CAMBRIDGE — Stone portals beckon from every corner of the airy central atrium at Harvard Art Museums, each of them a passage to a particular portion of the vast riches on display there any given day.
After an 18-month, self-imposed COVID-19 exile, the museums reopened last month having made much of their quiet time. Each of those portals now emanate purpose: Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Asia-Imani, Gabriella-Esnae, and Kaya Palmer,” a 2020 painting of three children embedded in a tableau of radiant flowers, pulls you into one end of the museum’s Modern and Contemporary collection; across the atrium, Kerry James Marshall’s crisp, commanding untitled portrait of a Black artist, his palette a mash-up of abstract painting strategies that dominated the idea of American art for a generation, shares space with Mark Rothko and is the entry point at the other.
On the way into the galleries holding a clutch of German Modern art, the doorway squares up Emil Nolde’s “Mulatto” (1913), his disparaging portrait of a woman of mixed race. A panel of text bracketed in bright orange describes how cosmopolitan Germany devolved into institutional bigotry. The same year Nolde painted “Mulatto,” Germany passed a citizenship law that required “German blood” — a way to exclude Germans of African descent and a regulation the artist surely would have embraced: The text explained that Nolde was later a zealous supporter of the National Socialists and the Nazi party they became.
The Harvard museums, like most of their peers, have been grappling for years with an array of existential dilemmas, none more pressing than the implicit biases of collections that have long prized narrowly-defined aesthetic value with little regard for historical context. “ReFrame,” conceived over the pandemic-induced closure by curator of photography Makeda Best, is their outward solution, with the aim to “reorient the collection around today’s concerns,” according to a helpful brochure. It foregrounds artists of color, largely excluded from art history’s canon, and recasts ugly passages in the collection — like Nolde’s — through a clarifying lens.
“ReFrame” touches dozens of works throughout the museum, all of them with new texts to provide key context. Many more works will be added in the months to come. But it starts, significantly, with that view: those passageways are the entry point and the interface, shading all that comes next with their stage-setting presence. The museum has literally changed its lines of sight, and the message is clear: This matters, and this is where we start.
Museums everywhere have worked to excavate more complex truths in their collections for years. In the ongoing grind of a pandemic that has exposed every manner of social division and inequity, the demand is for that work to accelerate. Museums are by nature anything but nimble — “ReFrame” is the product of an 18-month shutdown. But the train, at least, has left the station. Here, a few ideas to help build its momentum.
Celebrating the local
Art history is important, and generations of academics have built a useful narrative that serves as a framework to cultural history. But master narratives almost always function by exclusion, and their central myth — that everything important that ever happened comes from a handful of places and a few important people — disserves everyone and everywhere else.
The good news is that there are abundant encouraging signs around Boston, both pre-pandemic and during, that those slim histories are growing wider. Last summer, a stand of corn surrounded “Appeal to the Great Spirit” on the Museum of Fine Arts front lawn, planted by Elizabeth James-Perry, a member of the Wampanoag of Aquinnah tribe on Martha’s Vineyard; her living installation underscored the harm of Indigenous stereotypes while reclaiming the land itself. Across the lawn, Ekua Holmes’s Roxbury Sunflower Project has delivered its own message about who merits notice: For more than 150 years, the museum sat almost across the street from her neighborhood, the historic center of Boston’s Black community, but could still somehow seem worlds away.
Local artists here are regularly plucked to be shown alongside marquee offerings. The ICA does well both with its biannual Foster Prize exhibition and its Watershed annex, which recently hung Stephen Hamilton’s moving tapestries in the lounge area adjacent to the main installation by New York-based Firelei Báez. And the MFA, deserves credit for “New Light,” an exhibition of contemporary acquisitions now on view that includes a good many from the Boston area. (Hamilton is among them; so is Dana Chandler, whose work cracks open a remarkable tale of the museum’s ugly past exclusions, which, also to its credit, it now owns.)
But is it enough? I think of an initiative in my hometown of Toronto, where an ongoing series of exhibitions called “Toronto Now,” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, featured a different local artist every two months. There was lots wrong with it — the space was an overflow dining area tacked on to the restaurant — but you had to admire the spirit. Here was an ongoing commitment to art being made right there and then. In Boston, I’m scraping for a comparable example. An institution like the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum does important work with its New England Biennial, but it’s nothing like the platform a national institution can provide.
Big museums have big bills to pay, and it’s far easier to sell tickets for Titian or Basquiat or Monet than an artist most don’t know. And being brought in to complement main offerings — local graffiti artist Rob Gibbs, a.k.a. ProBlak and illustrator Rob Stull made murals for the MFA’s Basquiat show last year — isn’t the same as having a space of one’s own.
