What dialogue comes forth when a document resurfaces in an archive? In 2021, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, rediscovered Dana C. Chandler’s “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” a manifesto written in 1970, and the ensuing correspondence between the artist and Perry T. Rathbone, a previous director of the MFA. Chandler urged for Black curators on staff, funding of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, and a robust exhibition schedule of Black artists. This call to action to hold a museum accountable resonated 50 years later, in 2020, when Dr. Kelli Morgan publicized her resignation letter from Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Formerly a curator at that institution, Morgan propelled a petition for the previous director’s removal and, like Chandler did in his manifesto, demanded the deconstruction of white supremacy at the museum. Chenoa Baker, a Black Arts and Artists Curators Circle Contemporary intern at the MFA in summer 2021, and a longstanding mentee of Dr. Morgan’s, shared Chandler’s manifesto with her mentor as the basis of this interview below, which, in Baker’s words, “honors the concerns of Chandler in the 1970s and demonstrates the centrality of Black women in museum critique.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chenoa Baker:
How did you come to the work you do and what compels you to do it?

Kelli Morgan:
I am a critical race cultural historian and the newly appointed professor of the practice and inaugural director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University. I specialize in critical race theory and anti-Blackness frameworks in historic American art. I define anti-Blackness as a term that describes how the dehumanization of Black people has been foundational to the establishment of the modern world and all its systems, for example, the concept and theorization—and, in art museums, valorization—of “modernity.” My work looks at ways in which traditional American art objects, art history, and museum practice function to construct and maintain whiteness and white supremacy. This came out of my work in African American studies, Black culture, and African American art history.

During my own upbringing, I observed my grandparents and my parents, and their relationships to white artists like Thomas Hart Benton or Winslow Homer. I thought, “Why are there never any conversations about how communities of color have relationships to—and have impacted—work by white artists? Where is that narrative?” It is missing, staunchly, from art and cultural narratives within history and museum interpretation. Because of that, and through talking to other people of color and people of working-class white backgrounds with similar stories, I said, “I’m going to do that work and research.” I found that Winslow Homer, for instance, has an entire body of work from a moment of his career during the 1880s that he spent in Black communities in the Caribbean, and you wouldn’t know that opening traditional Homer catalogues. The more I looked at white male artists throughout the canon of American art, such as John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Singer Sargent, I found scholars who looked at the impact Black cultures and communities had on these artists, but their scholarship had been buried.

Black people have always been a part of the American art historical narrative but have been written out in many ways. There are so many people that are doing the work of changing this, and of championing Black art, artists, and African American art history. Black scholars and Black art historians talk about Black art and Black artists, which is necessary. I do that work too, but I am interested in another entry point of Black people into American art that nobody’s talking about with any kind of specificity: their direct relationship to the works of certain white artists. I am very interested in illuminating that, and the ways that this approach put us firmly in the canon without necessarily having had to have painted the canvas. I want to bring that to the fore, in American permanent collection galleries and in museums around the country.

Chenoa Baker:
Just before our interview, I shared with you Dana C. Chandler’s “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” which was rediscovered in the MFA’s archives. What is your interpretation of Chandler’s manifesto—and Perry Rathbone’s response?

Kelli Morgan:
I like Chandler’s straightforwardness. He was willing to push the Museum administration until they concretely supported Black self-determination in the arts. Chandler’s manifesto was timely, and it is still relevant, necessary, straightforward, and strong. It says that just collecting the work and doing exhibitions of Black artists is not enough, particularly within major institutions and in cities with long histories of Black presence and Black ingenuity. Chandler calling the MFA out on it, saying, “I’ll give you a framework of what it should look like,” and then saying, “So then, what are you going to do?” was fascinating, because there’s so many of us that are doing that exact thing, 40 and 50 years later. It is heartbreaking that nothing’s really changed structurally. Rathbone’s response was also fascinating because it’s the same way museum directors respond now. So clearly there’s a white supremacist structure that is purposely and deliberately maintained.

