderson, Jon-Sesrie Goff), some with Louisville- Connections and local photographers who have documented last year’s protests have both bigger and simpler ambitions. The hope, Glenn said, is to show that “museums can get it right” by conducting consultations that improve curatorial quality, not decrease it. It is also designed to help weave the community in a midsize city by listening to those who have been excluded from art institutions in the past.
During a phone call, Glenn, who is from Detroit and is an associate curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., Gave a peek at the exhibition, which will run through June 6. The following excerpts have been published, edited and compressed.
This exhibition is the result of intensive consultations, especially with Tamika Palmer, but also with many others. Whose advice, artist and non-artist, were you looking for?
First I spoke to Breonna’s mother and asked how we might feel about her daughter’s legacy and translated that into the three ideas: promise, testimony, memory. Then I convened a national body. Because of my special position, I was very anxious to develop the panel further: I lost my brother to gun violence about a year and a half ago. It doesn’t have to overshadow this story, but it’s important to mention because it is very informative. I wanted a cabinet of advisors that could relate on a personal level.
[Advisers to the show also include] Theaster Gates who worked successfully with the Tamir Rice Foundation. Jon-Sesrie Goff has a film on display; His father took over the Mother Emanuel AME congregation in Charleston after the murders there, and Rev. Clementa Pinckney was a mentor to him. Hank Willis Thomas lost his cousin 20 years ago and worked on it. I hired a friend, La Keisha Leek, who was in elementary school when her cousin Trayvon Martin was killed. I had helped her work this through on a few projects, including an exhibition she curated. Raymond Green, who lives here in Arkansas, is a cousin of Alton Sterling [who was fatally shot by white police officers in Baton Rouge, La.]. This experience of loss by armed violence or political brutality – or both – involves a certain degree of diligence.
As a guest curator with no prior experience in Louisville, how did you develop an exhibition that makes sense for the city?
I wanted to create a conversation between the local and national communities – whether in the art world or among private individuals. Toya Northington, the community engagement strategist at the Speed Art Museum, developed a Louisville advisory board. They gave me great feedback and suggestions. It was a different kind of curatorial process: I wasn’t necessarily trying to write a thesis based on researching an idea or an artist. It was really built on talking about how a museum can get it right, how the art world can react, what it means to work together in this space.
What sense of the city did you personally make when you got the job done?
I spent time in Louisville. I read everything I could. I’ve been listening to podcasts. And there’s one relationship I can’t delve into, but I grew up in Detroit, worked in New Orleans, and Louisville is another port city with a French connection. It is the border between north and south. This is where Lewis and Clark started their expedition, and I am fascinated by the ideology of western expansion. Some loops closed for me when I visited. For example this terrible phrase: “To be sold down the river.” Down the river is New Orleans; The origin of the sentence is in Louisville.
How have community contributions changed the shape of the show?
To tell this story, I didn’t necessarily think that every artist had to be a black artist. But after listening, I understood how important it is for the Louisville community to have an exhibition of only black artists in this room. (Tyler Gerth, a local photographer who was shot while documenting the protests on June 27th, is the only exception.) That was an “Aha!” Moment: This is what the community wanted, and I can be flexible and responsive to them Be wise, nimble without compromising the curators. And then it got deeper. The exhibition venue is the gallery, which usually houses the Dutch and Flemish collections. We have 22 foot ceilings, terrazzo floors, marble doors. It became clear that one effect would be a kind of decolonization of this museum space.
Many people feel that museums are inaccessible and do not reflect who they are. This exhibition is about a woman who lived in Louisville and whose family lived in Louisville. It’s about what happened to her and in response to those things. There will be people who may be coming to the museum for the first time.
Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor is going to be a big draw, appropriately. Does it risk the posthumous exploit of someone who did not ask for it? And how do you build a show on it that brings both care and insight after trauma?
That is the question. When you enter the gallery in layout and design, the portrait is in your line of sight. If that’s all you’re here for, you can go right there.
The first section, called “Promise,” is a little more conceptual, a conversation about United States ideologies through symbols that support them. Bethany Collins’ work, for example, deals with the Star Spangled Banner.
In the “Witnesses” section you will find photos of protest from 2020 as well as work related to a century of movements for black life. And there is Sam Gilliam, who grew up and studied in Louisville, protesting the expectation that his work as a black male painter should carry the weight of representation as part of a movement towards positive imagery. His resistance becomes a protest in itself. And it creates the conditions for someone like Rashid Johnson to work within conceptual art and abstraction, but more freely.
I made the decision not to show any traumatizing work in the exhibition. But I also had to be clear that I couldn’t edit the archive of the protest photos.
Can the exhibit benefit the Louisville art scene outside of the museum?
I am thinking of Alisha Wormsley’s work “There are black people in the future”, which is installed like a ticker tape in the second gallery. As part of Alisha’s practice, she requires the museum to pay fees to three local artists to respond to this idea. The Louisville Steering Committee will decide how to do this.
What opportunities does this project offer?
The opportunity is to show what it means to listen. I don’t think museums will do everything right. Cultural workers will not do everything right. However, when you listen, you provide opportunities for accessibility, intervention, and connection. And I hope the end result provides a platform for people to feel heard on and perhaps come to terms with the past year.