Across-the-street view of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville on a bright but cloudy day. The building is 3 stories tall, the first of which being enclosed largely in glass, and the 2nd and 3rd floors faced in tall rectangular and linear sections of grays, beiges, and whites.
ABOVE: Street view of the Speed Art Museum.


Four Months Later, Examining the Impact of Promise, Witness, Remembrance


Essay
Hunter Kissel



Part 1: Why Louisville Needed Promise, Witness, Remembrance

Only thirteen months removed from the night three Louisville Metro Police officers murdered Breonna Taylor while she and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were sleeping in Walker’s apartment, the Speed Art Museum did the seemingly impossible for an encyclopedic museum. With lightning-fast organization, the Speed premiered an exhibition featuring a lineup of predominantly Black artists directly addressing and honoring Taylor’s life and death, the national protests that ensued, and the history of violence against African-Americans in this country. What’s more, in an effort to become more equitable and actively represent the show’s subject matter, the primarily all-white leadership and curatorial teams took a step back to allow guest curator, Allison Glenn, and the Speed’s Community Engagement Strategist, Toya Northington—two Black women—to oversee the development of what would become Promise, Witness, Remembrance.

By producing a contemporary art exhibition that prioritized Black voices and their perspectives on American culture, the Speed ventured to construct a public image supportive of artists, civil rights groups, and activists who situate Taylor’s death within broader conversations of inequitable and violent policing tactics while recognizing how such instances inflict devastation on communities. Decidedly breaking from any presumption of neutrality, Promise, Witness, Remembrance embraced some of the more contentious aspects of the Speed’s one-hundred-plus years of activation.

For example, Glenn and others offered a gallery presentation designed to counter dominant presentational strategies of the generally white canon of art history. Rather than populate the Speed’s newly constructed north wing and its upstairs contemporary galleries, Promise, Witness, Remembrance was installed in first-floor spaces normally reserved for the museum’s collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings. For the project team, substitution became a tool to subvert the traditional museum experience—in a neoclassical grand hall, one would not normally expect to find Terry Adkin’s towering pillar of marching band drums, or a wall-to-wall video projection about the 2015 mass murder in a Charleston baptist church. For emphasis, some gallery walls were painted black. In the mind of Northington, this transformation of the “Old Speed” was a “call to action... a disruption” that reflected the weight that tragedies such as Taylor’s murder carry.1

Northington affirmed that assuming vulnerability was key for those involved. Scholars, artists, social scientists, civic leaders, and others helped to provide oversight, operating as somewhat of a random sample to investigate what local communities needed from cultural organizations at that specific historic moment. The Speed constructed research and steering committees to shepherd initial programming, and a national advisory panel shaped the tone and direction of the project. In the end, those involved discerned that overhauling galleries and blurring the lines between art and activism may help to gain acclaim and widespread praise for a blockbuster exhibition, but the primary goal of the exhibition was always to uplift the community. This approach of breaking precedents concerning how institutional impact and outcomes are measured, in my opinion, is the most compelling element of the project.

Instead of chasing demographics capturing income, race and ethnicity, age, gender, or similar data, Northington and her teams asked themselves “if we were looking for shifts in people and shifts in community, how would that become apparent? ... Are we looking for people, or are we looking for some positive benefit that we can bring to our community?”2 To this end, the exhibition and adjacent activities focused on generating meaningful personal experiences within the museum, especially for those most affected by Taylor’s death and incidents of gun violence. Programs were as varied as a first-look tour with Taylor’s family and members of the various committees, a virtual discussion featuring key advisory panelists, a new program called “Teal Table Talks” for participants to conduct honest community conversations, and a virtual roundtable featuring Glenn, artist Jon P. Cherry, and the two sisters of Tyler Gerth, a local photographer who died by gunfire while photographing downtown protests, entitled “Photographing the Protests: Through the Lens of Tyler Gerth.” Although Cherry never knew Gerth, the combination of presenters synergized a “really interesting and powerful speaking moment for all of us.”3 For many, these offerings achieved things beyond anything collected data could hope to suggest.

Promise, Witness, Remembrance, as an exhibition, series of programs, and vehicle for collective healing, is undeniably successful. Frankly speaking, Northington and Glenn are rockstars in their respective museum capacities. Anchored by a brilliant and ethereal portrait of Breonna Taylor by painter Amy Sherald, the totality of the exhibition’s impression may never be justifiably articulated in print, and it may be quite some time before the Speed decides to assume social and political partiality again with such aplomb. The importance of the work performed by the Speed cannot be overstated. Personally, the project was a reminder why many I know working in the arts get involved in the first place: because art and museums can change the world for the better. It was, simply, wonderful and inspiring.


