LOUISVILLE, Ky. — People talk a lot about getting back to pre-Covid normal. But our traditional art museums can forget about that. After a year of intense racial justice reckoning, a paralyzing pandemic and crippling economic shortfalls, aging hidebound institutions are scrambling just to stay afloat. And the only way for them to do so is to change. Strategies for forward motion are needed. One is in play here at the Speed Art Museum, in the form of a quietly passionate show called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” which might, with profit, be studied by other institutions in survivalist mode.
Conventional encyclopedic museums like the Speed, the largest and oldest art museum in Kentucky, are glacial machines. Their major exhibitions are usually years in the planning. Borrowing objects from other museums can be a red tape tangle. “Historical” shows, by definition, are usually confined to events and cultures of the past. “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” revises all of that. It speeds up exhibition production, focuses on the present, and in doing so reaches out to new audiences vital to the institutional future.
Combining works from the Speed’s permanent collection with loans in several cases directly from artists and galleries, the show was assembled and installed (beautifully) in a mere four months. And it was conceived as a direct response to a contemporary news event: the killing, by Louisville police, of Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old medical worker, in March 2020. A posthumous painting of Taylor by the artist Amy Sherald is the exhibition’s centerpiece, accompanied by photographs of local street protests sparked by her death and by the lenient treatment of the white officers involved.
The availability of the painting by Sherald, who is widely known for her earlier portrait of Michelle Obama, was the impetus for the show. Originally commissioned by Vanity Fair, it appeared on the cover of the magazine’s September 2020 issue. Sherald herself expressed interest in having the painting shown at the Speed, and in November the museum hired Allison Glenn, an associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., who, with astonishing speed and acuity, built an exhibition around it in Louisville, comprised entirely of Black artists, with funding found to keep the admission free.
Accessibility, cultural and financial, are crucial features of the show. Until now, museums have generally ignored the country’s changing population demographics. The history that our big, general-interest art museums promote, through their preservation and display of objects, is primarily white history, with views of all other histories filtered through it. But that slanted perspective is no longer representative of audiences that museums will — speaking purely pragmatically — need to attract to survive.
Museums also tend to underestimate radical shifts in awareness of, and interest in, the past. In a social media century, attention seems increasingly focused on the 24-hour news cycle. How can that new consciousness be reflected in classical museums, which pride themselves on being slow-reacting monoliths. Only by staying limber, being ready and able to adjust, absorb and adapt, can our art institutions thrive.
In “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” the Speed offers an example of this dynamic. Working closely with Taylor’s family, Glenn quickly mustered advisory committees of artists and activists from the city itself and from across the country. In the Speed’s permanent collection, she found solid material to build on, including works by several artists associated with the city. Pieces included a magnificent, warm-as-an-embrace draped painting from 1969 by Sam Gilliam, who grew up in Louisville; a sculptured bronze head of a Black Union soldier by Ed Hamilton, who still lives there; and a suite of strategically altered Ebony magazine pages by Noel W. Anderson, who is now based in New York City.
Glenn then began making requests for loans. Within a time frame most museums would consider impossibly tight, agreements were signed, and pieces began to come in. The last to to be installed, shortly before the opening, was the Sherald portrait which had by then been purchased jointly by the Speed and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., with the help of a $1 million donation by two philanthropies, the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation (run by the actress Kate Capshaw and her husband, the director Steven Spielberg).
The resulting show isn’t huge — around 30 pieces— but the museum has given it prime space, clearing out three permanent collection galleries on either side of its sculpture-filled central atrium to accommodate it. This guarantees that individual works have room to breathe. It also symbolically offers a gesture of welcome on the part of a traditional museum to a display of Black contemporary art. (By contrast, two years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed a truly regal Kerry James Marshall retrospective, not where it really belonged in special exhibition galleries in the museum’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, but in what was then its Breuer annex on Madison Avenue.)
Glenn mapped out the show in three parts keyed to the themes in the title, all proposed by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. The work in the first section, “Promise,” suggests a nation’s vaunted humanist ideals and abuse of those ideals. A 2011 wall piece by Nari Ward spells out the opening words of the Constitution, “We the People,” in letters made from multicolored shoelaces. In Bethany Collins’s “The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal” (2020), militantly nationalist songs are seared, as if written with acid, into the pages of a book.
The second gallery, “Witness,” focuses loosely on the theme of cultural and political resistance, recent in images by Louisville photographers — Erik Branch, Xavier Burrell, Jon P. Cherry, Tyler Gerth (1992-2020) and T.A. Yero — documenting the city’s 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations; and historical in the case of Terry Adkins’s sculptural column of stacked-up drums referring to a march organized by the N.A.A.C.P. in 1917 in New York City to protest a national plague of lynchings.
The third section, “Remembrance,” is dimly lighted and sparsely hung. Here what look like commemorative floral tributes — a sculptural one by Nick Cave and a painted one by the Cuban-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons — flank a wall-filling projection of Jon-Sesrie Goff’s video “A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield,” a brief, moving meditation on the 2016 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Sherald’s portrait of Taylor, whom she depicts in a breeze-blown turquoise dress against a turquoise ground, hangs just beyond, in a chapel-like space, otherwise empty except for a wall text in the form of a biographical timeline composed by her mother. The entire show is basically designed to lead to and enshrine this image. You can see it far in the distance, an eye-catching blur of color, from the minute you enter three galleries away, and approach it by a processional route.
I find myself resisting such enshrinements, whether of people, or art, or history. So I was glad the show didn’t quite end there, but with a two-channel video by the artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph called “BLKNWS®” in a bright room, with an outdoor view, one flight down. Raucous and nervy, the video is a careening jump-cut alternative view of what the media leave out, or misrepresent, in reporting on Black life and experience.
In the context of the Speed exhibition, its mock newscast is a reminder of what museums, too, leave out. As far as I know, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is the only large-scale institutional show to date that addresses the important episode in our contemporary national history that Taylor’s violent death, and the communal reaction to it, represent.
And it’s worth considering that the Speed show coincides with the trial in Minneapolis of the white police officer accused of killing George Floyd, another epoch-shaping event that — again, as far as I know — no major institution has yet even glancingly touched on. If you’re wondering why our museums are looking too often these days like dated artifacts with shaky futures, Covid-19 can’t take all the blame.