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Black Chicagoans flock to Bisa Butler, Obama portrait exhibits as museums rise to racial reckoning

Two exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Bisa Butler: Portraits” and “The Obama Portraits,” are drawing a sea of Black Chicagoans excited to view reflections of the Black experience. I finally braved weariness over COVID-19’s uptick to check them out, late to a party that speaks to a racial reckoning occurring at museums nationwide.

Bisa Butler. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019. Minneapolis Institute of Art
Bisa Butler. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019. Minneapolis Institute of Art
© Bisa Butler/Photo by Margaret Fox

Since March, the magnetic swaths of color that are the acclaimed quilted portraits of artist Bisa Butler have filled my social media, as Black friends far and wide converge on The Art Institute of Chicago for the “Bisa Butler: Portraits” exhibit.

Those same friends began filling social feeds last month with photos of the Art Institute’s newest exhibit — National Portrait Gallery paintings of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, and wife Michelle Obama, here on the first stop of a five-city tour.

Weary over the uptick in the COVID-19 Delta variant, yet knowing I could not miss experiencing these significant works of art, I checked them out last weekend, late to a party that speaks to a racial reckoning at museums nationwide.

In the year since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer, museums have not been immune to America’s reckoning with systemic racism — charges of bias that have long plagued their collections, exhibits, programming, staffs and audiences leveled at some of the most iconic cultural institutions.

Driven by a wave of open letters from current and former BIPOC staff (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), illustrious establishments like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum were forced into agreements addressing racism in hiring and promotion, acquisitions and outreach.

New York’s American Museum of Natural History, after decades of complaints about the symbol of white supremacy at its entrance, was finally forced to remove the bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse — an Indigenous man and a Black man standing below him.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields were among those rocked by management resignations after accusations of racial insensitivity.

Bisa Butler. Southside Sunday Morning, 2018. Private collection. © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox.
Bisa Butler, Southside Sunday Morning, 2018.
© Bisa Butler/Photo by Margaret Fox

In the nation’s capital, charges of racism at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art drew the institution’s first Black Secretary, former Chicagoan Lonnie G. Bunch, III, into the fray. Charges also hit the second most visited art museum in the U.S., the National Gallery of Art, where the previously all-white leadership now has transitioned to more than half BIPOC.

Chicago institutions also faced demands to examine museum roles in preserving systemic racism and their own dismal records on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.

An open letter from youth in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) cultural leadership program for Chicago teens led MCA to cut extracurricular ties with the Chicago Police Department after a photo of museum staff posing with a donation to CPD surfaced.

And at the Art Institute, an open letter from staffers criticized the disparate impact of pandemic layoffs on young, low-wage and BIPOC staff, some current and former students and staff also leveling charges of racism at its School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kehinde Wiley. Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
© 2018 Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

In a survey of 22 museums on progress made post-George Floyd, The Art Newspaper found striking gains in exhibitions and acquisition of works by BIPOC artists.

The story was published May 25, and just this month, the 83-year-old National Gallery of Art historically acquired its first ever work by an Indigenous artist.

The Art Newspaper survey found museums also making progress on anti-racism conversations in their workplaces. Several, like the Met, have hired new DEI directors. Others are working with DEI consultants, like the Art Institute, which hired the nonprofit group ArtEquity.

Many have increased BIPOC representation in their top posts. The Guggenheim, for example, hired away MCA’s senior curator, Naomi Beckwith, named deputy director and chief curator at Guggenheim.

Museum staffing has long been overwhelmingly white. Only 28 percent were BIPOC in 2018, according to a study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Bisa Butler. Dear Mama, 2019. Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox.
Bisa Butler, Dear Mama, 2019. Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe.
© Bisa Butler/Photo by Margaret Fox

The Art Newspaper survey found less progress this past year on diversifying audiences — historically, also overwhelmingly white — with such efforts hindered by the pandemic.

In a 2010 report, the most recent by the American Alliance of Museums, their visitors were 79 percent white, 8.6 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Black, far from reflecting cities.

The Bisa Butler exhibit, which opened in November and closed a day later due to COVID’s uptick, is prominently housed in the Stuart and Nancie Mishlove Galleries, atop the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase.

The 22 “paintings,” vibrant splotches of stitched fabric creating images of ordinary people, share the Black experience through themes like the promise of youth, family and community.

It was only on Feb. 11 that the museum again re-opened to the public. So the museum’s first ever exploration of such works by a Black American artist will now run through Sept. 6, originally scheduled to close in April.

Part of the only complete collection of paintings of U.S. presidents outside the White House — and representing the first time ever that Black artists were commissioned by the Smithsonian to produce them — the Obama Portraits last month took up residence in the museum’s Modern Wing.

Amy Sherald, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018. Oil on linen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 
Amy Sherald, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018. Oil on linen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s arresting likeness of the former president and Chicago native, seated against a lush backdrop of flowers; and Amy Sherald’s mesmerizing depiction of his wife — grey-skinned, in Sherald’s trademark of negating race — and wearing a starkly patterned, flowing gown against a sky-blue background, inspires Black pride.

Sherald’s grey-skinned painting of Breonna Taylor in a flowing emerald-colored gown for a Variety magazine cover last fall was jointly purchased for $1 million, by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Art Museum in Taylor’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky.

I’ve only ever visited the Art Institute — a museum that welcomes 1.6 million visitors in a normal year — when drawn by a particular exhibit that speaks to me.

Many of my Black friends say the same, though we are by no means monolithic. Other friends, art lovers, have memberships.

The institution’s president, James Rondeau, joined other museum chiefs nationwide last summer in acknowledging the art world’s legacy of white privilege and exclusion, pledging meaningful change. And last month, Rondeau posted a full update on those DEI efforts.

Bisa Butler. Broom Jumpers, 2019. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Purchase with the Belle and Hy Baier Art Acquisition Fund. © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox
Bisa Butler, Broom Jumpers, 2019. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
© Bisa Butler/Photo by Margaret Fox

They include a revised mission and new equity statement, acquisition of new works by BIPOC artists, a new division of People and Culture, and a department of Inclusion and Belonging. The museum also engaged in a listening tour targeting six underrepresented Chicago neighborhoods, to determine structural and perceptual barriers to their accessing the downtown institution.

And in April, its Board of Trustees elected longtime board member Denise Gardner as chair, the first African American and first woman to lead the governing body of the museum and its school.

A 2017 survey by the American Alliance of Museums found nearly half of all U.S. museum boards were all white.

Gardner, a businesswoman who was former vice president of Soft Sheen Products, the iconic Black-owned company founded by her husband’s parents, is believed the first Black woman to chair a major museum board nationwide.

Last weekend, as I experienced the Bisa Butler and Obama Portraits with a sea of Black visitors, I couldn’t help but think of the impact these self-reflecting works could have on young people in disadvantaged South and West Side communities, where I am always blown away to learn some have never been downtown.

As cultural institutions rise to this moment, they must continue to examine what is on their walls, and work on redefining the precept of art history.

When the COVID menace subsides, I hope my social feeds will again burst with Black pride as friends hasten to view and share prolific reflections of the Black experience at diverse Chicago area museums.

Hopefully, those museums will engage in innovative outreach to communities who might not now believe downtown museums welcome them. And when they get there, hopefully, they’ll see themselves — not just on the walls.