Part 2: Who benefitted from Promise, Witness, Remembrance?

The Speed, though, is over one hundred years old and has justifiably faced criticism in the past over a host of issues as many aged museums do. This is not to say the organization’s history pollutes the work done by those who made Promise, Witness, Remembrance possible. Rather, some truths are inescapable, and it is reasonable for audiences to call into question the facets of culture these bedrock institutions choose to—and choose not to—promote. Museums have long been criticized for reasons such as who is funding them, how they support and include artists, and who comprises their leadership. Recently, even monoliths like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art have come under pressure due to their Board members being supportive of Israel apartheid tactics or tied to weapons manufacturers. More regionally, Newfields in Indianapolis received pushback in 2020 after a posting for a new director listed maintaining a “core, white art audience” as an expectation of the role. The Speed, at least in this case, was proactive in how it chose to inject itself into conversations of institutional ethics and responsibilities. One can argue, however, that some circumstances around Promise, Witness, Remembrance cast doubt on the motives of certain players and the art world generally.

As stated, the timeline for Promise, Witness, Remembrance was expedited at what would previously had been considered an impossible pace, a feat that was presumably sustained with support from the Ford Foundation and Heartland Foundation totaling over one million dollars, which also helped to co-acquire Sherald’s painting with the National Portrait Gallery. It is true that private sponsors are often involved with the production of massively scaled exhibitions such as this, yet large project-based gifts are often given when visibility and notoriety are on the table, and fall under scrutiny when recalling how those funds are accumulated in the first place. This exhibition is no different. Given Ford’s impact on the natural environment, their support for this specific exhibit creates a layer of complexity as the project’s accomplishments are celebrated.

It is fair to ask why certain museum projects are funded in this way as opposed to other projects, especially those showcasing artists belonging to underrepresented social groups. Ebony G. Patterson’s ...while the dew is still on the roses… transformed the Speed’s contemporary wing into gardens of colonial violence in 2019. A year earlier, Keltie Ferris’ *O*P*E*N* explored the body and identity using the artist’s own shape to apply pigment onto surfaces. Despite these additional exhibitions honoring and celebrating perspectives often missing from the art canon in ways akin to Promise, Witness, Remembrance, they did not yield such large sums from out-of-state players. Plus, previous exhibitions did not have an anchoring artwork as Promise, Witness, Remembrance did. Sherald’s portrayal of Taylor, commissioned for the September 2020 cover of Vanity Fair is undeniably radiant, but it is forever unknowable if Sherald would have created the work without corporate patronage. Perhaps the artist would have eventually made the painting on her own terms, but the reality is that financial compensation drove the work’s creation.

Even with Sherald’s painting brought in as a centerpiece, Glenn’s curatorial acumen was something the Speed did not possess internally. Why else would they have outsourced her role?4 While Glenn’s experience, professionalism, and prodigious work ethic shone in all programmatic facets of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, it is worth probing the reasons she was selected by the Speed above others. For a project emphasizing the local community as heavily as Promise, Witness, Remembrance, it is unclear if the Speed overlooked curators in the state deliberately or mistakenly when considering who could lead the project. Either way, the optics of an all-white leadership team tapping someone living six-hundred miles away to head this initiative suggests that the team believed there are no BIPOC-identifying curators in the state capable of organizing this project at best or, at worst, neglected to research and identify someone in Kentucky who could take on the role. Moreover, were the project to underperform or have been met with widespread criticism, the Speed’s leadership, having taken a backseat, may have been absolved of the exhibition’s perceived failures, which would have been placed on the shoulders of Glenn, Northington, and those outwardly defining the project’s content.

Whatever the reasons for selecting Glenn were, the Speed should be commended for assembling a project core that actively represents the subject matter of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, even as they were faced with some unavoidable limitations. Rarely do Kentuckians have the opportunity to experience programs prioritizing almost exclusively Black artists at behemoths like the Speed. Yet although the transformation of the gallery spaces may have subverted traditional museum presentational strategies, remnants of previous displays, such as the classical sculptures in the grand atrium, remained during the exhibition’s duration. These objects would portend the current arrangement in the spaces that once held Promise, Witness, Remembrance: as of September 2021, the Flemish and Dutch paintings have been reinstalled, and the other galleries have returned to showcasing excerpts from the Speed’s permanent collection. Unless the Speed takes actionable steps to diversify what it chooses to show and promote in the historic wing of the building, the public may question whether Promise, Witness, Remembrance changed anything at all regarding the Speed’s insistence on more equitable exhibition models.

