(notes on a recent fundraising e-blast from The Contemporary Austin)
Do I need to write anything? Or do I need time and blood?
— Sylvia Plath in her diary c. 1957-58,
in The Unabridged Journals Of Sylvia Plath
The other day I got a fundraising e-blast from Louis Grachos, the Ernest and Sarah Butler executive director and CEO of The Contemporary Austin (TCA); it intended to follow up on the energy generated by those 40,000 to 50,000 of Women’s Marchers in Austin. Yet the email implies that neither Grachos nor most of TCA’s top staff was in the march:
began his letter,
This Saturday, we watched from The Moody Rooftop as tens of thousands marched down Congress Avenue.
Though in fact a number of TCA’s staff marched, Grachos’ email tells us that they were on the rooftop instead. Accordingly I was struck by the odd contrast between Grachos’ text and the blast’s accompanying photograph, which is taken from the marchers’ perspective, looking up at The Contemporary’s façade.
Standing next to the shining letters of the new installation by Jim Hodges, With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress), we heard voices calling out for tolerance, inclusion, and freedom – and we listened.
Marching’s importance lies in putting your body in service of an idea or an ethics; you can’t view it from afar. Marching’s dependence on your physical presence implies an amount of personal risk; in this case, that is one way of measuring commitment.
Whether or not he marched, Grachos’ text puts him and his staff safely above the fray. He marks his institution’s separateness from the action. (I’m told, in fact, that TCA charged admission during the march.)
So the e-blast was a request for donations to TCA on the purported strength of its commitment to social justice. I found that contrast—between where Grachos placed himself/his institution and what he asked of his audience—strange. It is a gross charity that refuses to identify with its recipients, that delineates an “us” and a “them.”
It’s a small thing, maybe. But it matters because we live and work in Austin, Texas, during a period of rapid gentrification [read: colonization]. Incoming whites and their businesses expand eastward, and brown and black populations move further to the outskirts or leave altogether. These years follow and ignore a history of segregation, economic and civil disenfranchisement, and forced displacement. In the late 1920s, for example, the Austin City Council forced Austin’s black and Latino populations to move east of what is now I-35, promising these citizens civil services if they moved and threatening to discontinue them if they stayed in Clarksville. (The city did not follow through on its promises: There were dirt roads on the east side as late as 1968. Banks redlined the area; residents had to build according to their savings.)
Now, predominately white-owned local business interests push black and brown families outwards again. (For an introduction to this history, see the Austin-American Statesman’s project “Inheriting Inequality.”)
I’m just making some observations and abstractions in passing. These are notes, sketches of the situation. I will go abstract because I want to set a couple of big processes in relation to each other. Don’t believe me for me.
Because I’m really troubled by the role art institutions played in the east side’s colonization so far. Artists, art studios, art institutions were among the first whites to move east. And of course we all had to or thought we had to. We were young and couldn’t afford to do our work elsewhere. That in itself is a privilege, mind. Many members of the art community have since profited from those decisions, decisions that have come at the expense of our neighborhoods’ original residents [read: our neighbors]. Now as Austin’s artists too find themselves priced out of their studios, I wonder what might have happened had we joined with our neighbors already living on the east side more often, if we refused an “us/them” mentality.
If you care about social justice, you should be working to understand the system, where you stand in it, how you move through it. TCA may be trying to do so, but this fundraising e-blast’s tone-deafness indicates that they have a lot of work to do.
If you’re going to be white and do your own little white thing in your own little white world …
I don’t know. I just don’t think I want that to be … this city.
— Southwestern University student Jen O’Neal, quoted in KUT
Let’s move down that e-blast from the top.
Subject line: Now is the time
I remembered, automatically, the rest of the phrase as: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” I had to look up its origin. Wikipedia explained (“Filler Text,” Wikipedia):
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party” is a phrase first proposed as a typing drill by instructor Charles E. Weller; its use is recounted in his book The Early History of the Typewriter, p. 21 (1918). It has appeared in a number of typing books, often in the form “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.
You’ll note the slips between country and party. It’s not clear which Grachos might be suggesting The Contemporary to be for his readers.
The fragment implies men, not women, moreover. This typing exercise—banal, bureaucratic, everyday—was developed in the late 19th century before women got suffrage. Grachos left our presence invisible while seeking to capitalize [in this case, get donations] on our labor [in this case, our marching].
If you are ready to take action, you can support the activation of With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress).
Here the text connects the Women’s March to Jim Hodges’ neon sign, suggesting a more causal than coincidental connection. Grachos’ verbiage suggests that the natural course of action, following the Women’s March, would be “to support [the sign’s] activation” by gifting TCA our money.