So, what to do? Could the city’s biggest museums collaborate on a biannual showcase of what the region has to offer? Could they partner with and really listen to grassroots organizations — I’m thinking of groups like Now+There, the public art incubator that’s embedded in the city’s cultural fabric — to make it a cross-museum, indoor-outdoor extravaganza of Boston artists? Could they call it “Greater Boston,” and actually believe it themselves? If they could, then we would, too.
Responding in real time
Museums operate on museum time: Exhibitions are planned years in advance, which usually means that anything that comes off as timely is likely by happy accident. Being slow and careful is a good thing, but it can inevitably divorce you from the world outside your doors.
An interesting model emerged in Louisville, Ky., last spring, when the Speed Art Museum opened a show built in just four months around the painter Amy Sherald’s mesmerizing portrait of Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker shot and killed in her home during a botched raid by Louisville police in March 2020. The museum decided that the protests outside, touched off by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, had to be mirrored within; the result, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” had a resonant immediacy.
Nobody expects museums to suddenly become news organizations, but these last 19 months have taught us that they can’t just watch as the world turns around them. A ton of incremental change was already happening before the pandemic: Harvard was deep into a project to rewrite its wall labels to unearth the specific, ugly histories of certain works and their links to colonial violence and the slave trade — just one example. Meanwhile, the MFA had embarked on a years-long rotating exhibition to foreground dozens of overlooked women artists in its collection.
Such shifts now seem both prescient and glaring, stoking demand for more, and quickly. Museums are big ships to turn, but can they be more nimble in small but significant ways? Sure. What if they carved out dedicated spaces for responsive interventions geared toward big topical issues? What if, to take nimbleness to an extreme, the work that took place inside them was, in fact, evolving in real time — a social practice laboratory and activist art enclave?
Some free-thinking about how to be more flexible and responsive seems well past due. It would also gather in the local art community, simply by being. That’s a win-win.
Owning up to the past
At their beginnings, American museums were founded by a ruling elite to preserve a narrative that favored a very particular definition of culture. That’s meant a longstanding winner-take-all mentality, consciously or not. It’s not a coincidence that European masterworks have dominated American historical collections, while collections from Africa, Asia, and the Americas have been displayed ethnographically, as artifact.
Recently, filling in the blanks has been the mission of every museum worth your attention, ancient and modern both. The MFA, for example, redirected the conversation around its soon-to-open Center for Netherlandish Art with a symposium earlier this year that centered on the sources of wealth — namely, colonial plunder and the slave trade — that made the Northern Renaissance possible.
How such ideas manifest on gallery walls more broadly remains to be seen. In 2019, New York’s Museum of Modern Art reopened after a six-month hiatus, having reinstalled its entire permanent collection to include more women and non-white European artists than they’d ever shown.
But the close observer would have noted that swaths of the collection installed to address the imbalances had been acquired very recently — in a lot of cases, during the just-preceding shutdown. And that’s better than not at all. Still, it felt a little like sliding your term paper under the teacher’s door a minute before midnight.
It meant MoMA lost the opportunity to have a frank conversation about the nature of collecting, the mechanics of exclusion, and what it was doing to address all of the above. Fixing an issue is one thing; but not making space to acknowledge it feels suspiciously like pretending there was no issue in the first place.
This is a fragile moment for building public trust: The MFA’s pre-pandemic “Ancient Nubia Now” exhibition was conceived as a response to the renowned Harvard archaeologist George Reisner’s racist belief that Nubia, the seat of ancient Africa, was deeply inferior to neighboring Egypt. The show debunked those prejudices with a stunning display of Nubian civilization’s many riches. But when the MFA opened its new Egyptian galleries in April, Reisner — who collected much of the museum’s peerless Pyramid-age art — was front and center, with no mention of Nubia at all.
That kind of selective amnesia taints good work with bad faith and suggests a problem, once addressed, can safely be forgotten again. Well, no. The past, more than ever, is always present. Own it. You might be surprised the benefit transparency can bring.
Pulling back the curtain
One of my favorite occasional exhibition series has been the MFA’s “Collecting Stories” initiative, where the museum interrogates itself and often finds its own answers unsatisfying. It’s been wonderfully frank and confessional: The installation on its Native American collection in 2018 was unnervingly spotty, betraying an historical collecting strategy without clear direction; pieces had come and gone, often without documentation.
This is close kin to “ReFrame.” It says that nothing exudes authority on its own; it’s been assigned and installed in the culture, historically, not as a proposition but fact. Efforts like these make clear that everything we see is the product of subjective context — a choice, made by a person. It’s neither immutable nor absolute. It can change.
In 2020, the MFA series offered a case in point: It turned to an installation of the museum’s “provisional collection” — works acquired but not allowed to officially enter the collection until the museum could mull their worthiness.
The idea that art could be deemed “provisional” reveals museums to be something they’ve rarely acknowledged in the past: fallible. Allowing for the simple fact that museums don’t know everything, make mistakes (sometimes big ones), and are deeply engaged in self-reflection is only a good thing.