After all, the public has spoken out against the undertakings of the Speed Museum before, including in June 2020 as part of the initial research for artist Brianna Harlan’s “Louisville’s People Art Report,” (LPAR) a collection of anonymous testimonials and confessions regarding the lack of diversity within Louisville’s arts landscape made on Instagram and later published online by Harlan.5 Over 250 local artists, current and former arts employees, and arts patrons participated in polls and submitted responses illustrating the depths of inequality they have experienced when serving and taking part in the city’s creative culture. In September 2021, Harlan made public all her findings, many of which corroborated problematic workplace experiences at the Speed since Stephen Reily was appointed Director in 2017. In the LPAR, Harlan states that the Speed was the most often named institution.6

Those following the activity on Instagram last June may remember seeing Reily’s name mentioned on multiple occasions in Harlan’s posts. Indeed, the executive team at the Speed was chastised for alleged mishandling of Jamaican stereotypes and ethnicities at a catered reception for Patterson’s ...while the dew is still on the roses… despite the artist’s work in the exhibition having more to do with colonial history than her Jamaican heritage. Elsewhere in the responses were reports noting the pay discrepancies between executive leadership and lower-level staff juxtaposed with Reily and other Speed higher-ups bidding thousands of dollars on bourbon bottles at the Speed Ball; leadership talking down to, gaslighting, and publicly putting down staff who challenged the direction of the museum’s activities and programming; and that Reily was originally brought on as Interim Director before being promoted despite any previous art world experience coupled with the fact that no interviews with other potential candidates were held for the position Reily eventually assumed. At the same time, plenty of individual recollections invoked mistreatment of the Speed’s lower level staff by their superiors. According to the LPAR, between 45-50 full-time staff have left the Speed since 2016 for one reason or another.7

Considering the negative experiences of BIPOC staff members in recent years and criticism by lower level staff of Reily’s direction, it is poignant to ask: Who benefited most from this massively ambitious and unique endeavor? Answers to questions like these are complex, for sure, but it is possible to highlight differentials between who did the bulk of the work for Promise, Witness, Remembrance and who received public praise.

Throughout much of the regional and national press Promise, Witness, Remembrance cumulated, Glenn and Northington are credited for their principal roles as heads of curation and programming, respectively, and were asked to speak on their work in interviews for Artforum International and Burnaway Magazine, respectively. The attention placed on them is well-deserved, as their activity within the exhibition extended into ground-level engagement opportunities such as leading tours with a myriad of project- and Speed-affiliated groups, virtual panels and lectures featuring artists and collaborators, and community days where the museum offered family-friendly activities and services. At least from the outside looking in, these two women took on much of the heavy lifting, whereas the Speed leadership, who are normally at the forefront of other projects, rightfully stayed out of the spotlight.

So why, then, would Stephen Reily, in an email sent to the Speed’s mailing list announcing Reily’s last two weeks in his former position, entitled “A Farewell From the Director”, would he declare Promise, Witness, Remembrance an “exhibition I have personally managed” when the majority of rhetoric around the project coming from the Speed as well as other outlets suggest otherwise?8 Reily’s statement would seem to exaggerate his role compared to other accounts of the project featured in the New York Times, NPR, Artnet, and more. In their aforementioned interviews, neither Glenn nor Nothington named Reily when prompted with questions inquiring who other key contributors were. Instead, they collectively invoke the steering and research committees, Sherald, Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer, Palmer’s lawyer, and Breonna Taylor herself. Glenn only mentioned Reily at the beginning of her interview when describing how the Speed approached her to join the project.9 In September 2020, when Reily announced he would be stepping down in spring of 2021, it was not entirely clear why he was staying on for another nine months. Now, the reason is apparent. Exiting from his post after the closure of the Speed’s most high-profile exhibition under his watch—when public approval and awareness of the museum has rarely been higher—is arguably an opportune time to move on.

All of this is to suggest that cultural mainstays, even when they produce groundbreaking and unprecedented programs such as Promise, Witness, Remembrance, are never exempt from critical audit. This includes the Speed Art Museum. This essay does not assert that the recent exhibition at the Speed was fruitless or that the work of Glenn and Northington was anything short of spectacular. Instead, a critical profile of many major museums broader than individual exhibits will often evoke potentially problematic behavior and groups working in self-interest. Did the Speed leadership view Promise, Witness, Remembrance as a means for repairing the institution’s public image? If it did, it is highly unlikely factors other than community improvement were not also driving the development of the project. To insist that Harlan’s report or widespread demands advocating diversity and equity within museums did not influence the decision by Reily and the executive team to conceive the show whatsoever would, in this writer’s perspective, be done in bad faith.