For now let’s just stick to its thingness as a neon sign, its exact words. Like “now is the time,” the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” is lodged in the modern U.S. subconscious because it’s the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, which the U.S. Congress adopted in 1942. I recited it five mornings a week from first grade to twelfth. It had existed since the late 19th century:
1892 (original version): “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
1923-1954 version: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
1954 (current version) “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Francis Bellamy, who wrote the original 1892 version, was looking for a pithy 15-second recitation to instill in immigrant children a love of country. A socialist, Bellamy first considered using the words “equality” and “fraternity” but changed his mind. The pledge would not have passed the state superintendents of education, who were against civil rights for women and African Americans. Such words were too radical for the U.S., though the triad of liberté-égalité-fraternité was foundational for philosophical and political discourses and developments of democratic ethics as a slogan for the first French Revolution.
The U.S. Pledge’s 1954 inclusion of “under God” further moved to sever non-Christian U.S. citizens from this subconscious delineation of the body politic.
Hodges is right: “with liberty and justice for all” is a work in progress. There’s an irony and pathos to the work that exists under Hodges’ ken perhaps, but that facet disappears in Grachos’ email and other TCA texts about the installation. I looked at the description on TCA’s website, written by curator Heather Pesanti:
In conjunction with the debut of Hodges’ work in the Texas state capital during an election year, a series of public programs and community engagements will be initiated by The Contemporary Austin on behalf of the artist, bringing the work to underserved populations and fostering engagement with the city on broader social and political levels. …
So far those public programs have consisted of: a conversation between Hodges and Dan Rather (another white man), a teacher workshop with TCA staff, the opening party. A number of Austin’s public buses drove through town with a Spanish version of the slogan wrapped around their sides. I wonder if TCA asked east side community organizers if driving through town with a translated fragment of the Pledge of Allegiance would be useful or even particularly inspirational. If this text was investigative journalism (it is not), I would’ve asked around about this (I did not).
Also, on February 21, TCA will hold a legislative workshop for anybody who wants to learn tactics for interacting with the Texas Legislature, so I just saw. The Facebook page for the event refers immediately to Hodges’ sign “as a work of public art, a personal mantra, a call to action, and a platform for dialogue.” It’s not clear to me how a legislative workshop and a sign are all that connected, actually. In fact, the continuous emphasis on these political actions as the artist’s desires seems like a way for the institution to avoid claiming any of the neon sign’s possible radical or anti-capitalist possibilities as their own ethics. (But maybe I’m sounding an overly dour tone here; a number of woke people do work at TCA, and I like them).
Anyway, Pesanti’s description of Hodges’ sign continues:
… As the artist has said, “When engagement with art is happening, there’s an opportunity for change.” Seen as a continuation of Hodges’s dedication to the existentials—love, nature, childhood, religion, sexuality, and mortality—it would be hard to imagine a work more poignantly resonant here, and for our times.
Love, nature, religion, sexuality … these are gnomic words that Pesanti uses to explain Hodges’ work. It frames the work in a bloodless and apolitical way. I’ll just quote Roland Barthes:
Examples? Here they are: those of our Exhibition. Birth, death? Yes, these are facts of nature, universal facts. But if one removes History from them, there is nothing more to be said about them; any comment about them becomes purely tautological. […] For these natural facts to gain access to a true language, they must be inserted into a category of knowledge which means postulating that one can transform them, and precisely subject their naturalness to our human criticism. For however universal, they are the signs of an historical writing. True, children are always born: but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened with a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to hims: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth. (“The Great Family of Man” in Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 101-102).
Which is my way of saying that without history, Hodges’ installation is just a bumper sticker for a building. Sometimes that’s useful. But other works of similar format by artists like Dread Scott or Martha Rosler tend to take on more history, more specificity:
Even if you want to avoid current events for whatever reason, there are other signs-on-museum-facade-projects that pull more poetry, more blood:
Hodges’ work, as it stands here in Austin, now just reads to me like the sort of neoliberal cant that gives well-to-do whites the feel-goods. People are dying, suffering, before their time and when they need not, largely because of the way power and money moves through this world [read: the government and banks]. And I walk down Congress Avenue—usually past any number of the homeless—and see this slick building quoting the Pledge of Allegiance at me in expensive glowing neon letters. Fuck!
Consider Hodges’ work in relation to its setting, too, because The Contemporary doesn’t have a good history, so far, of showing women and people of color. That they commissioned such a sign—a phrase redolent with America’s history of exclusions and oppression—from a white man … well. It would really be fine if The Contemporary was a bit better about intersectional awareness but:
- The first solo show they’ve given to a woman at the downtown space since rebranding as “The Contemporary” four years ago is the current one, Monika Sosnowska: Habitat.
- They’ve given one solo show downtown to a person of color: Do Ho Suh.