Statements like those contained in the response—“we are putting together a committee,” “the trustees can only do...” or “the museum is in financial peril”—and conversations about admission charges show blatant institutional and structural racism. These are answers we often still hear today, but still nobody identifies the institutional and structural racism within them. Nobody calls the duck the duck. Ultimately, the MFA was willing to give money to found the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, which was one of Chandler’s demands. This made me think of the Smithsonian [Institution]’s relationship to Anacostia [Community Museum], in DC, or the DuSable [Museum of African American History] in Chicago, where its like, “You can have this one little space, and we’re willing to fund this space at the lowest level, as long as y’all just stay over there in that space.” Again, it’s so sad that we still havent broken through that wall.

Chenoa Baker:
Absolutely, it seems almost scripted, how that history repeats. What from Chandlers manifesto do you want to adopt and what are the next steps in making museums better today?

Kelli Morgan:
What really stood out to me was how he broke down how much money was needed to achieve his stated goals for people’s salaries, for funding, for programming, exhibitions, and acquisitions. I admire doing budgets. I’m dedicated to internal logistical shifts and thinking more fiscally is something that I need to take more into account when critiquing institutions or creating demands. Money is important. I haven’t worked specifically on this, but there are folks who are doing this, like Museum Workers Speak, for instance.

Chenoa Baker:
I love how Chandler lays it out there, and he says, “It’s absolutely possible with this budget. I’ve showed you how to do it, here it is.” And they still have that response of “No, it’s not financially possible,” and other excuses. So I think that’s a compelling part of the manifesto, too.

A budget.
An excerpt from Dana Chandler’s “Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” showing his proposed budget for funding the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

Kelli Morgan:
Who found the manifesto, what were you all looking for, and who ran across it? What’s that story?

Chenoa Baker:
That’s a great question. It resurfaced with a new exhibition called “New Light: Encounters and Connections.” One of the artworks in the exhibition is Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2. It is a more recent acquisition, which again, opens the conversation to why we’re rediscovering this now. His manifesto resurfaced simultaneously.

Kelli Morgan:
The notion of rediscovery is important to regard critically. I remember [artist] Simone Leigh responded a few years ago to a New York Times article about Black gallerists, and she was like, “Don’t let your [readers’] moment of enlightenment be our moment of greatness.” You’re late to the party! All the gallerists in the article were in their 70s. So, it’s like, “Whatever, New York Times.”

This narrative of discovery drives me crazy. Just because it’s new to them categorically does not mean we haven’t been maintaining, championing, cataloging, and analyzing our cultural production since we’ve been on the planet. To think otherwise is a racist assumption in and of itself. It’s like, “Have you heard of Howard, Spelman, Clark, and Fisk?” And that’s just four HBCUs. As if we didn’t have churches and all different types of cultural organizations, where we took care of our own stuff, in the best ways that we could. Just because it wasn’t on the walls in the Met, didn’t mean that it didn’t matter to a lot of people.

Chenoa Baker:
Yeah, I agree. Something that I took from Chandler’s Manifesto was his concluding sign-off, which is, “Yours in Black (Art) Power.” It struck me because there are two parts to it: one, he shares what he is about in a concise way; and two, it’s almost like a contractual statement of solidarity, like, “I’m communing with you for this purpose, and only if you agree to this purpose.” When working at the MFA, I quoted that in my e-mail signature because I am carrying on his legacy of critique by existing in that space. If you had a similar signature, what would yours be?

Kelli Morgan:
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I need one now that we’re having this conversation. I don’t know what it would be, though. Sometimes I use “In solidarity.” But “In Black (Art) Power” stands out to me.

Chandler signing it like that foregrounds that this work was collective. AfriCOBRA wasn’t working in a vacuum, and neither were Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, James Steward, and performing artists. They were all working simultaneously. Black history and Black power were a shared concern. The way that our history and even contemporary art analysis can work to divorce artists and art objects from that broader, more collective context, is another issue with not having Black scholars or Black art critics particularly trained in Black studies, critiquing and interpreting Black art from the ’60s, and the ’70s. Chandler makes context super clear in how he signs that letter.

Dana Chandler's signature
Dana Chandler’s signature from “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.”

Chenoa Baker:
I find it very powerful how he repeats it. He doesn’t hit everybody with “best” or “warmest,” but with this charge, every time. What do you make of the rise of contemporary manifestos by women—including yours and Chaédria LaBouvier’s, the latter written about her time at the Guggenheim Museum, among others—to critique museums? Do these manifestos critique more than the museum?

