Huey Copeland and Allison Glenn on “Promise, Witness, Remembrance”
Over the past year, American museums have been forced to consider how they might address anti-Black violence and center marginalized voices, especially when their collecting, exhibitionary, and outreach practices have historically abetted rather than challenged the social reproduction of white supremacy. While any number of institutions have made statements or proposed changes, the exhibition “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky—organized in honor of Breonna Taylor, whose murder at the hands of Louisville police on March 13, 2020 eventually spurred nationwide protests—offers a timely, local, and pointed curatorial response to some of the most pressing questions facing cultural institutions today. To better understand how museums might reframe notions of audience, value, and the politics of belonging from an intersectional perspective, Artforum invited contributing editor Huey Copeland and the exhibition’s curator, Allison Glenn, to speak about the show’s emergence and ambitions a few weeks before its June 6 closing.
HUEY COPELAND: Allison, I thought I’d start by asking how you came to organize this exhibition: In what ways did the process of making it demand a rethinking of your approach to curatorial practice and your understanding of the roles museums can play within contemporary cultural discourse?
ALLISON GLENN: This is a really great question. I was invited by the director of the Speed Museum, Stephen Reily, who sent me an email outlining the project as he saw it and letting me know that if I took this on, I’d be working closely with [Breonna Taylor’s mother] Tamika Palmer as a key stakeholder. That made it clear to me that the museum’s priorities were in line. I had a few meetings with Stephen and the team at the Speed, and it became clear very quickly that the museum had a lot of ambition for the project.
An exhibition is one moment. It’s temporal, and it cannot hold everything. So I wanted to align with Tamika Palmer and understand what she thought the exhibition could do, what it could mean for her and her daughter’s legacy. And Ms. Palmer is very clear. She is very generous. She is very kind, and she is very clear on what she wants. I developed the exhibition’s three sections from a text message she sent me. She didn’t say, “Promise, witness, remembrance,” but I inferred those terms from her message, and they became the title of the exhibition and the curatorial framework.
At the same time, I began building a national panel of advisers. I knew I needed a kind of cabinet of people I could trust, whom I could be vulnerable with, who could point out blind spots, and who knew me and my practice. I was very sensitive to the fact that I don’t live in Louisville. I’m not from Louisville. And I wanted to create this framework of solidarity. The national panel was a way of saying, “We, on a national level, stand in solidarity with you.” I respect the city and what it’s gone through so much that I’m not going to show up as just me. I’m going to stand in concert with a group of people who have dealt with these issues before. I invited artists Theaster Gates and Hank Willis Thomas, as well as La Keisha Leek, whose cousin is Trayvon [Martin]. We had worked together on some projects in Chicago when La Keisha was working through her understanding of Trayvon’s murder and how to respond to it. And then I asked a friend in town, Raymond Green, whose cousin is Alton Sterling, to join. And it just kept building.
So I had a combination of artists who had responded to the intersecting pandemics of gun violence and police brutality and private citizens who lost loved ones to those epidemics. Arguably, George Zimmerman is an extension of the state. So that is state-sanctioned violence against Black people. And I wanted an art historian who has a history with critical race studies and art of the Global South.
HC: So that’s how Allison Young came on.
HC: It’s interesting to hear how the project unfolded, and revelatory in terms of thinking about what the key components of this kind of exhibition are. One being: There has to be institutional will from the get-go. And then there has to be a real understanding and engagement with the communities and the people impacted by the events or issues the show explores. I really love the way you insist not only on your alignment in solidarity with Ms. Palmer, and this community of activists and thinkers, but also the way you emphasize producing another kind of collective through this advisory panel, which is brought into conversation with other kinds of discursive networks and groups that you’re building on the ground. So in many ways, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” seems to model, in both form and content, a Black feminist ethos of care in cultural production. I wonder if you would situate this show within that tradition?
