Mixed media artist and community organizer Brianna Harlan has wanted to talk about sexism, racism and harassment in the arts for a long time, and recently, things have started to bubble up for her.
“From private conversations with people in the art world expressing their frustrations to me, to watching corporations, other arts and cultural institutions be called out for the poison that they provide to this field generously and without shame,” she said.
She’d seen instances of people sharing their horrific experiences of “unchecked racism” at U.S. museums online through an anonymous Instagram account called Change the Museum — to which she submitted her own accounts — and read stories about staffers and artists bringing their concerns directly to the top of these institutions, such as New York’s Whitney and Guggenheim museums.
That inspired her to get a public conversation going about the Louisville arts scene, and eventually, develop an effort to identify and rectify the local sources of this “poison.” So she posted on Instagram, and began a July 3 story with the following: “Going to share my thoughts about how Louisville’s arts community perpetrates the city’s systemic racism and oppressive politics.”
“I just was like, ‘OK, guys, I’m not hearing anybody talk about it, so let’s talk about it,’” Harlan said. “And then people were very talkative.”
What surfaced were allegations of Louisville institutions hiring people of color, but only to check a diversity box; of people feeling underpaid and emotionally abused by some of the city’s top arts nonprofits; of arts professionals saying they were punished when they reported harassment.
“Some of these experiences… you can’t sit down and just read and read through them because it gets very heavy,” she said. “It becomes a human rights issue.”
Coming From A Personal Place
Harlan, who is a Black woman, said she could empathize with the personal stories piling up in her Instagram DM inbox.
She worked briefly at KMAC and Speed art museums before leaving Louisville for grad school in New York last fall. She said she felt tokenized at both and, in particular at the Speed, she felt silenced when she tried to speak up about racism and sexism within the museum’s walls. Even though her job, as she understood it, was to improve community relations and help create more inclusive programming.
“That makes the experience that I had even more troubling… when I tried to do that work, I was harassed,” Harlan said.
In an email, KMAC’s director of communications and marketing, Amy Parish, declined to discuss Harlan’s time working at the museum, writing that, “Her thoughts and feelings about that experience, whether positive or negative, are hers to share.”
Some KMAC staff reached out to Harlan privately after reading through her Instagram feed, including curator Joey Yates, who said it was “difficult to read” these stories.
“I reached out to her… because I care about her, as a friend and as an artist,” Yates said. “I don’t want to silence any of that. I think it needs to be heard.”
During an interview with WFPL, Parish said the museum has been working on these issues internally for years, but clearly haven’t done enough.
“We as an institution need to educate ourselves better, we need to work harder, but we also need to listen to Black voices, especially when they’re saying you’re not doing this well enough,” she said.
She said KMAC will show up for Harlan’s efforts.
Speed leadership also said they wouldn’t comment on former employees.
But Speed Art Museum director Stephen Reily pointed to a statement the museum released in early June, a few weeks after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice began, committing the Speed to being more inclusive: in who it hires, who sits on its board and whose work hangs on the walls.
“It is a moment of reckoning for every industry, frankly, and the art sector, museums are as part of much of that as anybody,” Reily said.
After his interview with WFPL, Reily followed up via email. He wrote that he went back through Harlan’s Instagram posts and stories, and saw “the pain she experienced at the Speed, I regret it, and I support her in her work.” He said he called Harlan to tell her museum leadership is ready to listen.
The Louisville Art Scene Report
Harlan has been rallying the local arts community to participate in a formal survey she created with the help of an expert, whom she calls her “data wizard.”
“These things need to be shared,” she said. “So how can we research it in a way that we can then deliver it back to the community and deliver it to these institutions in a way that can inform decision making?”
Respondents have ranged from artists and curators, to performers, arts administrators, fundraisers and audience members, and preliminary results already show some telling things, she said.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 88% of respondents said racism is common in the Louisville arts community, nearly 84% find sexism to be common and more than 90% of respondents said tokenism is common in the local arts scene.
And to the latter, Harlan said tokenism is “violence,” especially in the art world, as it “colonizes and capitalizes” on people of color and their forms of expression.
She stressed how these survey questions don’t ask if you have experienced these discriminatory practices because by asking if it’s common, it “shows a trend, that the issue is prolific.”
Harlan’s survey also has questions that examine representation in Louisville arts, for example: “When you go to commercial art events and fairs, is the Black artist community fairly represented?” To which more than 95% said, “no,” Harlan reported.
The goal is to get at least 250 responses by the end of the weekend.
Then, she and her data wizard will publish a report of the qualitative analysis, and, from that, work with equity and liberation experts to craft a list of demands.
“I’m calling them demands because these things, across the board, need to be true for all of these spaces, and they’re not up for compromise,” she said.
Harlan hopes, at that point, Louisville institutions will be willing to come to the table and that the process of digging through all of these stories and data will inspire art projects along the way as well.
She clarified that her effort is not a “personal vendetta.” She wants the arts to thrive.
“It’s not about a campaign against any individual or any institution,” she said. “It’s about a campaign against racism and sexism, period. So people can take this as a call out, or they can take it as a call in.”
Whether she thinks Louisville arts groups are ready to do the work, she said, “We’ll see.”