Kelli Morgan:
They do. We’re participating in a much longer history. I had this debate on Instagram about how it didn’t just start with Chaédria’s story, my story, and LaTanya Autry’s and Mike Murawski’s work (Museums Are Not Neutral). We are the contemporary iteration of Chandler’s work in the ’70s, as well as Benny Andrews in the ’60s with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney [Museum of American Art]. It’s a long history and the demands are the same. What’s different now is that we’re willing to call it white supremacy. Creating a community council is not enough, adding three to four more Black people on your board is not the issue. The structure must come down. Much like Chandler says, today we’re also saying, “Here is how the structure can change, and if you’re not going to do it at your institution, we’re going to find other spaces to formulate it, to force you to do it or expose yourself and your reluctance to do it.”

My situation at the IMA at Newfields is the quintessential example right now. My critique, as much as it was of [former IMA director] Charles Venable himself, considered the entire white supremacist and patriarchal structure that he maintained. Once the job description debacle happened, because I wrote my resignation letter and “To Bear Witness,” it gave people more of a lens to see it for what it really was. All that scripted response caused people to feel like, “No, that is the most racist thing, not just the job description, but even how they are responding.”1

Interestingly, it forced him to dismantle himself and the other leadership in the institution to dismantle itself too. It made me think that we don’t necessarily have to fight people like them all the time. We just have to do the work in a way that forces them to expose themselves. Because culture is changing so rapidly—with Black Lives Matter, with climate change, with COVID—we’re in this interesting moment with capitalism. It’s all these things coming together right at the same time. So once that exposure happens, the dismantling follows automatically in this interesting way.

We just must keep doing the work—the letters, or the essays, or the manifestos are just the first thing. Chaédria wrote hers [to the Guggenheim] in 2019 and nothing changed in terms of their acknowledgement or commitment to stamping out a racist institutional culture. I always say I got lucky, because they were just that racist in Indiana that it was unavoidably legible to a wide public audience when I wrote my resignation letter and published it. We have to continue having the manifestos out there, such as Andrea Montiel de Shuman’s resignation letter from the Detroit Institute of Arts. In a way, they are like casting the first stone to create a crack in the foundation.

Chenoa Baker:
Thank you for sharing the lineage of contemporary institutional critique and the ways in which it enacts the dismantling of museum leadership and the empowerment of people like you, and many others, who take up the mantle of these activist artists from the Black Power movement. Historically, artists, curators, and administrators within the Black community blurred lines between art, activism, and theory. How do you see this continuing today?

Kelli Morgan:
It’s definitely part of my practice, and it’s why I’ve been such a problem child to so many institutions, because I function in that liminal space: in between activist, scholar, historian, curator, and human being. Contemporary artists invested in radical institutional critique that come to mind are Xaviera Simmons, Samuel Levi Jones, and Titus Kaphar. Social practice as a form of contemporary art has become prominent. It’s almost like you aren’t doing the work right or efficiently if you aren’t wearing multiple hats. Even a lot of the painters, like Titus 20 or 30 years ago, just painted a canvas and hung it on a wall. Now, the paint must do something, the object must move something. That is exciting about Black contemporary art, and what is exciting about all of us, as curators, as other types of museum professionals, as well as artists. We must work, not necessarily in tandem, but all of us have to do everything that we’re doing, because we need that diverse pressure on the system, on the structure itself.

Chenoa Baker:
You mentioned that everybody’s wearing multiple hats, which takes a toll on mental health and state of being. What emotions did you feel when writing your resignation letter and what responses did you get from articulating your experience through writing?

Kelli Morgan:
During the first couple of weeks [before writing the public resignation letter] I freaked out and was scared. Being completely transparent, I don’t hail from privileged circumstances, so I worried about income and future jobs. I didn’t necessarily care about working in museums anymore. I thought, “I can always teach.” Indianapolis was a city very steeped in white supremacy, so I knew I couldn’t stay. I had my community, but at the same time I knew I was not going to be able to survive there.

I talked to two of my best friends and prayed a lot about it. I tried to get my courage up. There was an all-staff meeting [at the IMA] that occurred in between me building the courage to write the letter of resignation and then actually publishing the letter. And after that meeting, at which Venable subversively told the entire staff that he was planning to fire me, so many of my colleagues said, “You have to say something publicly. That was a mess. That was just so disrespectful, on so many levels, to so many different people.” I had text messages, voicemails, and emails, more than 40 of them from my colleagues across the institution that encouraged me to resign publicly. I didn’t know if I’d send it to the Indianapolis Star or make it public, but I knew I was definitely resigning.

