Diversification effort underway at UT’s public art program – Sightlines
Cast in bronze and over three meters tall, Simone Leigh’s sculpture “Sentinel IV” now stands above the courtyard in front of the Anna Hiss Gymnasium at the University of Texas.
The latest acquisition from Landmarks, UT’s public art program, the statue is inspired by a Zulu ceremonial spoon, a symbol of women’s work. Sleek and somewhat enigmatic, “Sentinel IV” aligns with Leigh’s practice of using vernacular objects from the African diaspora to honor black femininity.
Anna Hiss Gymnasium was UT’s first women’s gymnasium, and the location of Leigh’s elongated figure resembles a woman’s body. It is undoubtedly a feminine presence in a place of historical feminine resonance.
To celebrate the sculpture’s installation in July, Landmarks hosted a virtual artist talk with Stephanie Sparling Williams, Black Art Historian and Associate Curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, who helped curate the project. Williams asked Leigh how she felt when her work was acquired and permanently installed at the University of Texas when several Confederate statues that had long been in important locations on campus were only removed. 2017.
âI’ve heard that Texas isn’t considered the South,â Leigh said, âbut to me it’s part of a (southern) kind of landscape that I feel just as intrigued and threatened. One of the questions that came to me around this installation was [whether] I think the sculpture was safe.
Leigh’s sculpture is the first created by a black woman to be acquired by Landmarks and the first to be on permanent display on the UT campus. And its acquisition is part of a thoughtful plan started three years ago to diversify the university’s public art collection.
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When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted last year in response to the murder of George Floyd, many museums and cultural institutions rushed to issue public statements in solidarity with the protesters.
The awareness of racial and social justice issues has also raised questions about the authenticity of the real commitment of artistic institutions to change. Fairness statements have become the norm on museum websites. And many institutions have announced the formation of committees, the hiring of consultants, plans to train staff (and sometimes the board) in DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusiveness and accessibility).
But museums are notoriously slow to change institutions, and true DEIA initiatives have been slow to materialize.
Landmarks was launched in 2008 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art provided a long-term loan of 28 modern and contemporary sculptures to UT. These are the first non-figurative sculptures to be exhibited as public art on campus. And they were mostly by white male artists. At the same time, Landmarks launched a âpercentage for artâ policy whereby 1-2% of construction and renovation money went to buying and commissioning artwork. art for public spaces, a considerable sum given UT’s history of seemingly constant expansion.
Landmarks commissioned a stunning Skyspace installation from James Turrell and purchased several major pieces by prominent artists including Sol LeWitt, Mark di Suvero and Mark Quinn.
AndrÃ©e Bober, founder and director of Landmarks, began work on diversifying the university’s public art collection a few years after its launch.
âI realized the gender imbalance in our collection. So our remedy was to invite more commissions from female artists: Nancy Rubins, Ann Hamilton, Beth Campbell, Jennifer Steinkamp and others, âshe said.
Then, in 2019, Landmarks began to reconsider its approach to fairness, catalyzed in part by a complaint received from a white college couple about Peter Reginato’s âKingfish: An Homage to Tim Mooreâ. The painted steel abstract sculpture – one on loan from the Met – was inspired by an actor on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the radio-turned-television show that drew criticism for his racist caricatures of African Americans. The show was eventually pulled from production after successful protests from the NAACP and African-American activists.
Bober said the student’s complaint sparked conversations with dozens of people on and off campus. âIt has helped us to re-examine our agenda, our policies and ourselves in search of racial prejudice,â Bober said.
Soon after, Landmarks recruited EbonÃ© Bishop, a New York-based diversity and equity consultant, who after two years is still working with the Landmarks staff and its advisory board.
Bishop is selective about his clients. âThe leadership has to be there from the start,â she said in a video interview. âThere must be not just words, but actions. “
One of the most obvious ways for the public of an arts institution to demonstrate its diversity is the art it collects and exhibits. Bober delved into the demographics of the Landmarks collection; then compared them to demographics from Texas, Austin, and the UT community. As a relatively young art collection, Landmarks is currently more diverse than many art museums with collections dating back decades. Of the artists that Landmarks has exhibited and collected, 64% are male and 36% female, and 54% are white.
âDemographic information is a tool, it frames the conversation when we think about building the collection, but the actual work needs to be more nuanced than just numbers,â Bober said.
Nonetheless, Bober said the goal is to target underrepresented artists for future projects, starting with women artists of color.
A less obvious, but perhaps more impactful, goal is to change the internal culture of the organization itself. Continuing diversity education has been required for current Landmarks staff for over a year. Evaluating staff salaries and what Landmarks pays performers and artists has been a priority.
How Landmarks engages with the public is very important to Bober. âSince Landmarks began, we have strived to dismantle the barriers to elitism that are embedded in most mainstream art systems,â she said. âOur public art is of course free to everyone, and we’ve also made all of our programs and events free and open to the public. “
But the way these events are planned must also change, Bober added. For example, looking for a collaboration with another organization after defining the details of a public event isn’t exactly fair. âIf we’re going to engage, we have to partner first and then step back and see what is created together,â Bober said.
Bishop noted that many arts organizations resist opening up their planning process. âYou can’t necessarily control everything,â she said. “You just have to show up with the best of intentions and make the best effort.”
âThere is always work to be done, there is always something more to question,â said Bober. “[DEIA] work is a skill set – another way of seeing the world and understanding what we do and how we can do it more efficiently and ethically.
âWe need to learn to build equity into the conversation and to ensure that our institutions serve the complex audiences they are meant to serve. “
Landmarks has a diversity statement on its website, but it’s not emblazoned on the front and top as it is. And that’s a deliberate strategy.
Bober said, âWe don’t make proclamations, we don’t just turn things into talking points. We just do the job.
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Leigh’s work is multi-layered, created in a fashion she describes as self-ethnographic. She uses often overlooked objects to interrogate ideas about history, race, gender, work, and monuments, and ultimately uplifts the powerful narratives of black women.
During her artist talk for Landmarks, Leigh explained how the possibility of creating monumental works of art for public outdoor display is a recent development. Long neglected by the art world, Leigh, 54, has finally seen her career take off. Today his work has been acquired by the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. And next year, she will be the first black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Leigh referred to the discourse around the monuments over the past two years: which statues are taken down and which are now installed as public statements. Regarding “Sentinel IV”, Leigh said, “It really is something that I am really proud of.”