By Caitlin Dover on Guggenheim.org - 21 March 2018
“How do we allow people we don’t agree with, or maybe don’t even like, to have a place in society—a safe place?” Artist Hank Willis Thomas asked this question on our blog recently, and it gets to the heart of a phenomenon that feels overwhelming right now: widespread polarization, compounded and amplified online. To say our civic discourse is broken only begins to describe the problem. As Thomas indicates, many of us seem to have difficulty even acknowledging each other’s right to participate in social debate and dissent.
Curators and other thought leaders at the Guggenheim, responding to these circumstances, have created an opportunity for productive discussion and reflection. On April 6 and 7, a keynote conversation that includes Thomas, political commentator Sally Kohn, and Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, will be followed by two panel discussions moderated by WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer. Among the panelists are consultant and digital campaigner Melissa Ryan, media strategist and columnist Kurt Bardella, and television commentator and social-justice advocate Jehmu Greene. The first panel discussion will focus on cultural divisions within our country; the second will center on how digital platforms are driving and distorting debate and protest.
The Guggenheim came face to face with the effects of activist online protest last year, when a petition on Change.org called for the curators to remove works from the exhibition Art and China before 1989: Theater of the World weeks before the show opened. The petition was accompanied by thousands of negative emails, Facebook posts, and Tweets directed at Guggenheim staff, artists, and supporters. The experience prompted staff members here to reflect on the larger context in which the protests took place. Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator, Asian Art, who organized Art and China after 1989, and Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, assembled a group here to think about how the Guggenheim could respond publicly in ways that would be positive and proactive in these turbulent times.
Guggenheim curators and staff are continuously questioning the role this museum, and others, can or should play during a time of such cultural crisis. They are hardly alone—the question of museums’ role now is pressing for all of us working in this field. At the Guggenheim, we’ve also been listening to visitors to better understand what they think a museum can offer a divided society. As part of an art project here, visitors shared thoughts on museums’ ability to encourage and “reflect back” contemporary dialogue.
Our belief is that art can provide the philosophical space that Hank Willis Thomas imagines—a space where connection can take place even if agreement does not. Art can foster different modes of interaction and thought, and it can catalyze new ways of being. As Spector has noted, “Art (and the museums that exhibit it) should model solutions and be part of the change we so sorely need.”