CAM Raleigh Director Gab Smith Speaks About the Margaret Bowland Controversy and the Museum's Desire to Listen and Learn | Arts
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Friday, May 11, 2018

CAM Raleigh Director Gab Smith Speaks About the Margaret Bowland Controversy and the Museum's Desire to Listen and Learn

Posted by on Fri, May 11, 2018 at 3:54 PM

click to enlarge Margaret Bowland has particularly drawn criticism for her portrayals of African Americans with white paint on their faces, such as "Power," pictured here. - COURTESY OF RJD GALLERY
  • courtesy of RJD Gallery
  • Margaret Bowland has particularly drawn criticism for her portrayals of African Americans with white paint on their faces, such as "Power," pictured here.
This is part two of our interview series related to the controversy over the Margaret Bowland exhibit at CAM Raleigh. For context, an overview of the situation and our first interview, with curator Dexter Wimberly, is here. What follows is our in-person interview with CAM Raleigh director Gab Smith. Check our print edition next Wednesday for more.

INDY: Do you feel sandbagged by the community response to this show?

GAB SMITH: We’re all one community. Me as a person and us as an organization feel very much a part of everything that’s happening. So where do we insert ourselves to ask questions, where do we insert ourselves to listen? I think we’re all very much on the same page there. Doing a ton of listening is where we are. Trying to listen always differently, always with a lot of intention and acknowledgment of where people are. Finding even more people to talk with.

We talked about this space being a beautiful space. Where CAM wants to be is to hold our space for some people who we’re just getting to know. And some of the people we’re just getting to know have a lot to say right now, and we’re really trying to listen. We’re trying to do that more in person because I feel like there’s a lot to be said for face-to-face conversation. We don’t pretend to have any answers, and where I want to come from today is to ask how we move forward together as a community. And that’s a long game.

Necessarily, right?

Of course. And how we do that together, where CAM needs to insert itself and where CAM needs to step off and just sort of let things happen in our space—we’re just trying to listen and be really, really open to where people are, acknowledging and honoring everything that they feel. Everybody sees different things in everything, hears and reads different things. So again, we're just trying to ask a lot of questions, finding people to talk to and allowing those conversations to proceed without us as well.

On CAM’s social media streams, there haven’t been any posts about the Bowland show since the CAMversation discussion on April 24. You’ve moved on to posting images of other work in the building and promotion of upcoming shows. Some people have been asking why someone from CAM isn't jumping into these Facebook conversations and putting an organizational voice in there. Sometimes those spaces are fraught, but the absence is speaking for CAM in a negative way. What kind of reaching out have you done offline or behind the scenes, and what kind of in-person relationships have you tried to cultivate?

The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is just create an open invitation to please come and see the work, and here is some additional context for it. I do a free and open public tour every Wednesday. We’re trying to create invitations for people to come and see the work and listen to what they have to say and feel. And a piece of that is asking what would they like to see, and I don’t have a qualifier for who “they” is. It’s every person who comes in.

We did a survey that’s still in progress, sent to people who RSVPed to the CAMversation, with an invitation to have those one-on-one conversations. Reaching out to friends in the community and looking for avenues to reach people who may feel very differently. Trying to find authentic ways to do that that feels like it’s from a place of love and gratitude and openness. And I think that right now it’s best to do that in person, more slowly and meaningfully, so that the intent is not misinterpreted. We’re looking to send a message that our intent was certainly not to harm or hurt. I think people understand that but there’s more work to do. The best way for us to do that work is to listen and to move more slowly and deliberately.

"We are a small staff of three white people—we acknowledge that. We acknowledge that it’s a huge privilege to do this work. ... [W]e have to reflect the community better than we do. And we need our community to help us with that." 

What exactly does CAM want to be? What realizations have you made about community participation that changes the direction or mission of the organization?

We want to hold space for everybody who wants to be a part of our space. And in spending time with people as they react in person or online or though other people, we really want to hear that feedback. We are a small staff of three white people—we acknowledge that. We acknowledge that it’s a huge privilege to do this work. We know that our [thirty-member] board of directors has one African-American woman and several brown people. We’re all at a point of reflection because we want to be the best that we can be for the community, and that means we have to reflect the community better than we do. And we need our community to help us with that.

One of the ways we’re doing that is trying to be as open and welcoming as possible. There’s a group of artists that I do not know well and that I can’t wait to meet and interact with. Several of them invited the community to a meet-up here at CAM on Saturday [at two p.m.]. I can’t wait to be here and to listen to what they have to say and find ways to bring more people closer to who we are and who we want to be, and I am so ready for more people to help us. We’re an art museum but we see ourselves as a center of community, and if everyone in our community doesn’t feel that, we’ve got work to do. All of this work comes from a place of love and gratitude and openness, but I think that where the change will occur is when people start to see what we do next. That’s the conversation that I hope we can have on Saturday.

Conversations I’ve had about CAM failing to react properly were on a couple of channels. People have said that CAM should have known not to show this work here at this moment. It’s a hindsight type of statement, and I know shows are planned pretty far in advance, so contexts can change by the time the work finally goes up on the walls. But with the intensity of the racial-justice work going on here, this show lands really poorly and it was a poor choice. I’ve heard criticism, too, of the CAMversation on April 24—that there were direct questions asked that went unanswered about the racial and historical implications of some of the imagery, most specifically but not solely about whiteface on black bodies. The “what’s next” question after all of that is, how do you change your game plan as an organization that presents work and is responsible for the context around it? What lessons have you learned from putting up this show and receiving these seemingly unanticipated reactions?

