Maybe Art Museums Are More People-Centered?

Ideas and Issues

May 16, 2021

New York City

Usually you can set a clock by me in art museums. Prado, Louvre, whatever, when I hit around the 60-minute mark, I’m looking for the door or a café of somewhere to wait out mi companera until she has her fill. It’s not that I don’t see the big-name artists among the new and old, but I don’t dwell on them, and, frankly, often they don’t really speak to me. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s them. It hardly matters. I’m usually not sorry I was there, but the overall impact isn’t as soul-inspiring as I read and hear from others.

We ran ourselves ragged on some beautiful New York City spring days. We were in the Central Park Conservatory Garden and took note of some spectacular flowers. We hit the High Line for a quick minute, but with much of it sheathed in scaffolding, it was less satisfying. All of this and many miles of walking through the city every day, was prelude to hitting the museums hard in our little time. We did MOMA, Museo de Barrio, and the Whitney. Wham-bam!

The Museo we expected to be more political, and we were not disappointed in this small, but serious museum. Walking into one room where my eyes fixed on two almost lifelike presentations of one man, obviously Mexican or Central American, on another’s shoulder and a hand coming out of the wall above them to help them get over the wall was dramatic. A kaleidoscopic wall of images and messages on Caste, Race and more was riveting. Works that spoke to violence against Latinos asked that I take a postcard home that was a picture of three Texas cowboys on their horses with ropes around a half-dozen Mexican immigrants’ drug to their deaths.

And, there was more, but here’s my point, this new edge and political awareness was also somewhat true in the highbrow museums. As a daily Times’ reader, I knew both museum curators and their organized critics had been pushing museum management and donors on their politics in this time of inequity, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. Trust me, the revolution hasn’t come, but elitism has been forced to bend, if not break, in including more diversity among the artists and more politics on the walls.

Artwork by Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence is a good example, and his work was in both the rich museums. In one case, depicting the violence of the South, the Great Migration, and generally the treatment by the police of Black Americans. In the other, looking at the invisibility and isolation in the period when he was working in the bowels of the post office. There were huge photographic displays of Black men, women, children in different poses, as well as in Birmingham. Blacks and whites both caught in the hold of a slave ship spoke to today as easily as 150 years ago. Workers did better from shoeshine men to service staff at a café to representations of tools. Women artists were more present along with themes that included the feminist cage of the kitchen and the death of the patriarchy.

Artwork by Jacob Lawrence

Is this where art and museums are going? Maybe, but probably not, but who knows. One wall-sized piece that looked at Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring in Cairo, might have made me think so, but the work was obviously sized for a billionaire’s wall, not a populist moment.

“Tahrir Square”

In times of trouble, death, and political upheaval, art and artists are part of the mix and want to speak to all of us as well, so there’s a chance. Regardless, we should enjoy the moment while it lasts and has a message that is speaking to many of us in a more powerful way, than just searching for pocketbooks and speaking to the artists’ own person and perspective.