This has been a difficult time for Americans. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have the country reeling in pain and demanding justice and equity. The COVID-19 pandemic has made even more transparent the inequities in this country, disproportionately affecting people of color, women, and indigenous communities. I have to ask myself, what is the role of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in responding to these events? How can we help the community heal and help dismantle racism?
Museums can be spaces of respite that celebrate the beauty and joy of humanity. They serve to provide an escape from the harsh realities of structural inequities that most civilizations, and America, have been built upon. But museums and their collections also reflect painful histories resulting from those structural inequities. Early in my tenure at The Westmoreland as I was learning about the collection, I encountered Three Balls for Five Cents by John Donaghy. Created in 1883, the painting illustrates a sickening carnival game that uses an African American man as a human target, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. The easy thing to do is to think that this representation is in the distant past or to simply look away because the image is too painful to confront. But arts organizations have to talk about these issues and how we continue to live in a country that privileges some, while systemically disenfranchising others.
As we prepare for reopening to ensure the health and wellness of our staff and guests, we are also preparing for how The Westmoreland can serve as a space to have these difficult conversations openly and honestly using the framework of art. While we are committed to diversifying our collection and temporary exhibitions to be more inclusive of the lived experiences that comprise the American experience, we realize that is not enough. We must reflect upon our institution’s own history in benefiting from and reinforcing inequitable power structures. We must be willing to facilitate an open dialogue and commit to the emotional labor of having these conversations.
It is not going to be easy. We are going to make mistakes. But that is how we will learn and grow.