Speed Art Museum Features Legacy of Breonna Taylor
Curator Allison Glenn knew “it felt right” to take on an exhibition at Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., honoring Breonna Taylor, and the stories of other Black people who lost their lives to gun violence, when she learned that Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and other family members would be involved.
Stephen Reily, director of the Speed Art Museum, told Glenn in their initial conversation that Palmer “would be a really pivotal voice in the development of the exhibition and the right curator would understand and respect that,” Glenn says.
That felt right to her. “To me, [Palmer] felt like the most important stakeholder,” says Glenn, who is associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
The exhibition—titled “Promise, Witness, Remembrance”—opens at the Speed on April 7 and will feature about 30 works of art, notably a portrait of Taylor painted by American artist Amy Sherald for the September cover of Vanity Fair. Taylor died at age 26 on March 13, 2020, after being shot by Louisville police during a raid on her apartment.
The portrait by Sherald, featuring Taylor in a flowing aquamarine dress, may be acquired by the Speed, Kentucky’s oldest and largest museum, jointly with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which plans to exhibit it later this year. The two institutions currently are “in talks” about the acquisition, according to a press statement by the Smithsonian.
The Ford Foundation has given US$1.25 million toward the purchase and exhibition of the painting. News reports have also named a foundation formed by Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, as contributing to the purchase.
The exhibition also features about 30 works from a range of artists, including Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Kahlil Joseph, Lorna Simpson, and Hank Willis Thomas. Included are works anchoring the “Witness” segment by Louisville photographers who documented the protests that followed Taylor’s death, including Jon Cherry, Xavier Burrell, T.A. Yaro, Erik Branch, and Tyler Gerth, who was later shot and killed during the demonstrations.
The show’s title refers to its three organizing themes, each of which were inspired by Glenn’s interpretation of a conversation she had with Palmer. Glenn had begun the conversation by acknowledging there was much the exhibition couldn’t do, including bringing Taylor back, and asking Palmer, “what does it mean to you?”
She also looked back at journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates ’ book Between the World and Me, which touches on “themes of loss and the inequity of certain people in front of the eyes of the law as citizens,” Glenn says. His insights seemed particularly relevant as Coates had invited Sherald to paint Taylor’s portrait in his role as guest editor of Vanity Fair.
In his writing, Coates talks about parents and the sacrifices they make for their children. Glenn says she thought about the “weight of that,” and “all the care that goes into a life and then having that life abruptly taken.”
For the exhibition, she says she wanted to think about expressing “this very personal story,” but also to “complicate the conversation” with a political nod, thinking about what a country promises its citizens, and “connecting directly to ideas of justice and equity.”
Given the nature of the issues the museum planned to tackle, Glenn convened an advisory board of “trusted advisers” that included artists and art experts. Among them were Gates, Sherald, and Jon-Sesrie Goff, a multidisciplinary filmmaker, curator, and arts administrator whose father, Norvel Goff Sr. , stepped in as interim pastor at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., after the murders of nine church members in 2015.
A nearly five-minute video by Goff titled A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield, 2016, which he describes on his website as a meditation on the aftermath of those shootings, will be shown in the “Remembrance” section of the exhibition. Audio from the film will beckon visitors through the galleries, Glenn says.
The exhibition will take place in the Speed’s original 1927 building, which traditionally holds the museum’s Dutch and Flemish collection, including an important painting by Rembrandt. To temporarily de-install those galleries, filled with images that didn’t resonate for many in the city’s Black community, was considered significant, she says.
It is particularly appropriate for “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” to fill these spaces for Louisville-native Noel Anderson, head of printmaking at New York University’s Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions, who Glenn said recalled visiting the Old Masters at the Speed. A work of Anderson’s is included in the show.
“This exhibition required a lot of listening, and picking up on threads and themes: such as the importance of decolonizing that space, and people feeling like their lives are reflected,” Glenn says.
The museum also made a point of reaching out to the Louisville community. Toya Northington, the museum’s community engagement strategist, created a steering committee of city artists, activists, mental health professionals, researchers, and community members, to bring as many perspectives as possible into related lectures, workshops, and other community programming.
One of the committee’s goals was to ensure the museum created a narrative that was reflective of the Taylor family, and of Breonna Taylor as a person. “We know she loved her community and helping people,” and that “she was fun and lively and family oriented,” Northington says. “Those are things I captured in programming.”
These goals were also captured in the exhibition, she says. The Sherald portrait certainly does that, as does a huge (120-by-190 inches), colorful paint-splashed loose canvas titled Carousel Form II, 1969, that was gifted to the Speed by Gilliam. The work is “larger than life and vibrant and fluid, and groundbreaking,” Northington says.
Northington views the exhibition as a spark that will ignite related programming from the museum for years to come. It will begin with a panel later in March on the theme of looking to the past to inspire the future, featuring a mix of business and political leaders.
“It give us space to think about community, both in the past—what we’ve experienced—in the present, what are we doing, but also, ‘how are we going to use this to motivate change for the future’”
The Speed Art Museum will show Promise, Witness, Remembrance from Apr. 7 through June 6. Timed tickets are free and open to the public.
How a museum exhibit in honor of Breonna Taylor tries to ‘get it right
“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” – In honor of Brio Taylor, a 26-year-old medical worker who was killed by police nearly a year ago, came together fast, inaugurating an exhibition on April 7 at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kyra. , Yet in a way “tempered by conversation”, its curator Allison Glenn said.