AG: Absolutely. It’s important to note that the entire exhibition was led by Black women: me; the Speed’s community engagement strategist, Toya Northington; Tamika Palmer; her lawyer, Lonita Baker. Amy Sherald has been a very important force. The coacquisition of her portrait of Breonna Taylor by the Speed and the Smithsonian will have a positive impact on the Louisville community. And of course, Breonna Taylor herself is at the center of this conversation. And the Louisville protests were led by Black women.
“Through this act of creating community, of calling people in, you in fact center them.” —Allison Glenn
There is definitely a culture of care. The reason we worked so closely with the Louisville steering committee and the national panel and Ms. Palmer is that there’s too much at stake. There were too many ways to get it wrong, and we needed to get it right. And I would say that situating it within this larger framework is a radical act of decentering that not only decenters the institution, but also decenters my voice. So through this act of creating community, of calling people in, you in fact center them. A great example of this is de-installing the Dutch and Flemish collection, the collection the museum is known for internationally. There was one artist on the Louisville steering committee who is probably of my mother’s generation. And she said she used to go to the Speed Museum in the original building, before they built the contemporary wing. She said she never saw art by people who look like her, and that she didn’t feel that work by people who look like her or of people who look like her was valuable, because it wasn’t in the space. That’s the impact of decentering.
Another example: When I presented my exhibition proposal to Tamika Palmer for consideration, I told her I knew that we needed to include a time line of her daughter’s life to tie the exhibition together. And I said, “I’m not the person to write it,” and she said, “Oh, I’ll write it.” She wrote a text on the walls of the gallery in which Amy Sherald’s portrait is installed and therefore became the authorial and the authoritative voice in that space. During installation, there were discussions regarding whether or not we should include a label to contextualize the tone of the time line, as the institutional voice is very different than a mother’s voice about her daughter’s life. There were good points for and against didactics. I felt strongly that we did not need to put up a label to tell people why we’ve given space to Tamika Palmer. That is not decentering. Decentering is giving the space. The team ultimately understood the importance and impact and agreed.
HC: I think it’s so important that the decentering also enables and is accompanied by a kind of revaluation, a shifting of how we understand economies of value, particularly within the context of the museum. And I think in making this kind of collective—that is democratized, that is led by Black women, and that gives Black women priority in terms of their position in relationship to Breonna and this history and this moment—it seems to me that it really starts to question how we think about the processes of valuation and devaluation that the museum represents, and how we can disrupt those by doing this work of decentering. That also involves the centering of different kinds of voices. I love that the show includes this range of contributors, from local activists to internationally renowned artists. And, of course, Ms. Palmer. There’s also this huge variety of contemporary visual modes, from street photography to abstract painting. So I wonder: How did your ambitions for the show shape the selection of works?
AG: I knew that I wanted the exhibition to take up space—I knew I was interested in works that had a sense of scale. We were dealing with twenty-two-foot ceilings, terrazzo floors, marble doorways, these kind of regal spaces. And I wanted to think about what it might be to occupy that space physically with, for example, Terry Adkins’s sculpture Muffled Drums (from Darkwater) . I also knew that many people who saw the show would be visiting the museum for the first time. And it’d be people who probably didn’t feel very welcome in institutionalized spaces. If you’re not going to those spaces regularly, you’re going to feel uncomfortable because they’re not legible. They’re in fact quite illegible and inaccessible. I wanted people to feel—no matter their relationship to museums and exhibition spaces—that they knew where they were going. And if they got lost, they’d have an anchor. That’s what led to the decision to hang the portrait of Breonna so that it’s directly in your line of sight when you turn the corner after entering the museum. Although it’s the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition space, it’s part of the show’s closing section, “Remembrance,” which memorializes those lost to police brutality and gun violence.
But let me back up a little bit and talk about the “Promise” section. What I wanted to do there was provide a framework through which to understand the rest of the exhibition. That section is meant to drive home the truth we all know: that the United States was founded on horrible inequities, and the inefficacies of our system are inherently indebted to that founding.
