LOUISVILLE, Ky. — People talk a lot about getting back to pre-Covid normal. But our traditional art museums can forget about that. After a year of intense racial justice reckoning, a paralyzing pandemic and crippling economic shortfalls, aging hidebound institutions are scrambling just to stay afloat. And the only way for them to do so is to change. Strategies for forward motion are needed. One is in play here at the Speed Art Museum, in the form of a quietly passionate show called "Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” which might, with profit, be studied by other institutions in survivalist mode.
Conventional encyclopedic museums like the Speed, the largest and oldest art museum in Kentucky, are glacial machines. Their major exhibitions are usually years in the planning. Borrowing objects from other museums can be a red tape tangle. “Historical” shows, by definition, are usually confined to events and cultures of the past. “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” revises all of that. It speeds up exhibition production, focuses on the present, and in doing so reaches out to new audiences vital to the institutional future.
Combining works from the Speed’s permanent collection with loans in several cases directly from artists and galleries, the show was assembled and installed (beautifully) in a mere four months. And it was conceived as a direct response to a contemporary news event: the killing, by Louisville police, of Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old medical worker, in March 2020. A posthumous painting of Taylor by the artist Amy Sherald
is the exhibition’s centerpiece, accompanied by photographs of local street protests sparked by her death and by the lenient treatment of the white officers involved.
The availability of the painting by Sherald, who is widely known for her earlier portrait of Michelle Obama, was the impetus for the show. Originally commissioned by Vanity Fair, it appeared on the cover of the magazine’s September 2020 issue. Sherald herself expressed interest in having the painting shown at the Speed, and in November the museum hired
Allison Glenn, an associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., who, with astonishing speed and acuity, built an exhibition around it in Louisville, comprised entirely of Black artists, with funding found to keep the admission free.
Accessibility, cultural and financial, are crucial features of the show. Until now, museums have generally ignored the country’s changing population demographics. The history that our big, general-interest art museums promote, through their preservation and display of objects, is primarily white history, with views of all other histories filtered through it. But that slanted perspective is no longer representative of audiences that museums will — speaking purely pragmatically — need to attract to survive.