They include, centered, Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, whose input led to the show’s title; And Taylor’s painter Amy Sherald, who will be the exhibition’s anchor. One of two advisory committees – one national, Louisville, has directed the creation of the show, to avoid the show that museums have found in efforts to address trauma and inequality in their communities and in their own practices .
But “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” —which lists a list of two dozen artists with big names (eg Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson), are less familiar with others (Bethany Collins, Noirs Anderson, John- Cesari Goff), Louisville ties with many, and local photographers who have documented protests over the past year – both have more and simpler ambitions. The hope, “said Glenn, is that museums can get it right” improves through consultation, not diminishing, the quality of curators. It is also to help the sewing community in a midsize city to listen to those ostracized by art institutions in the past.
During a phone conversation, Glenn, who is from Detroit and is an Associate Curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., Shared condensed insights into creating the exhibit, which will run from June 6. The following exhibitions are edited and condensed.
This exhibition is the result of intense consultation with Tamika Palmer, but also many others. Whose advice, looking for artist and non-artist?
First, I spoke with Briona’s mother, and asked how we might think about her daughter’s legacy, and translated that into three ideas: promise, witness, remembrance. Then I called a national panel. I was very deliberate in developing the panel because of its special status: I lost my brother to gun violence about a year and a half ago. There is no need to see this story, but it is important to mention it, because it tells a lot. I wanted a cabinet of advisors that could relate on a personal level.
[Advisers to the show also include] Thyster Gates, who has been successful in his work with the Tamir Rice Foundation. John-Cesari is a film in Goff’s exhibition; His father took over the Mother Emanuel AME congregation in Charleston after the murders there, and the Rev. Clementa Pinkney was his mentor. Hunk Willis Thomas lost his cousin 20 years ago, and has acted about the same. I included a friend, La Keisha Leake, who was slowly in school when his cousin, Trayvon Martin, was killed; I had helped him work on some projects, including an exhibition. Raymond Green, who lives here in Arkansas, is a cousin of Elton Sterling [who was fatally shot by white police officers in Baton Rouge, La.]. Experiencing harm from gun violence or policy brutality – or both – brings a level of care.
Without prior experience in Louisville, as a guest curator, how did you develop an exhibition for the city?
I wanted to create a conversation between the local community and the national community – whether it was in the art world or between private citizens. Toya Northington, strategist for community engagement at the Speed Art Museum, developed the Louisville Advisory Committee. They gave me very good feedback and suggestions. It was a different kind of curatorial process: I was not trying to run a thesis based on a research or an artist’s research. It was really built on a conversation about how a museum can get it right, how the art world can respond, what it means to collaborate in this space.
What is the personal appearance of the city as you go about work?
I spent time in Louisville. I read everything I could. I heard about the podcast. And there’s a relationship that I can’t put my finger on, but I grew up in Detroit, I’ve worked in New Orleans, and Louisville is another port city with a French connection. It borders north and south. This is where Lewis and Clark began their campaign, and I am thrilled with the ideology of Western expansion. Some loops closed when I left. For example, that terrible phrase: “being sold down the river.” Below the river is New Orleans; The phrase has its origins in Louisville.
How did community input change the shape of the show?
To tell this story, I did not necessarily think that every artist should be a black artist. But after listening, I understood the importance of visibility to the Louisville community, presenting only a show of black artists in this space. That’s an “Aha!” Moment: This is the desire of the community, and I can be flexible, I can be agile in this way, without compromising any curatorial framework. And then it deepened. The site of the exhibition is the galleries which usually house the Dutch and Flemish collections. We have 22-foot ceilings, terrazzo floors, marble doors. It became clear that one effect would be a kind of disintegration of the location of that museum.
Many people feel that museums are not accessible, they do not consider who they are. This exhibition is about a woman who lived in Louisville, whose family lived in Louisville; This is what happened to him, and in response to these things. There will be people who can come to the museum for the first time.
Amy Sharld’s portrait of Bretton Taylor would be a big draw, appropriately. Is this the posthumous hero-risk of someone who didn’t ask for it? And how do you create a show around it that brings both care and insight in the wake of the trauma?
Ie Question. In layout and design, when you walk into the gallery, your visionline will have a portrait. If all of that is here for you, then you can go there.
The first part, called “Promise”, is slightly more ideological, a conversation about the ideologies of the United States that views them through symbols. For example, the work of Bethany Collins addresses the Star Spangled Banner.
Photographs from 2020 are opposed in the “Witness” section, as well as works that link a century of movements to the Black Life. And there is Sam Gilliam, who grew up and studied in Louisville, protesting against the expectation that his job as a black male painter was to carry the weight of representation, as part of a movement toward positive imagination. The opposition which in itself becomes a protest. And it sets the stage for someone like Rashid Johnson to work in conceptual art and abstraction, but more independently.
I decided that I was not going to exhibit any work that was painful in the exhibition. But I also had to clarify that I could not edit the collection when it appeared in pictures of the protest.
Can the exhibition take advantage of the Louisville art scene beyond the museum?
I think that Alisha Wormsley’s work, “Future Has Black People”, will be put up in the second gallery like a ticker-tape. As part of Alisha’s practice, she should pay the museum an honorarium to three local artists for responding to that idea. The Louisville Steering Committee will decide how to proceed.
What is the occasion of this project?
The opportunity is to show what it means. I don’t think museums are getting everything right. Cultural activists are not going to get everything right. But when you listen, you provide an opportunity for connection, for access. And I hope the end result provides a platform for people to listen, and perhaps for the process of the previous year.