I wanted to borrow from these tropes of nationalism because I think we’re in a moment where we’re dealing with a lot of tropes of nationalism and democracy yet still living in a space that does not feel democratic. There are works by Hank Willis Thomas in both the “Promise” section, where we installed 15,433 (2019) and 19,281 (2020) [both 2021], two flags whose stars represent those killed by gun violence in American in 2019 and 2020, and in the “Remembrance” section, which includes his neon sculpture Remember Me . So that’s how “Promise” unfolded.
“I wanted to create a historical framework of a century of protests for Black lives and to highlight the impact of these protests nationally and globally.” —AG
Artists help us understand the contemporary moment. In the “Witness” section, you’ll see a mixture of works that are timely yet enduring. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Breonna Taylor’s family has not gotten the justice they seek. This section was also an opportunity to present the work that had happened during the protest, which was really important to Ms. Palmer. These galleries include artworks that respond to this moment, as well as other moments of conflict, change, and unrest in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The steering committee built this incredible spreadsheet of photographers who had been at the protest. I chose five. Breonna Taylor’s story includes all of these people around it, and I wanted to honor them, including the many who were lost to gun violence, such as Tyler Gerth, one of the five photographers. He was shot and killed at the protest. The show was the first posthumous exhibition of his pictures. I worked with his sisters to select the images. Jon Cherry, a local photographer, had a portrait in the show of Travis Nagdy, a young man who found his voice in the movement. As I understand it, he was meeting with elected officials and had found his path through organizing. He was shot and killed in an unrelated incident. Of course, I wanted to include a Black woman photographer. T. A. Yero took some very powerful photographs.
I hung the photographs in a linear way to create this tight time line. The first is from the day after what would have been Breonna’s twenty-seventh birthday. The last is the portrait of Travis Nagdy. And it’s on the same plane as the portrait of Breonna. So you stand in the second gallery, and you see Travis, and you see Breonna kind of in the distance. It was very intentional to pair those two portraits. I also chose to hang the photographs tight and horizontally, knowing that Muffled Drums was going to have such height. I wanted to have the horizontal time line of photographs intersect with it. Muffled Drums commemorates [W. E. B.] Du Bois’s organizing of one of the first Black-led protests for Black lives.
HC: The silent protest parade in 1917.
AG: Exactly. He organized it with the NAACP. I wanted to create a historical framework of a century of protests for Black lives and to highlight the impact of these protests nationally and globally.
HC: In the context of this national and global quote-unquote reckoning, which has brought such scrutiny to modern culture’s ongoing expropriation and waste of Black lives in these spectacular ways, many institutions are finding themselves at a crossroads. Some are planning exhibitions like “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.” Of course, those shows and the decolonial gestures they stand for are temporary, even though what this kind of exhibition does is open a radically new, expansive framework for museums to understand what they do. And I guess one question is: How does that then become something that is institutionalized as part of the museum’s identity and your understanding of your own curatorial practice?
AG: I realized that this project reaffirmed for me that I am most successful working close to the ground with diverse publics. That’s not only where my strength is, that’s also where my heart is. That’s where the work feels rewarding. It’s challenging institutions to radically rethink the way they present ideas through exhibitions, through solo projects, through conversations, and continuing to imagine worlds where this kind of terror doesn’t exist.
HC: Maybe we can close by discussing what your understanding of success is, because I think it’s so telling and useful for thinking about what it is that we want the space of the aesthetic and the museum and the cultural to be.
AG: Well, when you are working in consultation and conversation and collaboration, oftentimes success exists outside commonly held registers. I think for any project that seeks to bring people in, there’s going to be a collective imagining and redefining of what success is. For me, the most important thing, the successful moment in this exhibition, was that Tamika Palmer was pleased. She said she felt the exhibition was a blessing and that she felt peaceful walking into the space and seeing Breonna’s portrait and her time line—I’m paraphrasing her. She felt seen and she felt heard. That, to me, was the greatest success.
Huey Copeland is a contributing editor of Artforum and BFC presidential associate professor of history of art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Allison Glenn is an associate curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and its satellite space the Momentary.