To Imagine Justice, We Need Artists as First Responders

At the start of 2020, I launched my own digital consultancy advising arts organisations on how to carry out their missions online. In conceiving of this company, I already knew that the art world was behind when it came to technology, but little did I expect the urgency of such a service just two months later, as museums and galleries worldwide began abruptly closing their doors, then forced to triage how a museum could exist as an exclusively online space. Alongside this influx of new business, I watched from behind my screen as lives were being destroyed by the coronavirus, police violence, racism, fascism, and the compounding of all of these nightmares combined. How could I ethically grapple with the fact that my career was still possible, and perhaps had been accelerated by the structures of where power resides in our digital society?
The fall of 2020 also marked the beginning of my work with the civically engaged, activist arts organisation For Freedoms. In my personal recovery from working inside cultural institutions for the last ten years, absorbing the quiet trauma that all workers of colour face within these predominantly white institutions, I was saved by a collective of artists who believed they had the superpowers to imagine radical visions into reality: fearlessly confronting the issues the rest of the art world deemed too political to touch, ceaselessly championing artists of colour, and insisting on a society where art is essential to our democracy. Though I always knew that I alone could not dismantle the colonial structures of white supremacy within the art world, perhaps progress could exist within artist-led organisations that believed in artists as first responders in the time of crisis. It wasn’t until I began witnessing the horrific violence against people who also looked like me, that I too answered the call.
Once in a generation, we are due to confront a crisis where trust in established institutions catalyse disruptive, systemic change. As Caroline Randall Williams reminded us days after the 2020 election, the objects in history’s mirror are closer than they appear: exactly 79 years mark the time between when the last slave ship docked in Alabama to when Adolf Hitler declared war on Poland, and exactly 79 years from when the United States entered World War II to our present dystopian times.

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