Milbourne: In dipping into this question and building on the last thread, I am going to raise a pragmatic element that has not yet been introduced into our conversations: money.
My colleague Kerry Brougher, who is chief curator and deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum, recently referred to the “slow strangulation of the arts” through the steady reduction in funding in recent years. This reality compels creativity and has a great deal to do with how these intellectual matters we’ve been discussing come to pass. Today, Samuel Baloji’s residency at Tervuren is an interrogation of the museum and not an updating of “the native” or a perilous choice between visibility and ethnic casting. One of the ways this has been made possible is because multiple venues have shown the works of contemporary artists connected to the African continent. We need to encourage this diversification of the arts. Art museums alone cannot afford to find, foster and promote emerging artists any more than they can sustain themselves through a tired succession of “white cube” installations of single artists. The way forward is through seeking out a broad spectrum of approaches and liaising with diverse institutions. For this reason, I strongly advocate for art museums including artists on their boards. We cannot effectively advocate for artists and the arts if we do not engage with artists in shaping our visions. I am also exceptionally grateful that SCAD exists because its mission is different from that of NMAfA, or Newark or the Fowler for that matter. But we really ought to be thinking beyond art and cultural museums, or the limits of the humanities. How can we better advocate for the arts and artists by engaging with science museums, for instance? I am currently working on a project called “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.” While it will be an art exhibition accompanied by a scholarly catalogue that includes artists voices, there will also be linked exhibitions at the National Museum of Natural History, earthworks in the Smithsonian gardens, and programs that network these units to the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the DC Environmental Film Festival, as well. I am also partnering with the University of Maryland to coordinate a multidisciplinary symposium and publication on “Excavation, Accumulation, and Preservation in the African Landscape,” UMD is offering a course on “Earth Matters” and the Smithsonian will take on their students as interns. In other words, I am getting a lot more bang for my buck in going beyond the walls of an art museum but it took some effort to reach out to soil scientists, geographers and others. Will this affect how knowledge of the artists is conveyed? Yes. Hopefully, however, the artists and their artworks will be seen beyond the ghettos of “cutting edge” or “historically representative” High Art and be networked into a broad-based field of inquiry in which, in turn, the arts will be seen as a vital contributor.
Diversification does not translate to a watering down of standards. As someone with a BA in African Studies and Fine Arts, an MA in “contemporary African art,” a PhD that looked to how the style of arts, pageantry and body language from one historic African kingdom have been used to create and disseminate knowledge of that nation, and gone on to teach in universities and work in museums, I am the last person to suggest that education and experience do not matter. I would never presume that my path is the correct one, however. Contemporary gallerist Michael Stevenson has published on historic Lozi arts, curator and scholar Polly Roberts got her BA in Philosophy and French, Okwui Enwezor’s background is in Political Science, Kinsey’s in Anthropology… Regardless of the route we traveled to contemporary art, it is incumbent on each of us to read, research, travel and ask questions.
The ability to understand how art can provoke us to ask new questions ultimately shapes the best acquisitions policies. I have worked in an “encyclopedic” museum and it was definitely challenging deciding who got to buy what. The good news was that more than one department would or could buy artworks by contemporary artists identifying as African. Once I arrived, the contemporary curator on her own purchased works by Malick Sidibe and Julie Mehretu. The challenge came in that she did not consult with me in advance of buying the Sidibe and was unaware of the issues relating to its framing. I was also able to benefit from the fact that these departments had access to funds that the “Department of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands” did not. As a result, it meant that I could buy works by Fatma Charfi and others with “their” funds. The problem came in that I needed to frame the questions to which any artist or artwork could contribute to their liking – which I know is the terrain that Chika wants us to debate. When I proposed an acquisition by Jimoh Buraimoh, some of my colleagues were rather antagonistic to his work. I made a case for the value of representing multiple modernities, the particular significance of this bead painting within the artist’s oeuvre, and the importance of the Oshogbo school to (African) Art History. In the end, I went out and raised the money for the work through a private donation and the artist agreed to sell at a discount because he wanted it in the museum. It is different at a museum dedicated to African art. At the National Museum of African Art, we sometimes have a harder time getting private monetary donations because we belong to the nation but we are no one’s community. In addition, NMAfA is not permitted to pursue funds or collectors that are connected to other Smithsonian museums. This has made for real challenges in the past. Fortunately, now NMAfA, the Hirshhorn and other museums are disposed to making joint acquisitions. We haven’t done it yet, but we have started active conversations about ways to partner on everything from acquisitions to programs.