“It made me feel important — like me and the group, we’re here to see what can be changed about this museum. Our words count. We’re going to be heard. I felt like—especially since I was being paid—that helped, a lot.”
Guest critics engaged in a one-hour discussion after viewing the art. They offered powerful accounts of what the museum looked and felt like. They commented on:
- the vast collection of objects presented as art
- the silence and stillness of the galleries
- the desire to touch the art
- the minimal interaction between strangers viewing artworks
- the presence of the guards—some noted approachability while others expressed intimidation
- the “proper” dress and restrained manner of other visitors
- the lack of “inner city” visitors and artists of color
- the evident cost and high quality of the building and collection
- surveillance cameras
- lack of advertisements in their neighborhood
- lack of Spanish labels or guides
- lack of proper signage to invite the public into the space
- difficulty engaging with contemporary art
The guest critics had ideas about how to improve the space for non-English speakers, reduce the presence of security, boost public awareness, and enliven the galleries. See their impact below.
We presented LAAGP at the RISD Museum at an all-staff dialogue in November 2017, 1 year after the pilot. Staff responded to the guest critics' feedback in a heated and honest debate about race, priorities, staff time, financial distribution, etc.
NOTE: Though LAAGP cannot claim full credit for recent equity initiatives at the RISD Museum, staff members report that LAAGP has renewed the urgency of equity and access.
"I would say if you would like...the possibility of a different identity of people who go to the Museum, the art needs to change."
Questioning the Canon
At the meeting, the Museum’s director questioned the real estate dedicated to western cornerstones of the canon and how that reflects who they center and the cultures they prioritize. He challenged his staff to consider why the Cy Twombly is always on display. He reported that the Museum is making an explicit effort to acquire more art that does not center whiteness. Later we learned that this announcement was met with push back from certain staff in senior curatorial positions.
“They’re taking better care of the paintings than of us."
Visitors vs. Art
Guest critics’ frustration with the Museum’s no touch policy sparked a staff debate about the tension between creating a welcoming environment for visitors and vigilantly protecting the art from physical contact. To the right is a photo of one of the guest critics touching one of the artworks at the museum.
One staff member pointed out that different jobs within the Museum require different priorities — a guard’s bottom-line is to protect the art while an educator’s priority is the visitor experience.
Another person suggested that they assess the Museum’s priorities based on the distribution of staff time, examining the breakdown between time dedicated to the Museum’s collection and time dedicated to the visitor experience.
"For me, [the Museum is] invisible. It feels like it’s something exclusive and tucked away just for certain people. It doesn’t sound like a museum that we—and I’m black—would go to.”
Racial Composition of Staff
A staff member spoke about the difficulty of addressing issues of race head on with a predominantly white staff. She acknowledged a pattern amongst her white colleagues of not feeling comfortable raising potential racial bias issues as they did not want to speak on behalf of communities of color. Her department has shown overt acknowledgment that the answer to this bind is bringing in more POC staff.
"I don’t know, I just subconsciously felt uncomfortable in many sections. I was second-guessing myself the entire time."
Critical Design Choices
Staff shared how taking in the Museum through the guest critic’s responses helped them see potential exclusionary messaging of decisions made for purely aesthetic reasons, such as the choice to match the color of the mannequins in the museum’s 20th Century Art & Design gallery to its white walls.
"It feels weird, given that Rhode Island has such a high population of Latin American culture, that there's very little representation."
Responding to the guest critics’ desire for more works that represent Rhode Island’s large population of latinx and indigenous communities, the Museum launched an exhibition with the help of one of our collaborators called: “From the Loom of a Goddess: Reverberations of Guatemalan Mayan Weaving." This show had wall labels in Spanish and English.
"If someone comes here who is Spanish-speaking, they won't know where to go or what any of the descriptions are saying."
They also responded to the guest critics’ complaint about language accessibility and at the all staff meeting, members of the graphic design department asked each other why they had not yet made multilingual brochures. In April 2018, they published Museum Guides in Spanish, Chinese, Korean.
"When you don’t see that invite it doesn't seem like it's something, that’s public or something that is meant to be enjoyed by everyone."
As of [at least] March 2018, RISD Museum advertisements have gone up on the Providence’s Southside where 12% of the population is non-Hispanic white and 64% of school children speak a language other than English.
“It wasn’t the artwork but just the overall experience of the vibe in the room. It just didn’t feel like I was a part of the community."
Real People, Real Needs
One of the main responses from the Museum staff was not that the critiques generated through LAAGP were new or surprising, but that the issues had a renewed urgency when articulated by the guest critics.
There’s a big difference between theorizing the needs of hypothetical visitors versus really witnessing and hearing about real lived experiences. According to various staff members, the impact of LAAGP is apparent as it comes up daily in conversation at the Museum.
We are currently pairing local RI artists with guest critics to implement art interventions at the RISD Museum and around Providence. The interventions will address the critiques generated during the program. Artists and critics will be paid hourly.
It's important to note that we don’t see these interventions as solutions but rather as gestures that keep issues of inequity in the public eye and sustain pressure on the Museum. We see art—and particularly its capacity for humor and absurdity—as a way of naming the elephant in the room and as a supplement to long term-organizing and policy reform.
An inflatable air-dancer that quells a fear that the space is only for students.
Language tags for guards to let visitors know who they can speak with.
A hip hop dance party in the museums to break the silence of the galleries and reign of white respectability politics.
A routine PA announcement that reminds staff and visitors that the Museum’s mission binds it to serve the whole public.
Personalized invitations to events for newcomers.