That day I remember throwing up for hours, just from the nerves and the stress of it. I don’t think people know how many of us are at institutions, suffering like that every day, just trying to be art historians, or just trying to be curators, or trying to be conservators. It is completely unnecessary, and completely deplorable. Many can’t resign, let alone resign publicly, and I felt I had to do something about that. I thought that if I must go out in this way, where I won’t work again, I’m willing to take that risk so others don’t have to put up with the abuse. I didn’t care about art objects, or exhibitions, at that stage. It was about people for me.

Chenoa Baker:
I appreciate your candor and vulnerability. We don’t take it lightly, and we appreciate you sharing that. Connecting back to Chandler’s Manifesto, do you see your resignation as a historical document that others can follow or use as a template?

Kelli Morgan:
I didn’t at first, but now I would say, probably about eight to nine months later, when it was showing up on syllabi from universities and liberal arts colleges around the country and Burnaway requested republication, I understood it as more of a template or example for others. I had calls from art professionals in Germany, London, and France. It really delineates a particular kind of process, a subversive process that a lot of folks have utilized before, including Black contemporary artists, Latinx artists, and women artists, as a way to get around really racist and sexist structures we find ourselves having to face when trying to do our work.

Chenoa Baker:
Many forget about or do not know about Elizabeth Catlett’s speech over the phone, “The Negro People and American Art at Mid Century.” Since you are a Catlett scholar, how do you revive the legacy of women like her, critiquing art institutions through the spoken and written word?

An elderly woman sits at a table with artwork in front of and behind her.
Nancy Lee Katz, Elizabeth Catlett, 2003. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Michael S. Sachs. © Michael S. Sachs.

Kelli Morgan:
She’s one of the reasons I do the work. I took an African American art history class [as a graduate student] in 2009 and was introduced to Catlett. She’s one of the reasons why I’m such a pain in the ass. She was a critical figure because of her revolutionary activity, and she was a pillar in the civil rights movement, and particularly the Black Power movement. As a female revolutionary, you didn’t really get your chops until you went to Cuernavaca [Catlett moved to in Mexico in 1946] and sat with her. She’s frank on that phone call about why she’s not in that room, she makes clear that the art world and art museums aren’t the only problem, but in fact it’s the country, it’s the government who stripped her of her US citizenship because she believed in Black freedom. She didn’t play around about, again, these same issues that we find ourselves dealing with and are still trying to dismantle.

She speaks about being lucky in that way, because so many other people simply didn’t survive. She needs a retrospective so badly. That was something that I wanted to do until I ran into the issues that I ran into, which, in a similar way, pulled me away from planning exhibitions into starting to challenge institutions. So hopefully somebody will do one, one day.

Being in Mexico was always bittersweet for her. She found her love there, but she was in Mexico because she was forced out of her own home. She wound up building something completely different, and so beautiful for herself, for her sons, and for so many other people. We have to really think about that and think about what those spaces can look like. Not just for us, but for anybody, because traditional museums are just not it. They miss the mark, so even when they try to make the mark, it’s like they can’t get out of their own way. In Rathbone’s response, it’s like he can’t go off script. But for what we need now, when it’s a crisis, you can’t script it. That has to come from a place of sincerity, that has to come from a place of virtue, and truth, and morality, not capitalism, imperialism, and racism.

Various repeating faces and the face of Malcolm X.
Elizabeth Catlett, Malcolm X Speaks for Us, 1969. Linocut. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Elizabeth Catlett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Footnotes

1 In February 2021, the IMA at Newfields posted a job description for a new director. Under “Other Responsibilities,” the description noted a desire for candidates to maintain a “traditional, core, white art audience” alongside seeking to diversify the museum audience as a whole.


Participants

Chenoa Baker is an arts writer and emerging curator specializing in Black Modern and Contemporary art. She is a current museum fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. In 2021, she was the MFA’s Black Arts and Artists Curators Circle Contemporary intern.

Dr. Kelli Morgan is a professor of the practice and the inaugural director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University. She earned her PhD in Afro-American studies and a graduate certificate in public history–museum studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.