Gold leaves flow across a portrait of an indigenous mother and child. It reflects the golden glow of light artist Shizu Saldamando observed one day at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix. The stunning portrait was recently marred by a man who seemingly took offense with the work.
Video footage shows a white man removing one of the leaves, which are pinned to the portrait, then sticking the leaf and pin in the mother’s eye. The piece still hangs inside the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art as part of its southwestNET series. Director and chief curator Jennifer McCabe says the museum is working to acquire the artwork for its permanent collection.
It’s a stark reminder that brown bodies often face pushback in traditionally white art spaces, according to Saldamando, a California native with Arizona roots. She spoke about the experience during a recent artist talk at the museum.
“The level of misogyny and aggression just hit home,” she says.
The exhibit features portraits of people who are underrepresented in museum spaces, including women, people of color, and others. It’s part of a nationwide effort to increase diversity in museums and other art spaces. Less than 15 percent of works in museum collections are by women or artists of color, according to McCabe.
Several Phoenix curators, including Julio César Morales at ASU Art Museum, say they’re working to change that fact. “Museums need to reflect our community,” he says. “In five years, the majority will be Latino.” Fall offerings at ASU Art Museum include the “Pulso” exhibit highlighting a one-day sound art performance by 195 women in Mexico’s city’s underground metro stations.
Some people worry that artists of color will replace other voices. But that’s not the case, according to ASU Art Museum Director Miki Garcia. “The canon is not going away, but curators are making corrections to the canon,” she says. “Art has always been global, but museums have created boundaries.”
Local museums are using various strategies to break down those boundaries while addressing the issues of diversity, inclusion, and access.
Text panels at Phoenix Art Museum include descriptions of artworks in both Spanish and English. Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum routinely exhibits works by women artists and artists of color.
In December, the Heard Museum will launch a five-year series of exhibitions featuring indigenous women or women-identifying artists, starting with Maria Hupfield, a Canadian/Anishinaabek artist whose collaborators include Arizona poet Natalie Diaz.
Hupfield’s work will fill several gallery spaces and evolve. “The exhibit is really about making her, and her work, visible,” says curator Erin Joyce. “It’s part of a larger conversation about decolonizing spaces like this, which are colonial by their very nature.”
Turns out, these curators are also addressing the underrepresentation of the LGBTQ community in traditional art spaces. Saldamando’s exhibit includes a portrait of renowned queer punk musician Martin Crudo, and Joyce will be curating an exhibit with works by gay and queer artists next summer.
Of course, showing art is only part of the solution.
“Only 3 percent of curators and directors are of color,” Morales says.
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Last year ASU Art Museum partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to launch a program designed to foster diverse arts leadership and museum inclusivity.
Diversity isn’t the sole consideration for these curators. “I’m interested in more diversity, but I’m not choosing artists because they’re diverse,” Morales says. “First, the artwork has to be excellent, with social content that relates to our communities.”
In the aftermath of Saldamando’s artwork being vandalized, McCabe remains convinced of art’s power to affect dialogue and change. And she knows it’s an ongoing challenge.
“If we don’t constantly attend to these issues,” says McCabe, “things revert back to the dominant norm.”