LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Louisville’s Black Lives Matter leaders organized a demonstration at the removal of the John B. Castleman statue in Cherokee Park in early June, local artist Brianna Harlan hosted a “creative intervention” — a cleansing for the tired and weary protesters.
Using lavender flowers, sage and any sticks, rocks and leaves they could gather from the area, the group gathered for a healing ritual.
It was a powerful and cathartic form of public art for Harlan, a Black woman and Louisville native whose work bridges traditional art and social justice. Black artists like Harlan have been creating their own, non-traditional art collectives in Louisville for years, but on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, these same artists are now gaining more traction among “mainstream” art institutions.
And while many of the city’s Black artists say this recognition is long overdue, many wonder if these same institutions are playing into “tokenism” or are truly working to rise up to build a more equitable and inclusive arts community going forward.
“Louisville’s funding model comes a lot from philanthropy,” Harlan said, “which funnels down in a way that never really gives Black people any staying power, control or security to be able to make their best work.”
It’s a common struggle for organizations across the country that are actively trying to bring more equity and inclusivity into the art scene without pandering to artists of colour or other minorities.
For Harlan and other Black visual artists, it’s imperative that Louisville’s arts institutions value their work outside of movements such as Black Lives Matter, which often focus on the pain and trauma of the Black experience.
“Now that blackness is something to have a protest for, and people are finally making space for it, others are capitalizing off it,” Harlan said. “So until we change our standards as a culture for what we allow and don’t allow the people in power to do, nothing is really going to change.”
So when Harlan has noticed Black artists finally being celebrated and recognized on larger platforms, she thinks: It’s about time.
“Black people have been giving labour, innovation, creativity and so much gold to our culture for so long,” she said.
One organization taking that next step is the Fund for the Arts, one of Louisville’s leading non-profit arts organizations. It was born out of a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusivity that the organization had been working on for a long time, but was recently amplified by the social unrest in the community, said Fund for the Arts director of impact Kat Abner.
Fund for the Arts is also working to “deepen our investment in Black artists and the community, because they deserve to be celebrated and elevated, and so many artists are leading the charge of that movement,” Abner said.
The group recently announced its Black Artist Fund, an initiative to provide grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 to fund new works created by Black artists.
Internally, Fund for the Arts has also created an Equity Task Force to help build awareness to the many talented Black artists in Louisville and begin fostering more future projects.
At the Speed Art Museum, 2035 S. Third St., the oldest, largest and foremost museum of art in Kentucky, looking at Black artists is something the museum takes very seriously.
“I feel very strongly that we don’t look to Black artists just to be muralists or protest artists,” said Stephen Reily, director of the Speed Art Museum. “We can always do better.”
The Speed is releasing a report soon detailing its efforts and commitments to racial equity through community outreach, programming and contracts. Its also taking a critical look at its staff make-up, Reily said, recognizing that in order to amplify Black artists, they need to have more employees that reflect the community.
“How do we take this immediate moment and the urgency around it — a lot of which is about trauma and pain and anger very understandably — and create a long term mission that invites everyone to celebrate art forever? That’s what we’re trying to do,” Reily said. “We’re thinking back 90 years in our history and trying to think forward 90 years in our history.”
Harlan, who has exhibited at both KMAC and the Speed Art Museum, recently created a survey that was taken by 250 Louisville artists, many of whom said they often felt excluded from Louisville’s mainstream arts space.
Over 90% of respondents felt that the city’s diversity is not represented in art openings and that sexism and racism is pervasive in Louisville’s art institutions. Many also reported feeling tokenized by cultural institutions.
Ramona Lindsey, a Louisville artist who works for the Community Foundation of Louisville, said in her experience, it’s difficult for Black folks to reach decision-making and leadership roles in the city’s cultural arts institutions.
A few years ago, when Lindsey was the director of education at KMAC, she was one of the only Black leaders in the visual arts community.
“That is starting to change, but we still need financial support, network support, resources that are necessary for a leader to thrive in the institution. Our leaders in the organizations have to be ready to make radical change to truly transform the culture here,” Lindsey said.
That means developing a pipeline of Black creative leaders through paid internships, purposeful outreach, mentoring and working directly with the local artists, she said.
Toya Northington, a Louisville native and textile artist who also works at the Speed Art Museum, said she feels a responsibility as a Black artist working in a major art institution to push for more Black people at all levels of the organization, but “it doesn’t guarantee that they will have the power or influence to make changes once they get there.”
“We have to be more specific,” Northington told The Courier Journal. “We want a diversity of representation. We want art and narratives told in exhibitions that represent the issues of interest, culture and perspectives of the people in our community. There has to be a culture shift so these institutions stop prioritizing white, western esthetics and perspectives. We are really asking them to reimagine their galleries and museums so they don’t centre and prioritize whiteness.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled many arts organizations — initial projections from Louisville’s Arts and Cultural Alliance in March indicated museums and performing arts organizations could lose $1.3 million a day during a total shutdown — Northington said it’s also been an equalizer for creatives, forcing everyone to think differently about how to reach audiences.
“When you are a marginalized group, you have been used to making your own path,” Northington said. “Black artists have always been working outside the norms of our institutions because we had to make our own spaces, be innovative and often create public art. But what has happened in the art world until now cannot survive. When we return to normal, art institutions have to be intentional about bringing in new audiences and being genuine in their efforts.”
Outside KMAC on Museum Row in downtown Louisville hangs a window project from local artist and poet Hannah Drake, a powerful voice for the Black community. And inside the first floor is a mural painted by Jaylin Stewart, a Black woman.
But KMAC, like many other art institutions, is looking at what more it can do, said curator Joey Yates.
“I think the arts in Louisville has suffered from the same systemic segregation as our other institutions and has inherited that legacy,” Yates said. “Thankfully, we’re all confronting that and hopefully, it can create a more integrated arts scene.”
Savannah Eadens, Courier Journal, The Associated Press