Part 3: Awaiting What Comes Next

Promise, Witness, Remembrance, presented an opportunity for the Speed to reconcile some of the faults that have come to light since it reopened in 2015 following a massive renovation and rebranding. With Glenn at the helm, here was a chance for the Speed to set national precedents as an equitable nonprofit that values and prioritizes the needs of populations that for decades have been overlooked in favor of maintaining the status quo. One of the most important goals for the project, Northington relayed in an interview in Burnaway Magazine, was for “the Black community to see themselves within Promise, Witness, Remembrance in ways that previous exhibitions failed to offer.”10 While the Speed’s line has been insistent that this work will continue through museum programming, any ongoing work to this aim is far less visible than the promotion around Promise, Witness, Remembrance, at least at this moment. How will future programming and exhibitions continue to accomplish the goals defined as part of the project?

When speaking with Cherry, who recently earned a solo-exhibition at the Portland Museum as part of the Louisville Photo Biennial, the photographer commended Promise, Witness, Remembrance overall. As an exhibiting artist as well as a hired photographer for events and programs, he observed the impact of the project in its immediacy, capturing the grand public opening, closing reception, and exclusive showings for local protesters and the families of Taylor, Gerth, and others. Cherry talks of these programs, as well as the free admission and free parking offered for all visitors, favorably. Yet Cherry also conveyed he initially turned down the offer because the Speed did not originally offer to pay him (later, the Speed acquired his work). At a champagne toast with the Speed’s Board of Governors on June 6th that Cherry was hired to photograph, he was not recognized as a participating artist when other artists present were. “Only a couple of times was there any recognition that I was even there,” the photographer revealed, “it was a strange thing to be a part of in that way.”11 Candidly, Cherry seemed to have mostly moved on from these episodes when I spoke to him months after they occurred. Taken as instances within a larger pattern of behavior and treatment, however, they reflect the kind of disconnect that museums with multi-million endowments and managed by a select few can have with the communities and everyday people they promise to serve.

Now without a contemporary curator on staff, incoming Executive Director Raphaela Platow is tasked with fostering a museum that maintains some of the equitable structures introduced in Promise, Witness, Remembrance. If the Speed successfully and genuinely incorporates diverse voices and leaders in the future, Glenn and Northington’s work will be viewed as a new working model for cultural centers everywhere to learn from, and the Speed’s previous mishaps will be understood as momentary. If the Speed’s programming returns to what it was before Promise, Witness, Remembrance, the flag of a fully realized equitable museum will be hoisted under the premise of occasional exhibits by underrepresented artists barricaded behind “featured exhibition” surcharges. As museums continue to grapple with calls for sustainable inclusivity, the Speed Museum is primed to take a path towards a true “museum for all.” It is now upon the shoulders of a new director and her leadership cohort to ensure past shortcomings remain in the rearview. Otherwise, the equitable efforts made through Promise, Witness, Remembrance would be stifled as the Speed regressed into patterns of old. Regardless of what lies ahead, Glenn and Northington spearheaded a gift to the local community that is also of massive art historical significance.

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Citations:
  1. Toya Northington, in discussion with the author via a Zoom interview, July 2021.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jon P. Cherry, in discussion with the author via a Zoom interview, June 2021.
  4. The Speed’s previous curator of contemporary art assumed a curatorial position elsewhere in summer 2020. The Speed has yet to appoint their successor.
  5. Brianna Harlan, “Louisville People’s Art Report: a comprehensive look at equity in the arts and culture sector,” the personal website of Brianna Harlan, September 5, 2021, Accessed September 15, 2021. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a09a9f1f9a61ee5b2b2baad/t/6134ee277c894d65d3251bef/1630858795196/LPAR.pdf
  6. At the time of writing, Harlan is a current board member of Ruckus, but she did not participate in the generation of this essay nor did she solicit mention of her work.
  7. From page 26 of the LPAR: “45-50 FULL-TIME staff (at least) have been either forced out or have left since 2016. This is based on comparing a staff contact sheet from 2016 to one from 2020.”
  8. Stephen Reily, Speed Museum’s newsletter email , sent May 25, 2021.
  9. Huey Copeland, “Taking Care: Huey Copeland and Allison Glenn on ‘Promise, Witness, Remembrance,’” Artforum International 59, no. 8 (Summer 2021): 186-191.
  10. Jamie Amussen, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance: in conversation with Toya Northington,” Burnaway Magazine, May 11, 2021, Accessed June 10, 2021. https://burnaway.org/magazine/toya-northington/.
  11. Cherry, in discussion with the author, June 2021.

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9.27.21

Hunter Kissel (MA, MPA) is a museum professional and arts writer residing in Louisville, KY.