- The other solo downtown exhibitions have been devoted to white men: Mark Mothersbaugh, Tom Sachs, Robert Therrien.
- These men’s work is also, by the way, super white-male-ish. So big, so very high fidelity.
- No black people so far except for a performance in 2015 by the incredible Sanford Biggers.
- And the Suzanne Deal Booth Prize going to Rodney MacMillan. There is that.
- No LatinX.
- No trans people.
- Nobody with disabilities.
To be fair though, for whatever it’s worth:
- The massive three-venue exhibition Strange Pilgrims was curated by a woman (Heather Pesanti), and its demographics seem more or less appropriate.
- The proportions at TCA’s non-downtown space are a little closer to the city’s demographics, at least in terms of gender but definitely not race. Of outdoor sculptures by women at Laguna Gloria, you will find Sosnowska again, Orly Genger, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Holt, Marianne Vitale. Last year Lise Haller Baggesen’s fantastically feminist Mothernism appeared in the Gatehouse.
All this information comes from TCA’s website
In contrast consider the demographics of the City of Austin, which The Contemporary Austin calls home:
Perhaps it’s a cudgelish application of identity politics, but I believe you have a problem if the demographics of the artists or artworks that you show don’t line up with those of your local community. (Unless, of course, you serve an underserved constituency, like Women and Their Work or the Warfield Center Galleries). Check yourself if your city is only half white and your programming has far more whites than that. Check yourself if you’re not showing women 50% of the time. At least check.
Join us as we build partnerships with organizations serving underrepresented groups across the city to bridge divides and to inspire meaningful change. We need your support to extend our work into the community and to sustain lasting partnerships that will make a difference.
Here Grachos asks us to trust that TCA knows which groups to contact and that it will dispense our money to these unnamed “organizations serving underrepresented groups across the city.” Despite his institution’s insufficient attention to these matters in the past, he’s essentially proposing to be a pimp for these organizations serving the underrepresented.
The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power,
and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.
— James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
So before you donate, consider who else is donating. Look for where the power lies. Consider where they put their money and where they get their other monies from.
Another caveat: Neoliberalism such as it is, it would take more time and a different sort of intelligence than I have to suss out in detail the flows of capital through TCA. And of course it’s not all one thing or another, art and education organizations being under fire from retrogressives, too. Following Reagan’s gutting of the NEA during the culture wars of the early 1990s , institutions like TCA and many more besides have had to rely on private support from individuals and businesses in order to get by.
So I won’t say don’t donate to TCA. I don’t mean to be damning. I just mean to say: pause and think. Here is the e-blast’s list of businesses already donating to The Contemporary and to whom, accordingly, the institution must appeal in some way. There is no such thing as free money.
Three at least stuck out to me in the context of Austin’s colonization:
- C3 Presents: Among other things, this organization produces the Austin City Limits Music Festival. It was founded by Charles Attal, Charlie Jones and Charlie Walker in 2007. This is big business, which trades and supports Austin as a “cool city,” and accordingly propels its quickly-rising rent prices. Moreover, the “Live Music District,” when proposed in the 1980s, specifically excluded brown and black music (11th Street) venues. For more see: Eliot Tretter and Caroline O’Meara, https://www.academia.edu/2397807/Sounding_Austin_Live_Music_Race_and_the_Selling_of_a_City
- Perhaps C3 Presents’ support connects to why TCA has devoted two downtown solo exhibitions to pop-music oriented artists, Tom Sachs and Mark Mothersbaugh, who also happen to be white artists.
- Urbanspace real estate. This realtor has a lot of properties for sale on the east side.
- Oxford Commercial (now known as Cushman and Wakefield, but listed under its old name in the donor list): this business is, according to their website, “a leader in strategic commercial real estate solutions in Austin and around the globe.” I guess that means putting up whitewashed gastropubs on the east side.
If an organization gets funding from businesses that have profited from the east side’s colonization, I would pause before I considered donating to this institution to support social justice.
It’s possible instead to give your money directly to such groups. To name just a few:
Mexican American Cultural Center
George Washington Carver Center
Women and their Work
Cine las Americas Festival
Puro Chingon Collective
De Stijl | PODIUM FOR ART
Conflict of interest disclaimer: I am personally and professionally connected with a few of these organizations.
Now is the time. Let’s unite around the transformational potential of this work of art.
Some people seem to think art is automatically a good thing, that if you bring art of any sort to a community then you’ve done your part. That’s a real white-people way of looking at it, insofar as it’s oblivious and self-serving.
Rather, let’s unite around people.
Take action and contribute today.”
Pay your dues first.
Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
— Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Ariel Evans is an art historian living in Austin. She founded the magazine Pastelegram and edited it for some years. She currently works as a Graduate Research Associate for the Harry Ransom Center.