It's going to be a longer game, and we have to build upon it. You and I even had a short conversation that night after the panel talk, asking if this might have been better in a smaller group. Everybody has an opinion about what that panel was like and what we could have done differently, and we’re dissecting all of that and asking a lot of people: Is it a panel, a smaller event, a series of events? How do we do this going forward, not just with this exhibition but forever, with that in mind? There’s a lot to dissect.

click to enlarge Though Bowland's paintings of African Americans have drawn the most attention, she also paints people of other races, as in "2020," pictured here. - COURTESY OF THE BENNETT COLLECTION OF WOMEN REALISTS
  • courtesy of the Bennett Collection of Women Realists
  • Though Bowland's paintings of African Americans have drawn the most attention, she also paints people of other races, as in "2020," pictured here.
When I talked with Wimberly, we argued a little bit about artwork and context. He didn’t think that an artist had to be responsible for the changing context around her work—that as the social context around a body of work changes, the artist doesn’t have to address it or be responsible for it. But I think artists are constantly aware of that, and they bring that awareness into the studio to be a part of their work. It made me think back to the panel talk. Wimberly cannot seem to help being defensive, perhaps because he’s so close to this artist—I mean, he’s in one of the paintings. They’re close friends, he’s a public representative for her work. I’m not trying to villainize him, but it was hard to listen to him to say in the panel talk, “You’re welcome to your interpretation but your interpretation is wrong and so I’m not going to respond to it.” He went through that cycle several times. It didn’t seem like an exchange was actually possible if there was going to be no listening.

And I think that’s CAM’s job, at this point. And at every point. One of the things that we’ve learned is that there’s always more context that can be provided. That’s where we will always be improving and listening and learning. Period.

How comfortable are you bringing communities who haven’t really participated in the structure or programming of CAM into these considerations of context and decisions about future programming?

We’re very comfortable with welcoming everybody into our space. I keep saying that but I really believe it. We’ll find more ways to do that. What does that look like? I think that the community needs to help us decide what they’d like to see in terms of programs or ask questions like what a family day should look like. How do we go forward together? To keep listening and to be open. I feel like we’ve been that, but if people don’t feel that then there’s more work to do.

Looking back over recent shows at CAM has been interesting. Before Bowland’s show, there was Thomas Sayre’s show, another white artist making work about cotton and racism. When I had a conversation with him, he talked about the funerary nature of the images and about the black bodies buried in the earth. So it’s another white artist-black body relationship. And with Dorian Lynde’s show, the majority of the Disney princesses were of color—again, by a white artist. And then Eric Yahnker’s portraits of President Obama—another white artist and black subject. This is just in the last year, all white artists getting that solo show in a contemporary art museum on the East Coast on their CV. I’m sure this question will be asked in different ways on Saturday, but where are the black artists making work about black bodies at CAM?

Well, look at The Ease of Fiction [a show of four African artists now based in the U. S.]. That’s how we met Dexter two years ago. Look at the Leonardo Drew show, which was a year ago. Look at the Precious Lovell show, which was in tandem with Thomas Sayre’s show. Every one of those, as well as the ones you mention, are explorations of identity, belonging, race, gender, and power. Those are things that people in our community are talking about right now, and that’s a lot of different perspectives that we’ve presented recently. We’re looking forward to doing an Antoine Williams show this fall, a Stephen Hayes show next spring. We’re also presenting a basketball show this fall with work by artists who identify as women, who identify along the gender spectrum, people who are black, brown, gay, straight. We’re always looking for lots of different perspectives.

Critics and artists have been writing a lot in recent years about decolonizing art spaces. What does that phrase mean to you? When I look at this space, I see the museum, but I also see a former site of labor. This building used to be a food wholesaler for Raleigh grocery stores. And I’m sure that its past is one of racial inequity in the labor that happened in this building. How does that inform you as a director in the decisions about what happens in this space? What would you do to decolonize a space like CAM?

click to enlarge "Nakedness Has No Color and Knows No Border" by Margaret Bowland - COURTESY OF MARGARET BOWLAND
  • courtesy of Margaret Bowland
  • "Nakedness Has No Color and Knows No Border" by Margaret Bowland
That word means so many different things to different people. Some of the things we’re looking at are our staff and our board. We’re looking at the lens through which we view everything. Those conversations are happening at every level in our community: politically, socially, emotionally, spiritually. A big thing for us is just trying to hold space for people and letting people define what that means to them. We don’t have it all figured out yet. One of the things that this exhibition has done is bring those conversations to the surface, not just about how CAM holds space but how we as a community—and by that I mean the Triangle—look at that. This was a produce warehouse a hundred years ago, when our city and country and state were very different places. Making a space here for art that welcomes a lot of people and a lot of points of view is critical to our work. Our ability to grow and change is a huge part of how we react to this.

Let’s talk about the pop-up community conversation this Saturday. What are your expectations and what is your preparation for a public event that was unsanctioned and was going to happen here whether you liked it or not?

Well, we’re open. We’re free to artists so I think there will be a lot of artists in the room, which is great. We’re certainly excited about a conversation. We plan to participate. We plan to welcome everybody who comes and to do a lot of listening. I’m glad that people are using our space. We’ve created an open invitation for them to do that. I’m looking forward to meeting some people who I don’t know and finding ways to have longer conversations later.

"We’re a small organization right now. We don’t have a position open today but that doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. We’re coming out of a pretty epic period of construction here. Our neighborhood is changing and we’ll change with it. Do we understand that we’d like to be a more inclusive organization in terms of board and staff? Absolutely. That’s been a goal for a long time."

I’m anticipating that something you’ll hear is that opening up the space is one thing, but opening up the organization and its programming is another. In Durham, these same communities have really critiqued the city for its public-art programs, how they’ve released calls for proposals as well as how they’ve chosen projects. The critique has been that the process is opaque; the public doesn’t know how decisions are made or who’s making them. People want to know this; they want to participate in those decisions. It’s basically a demand to open up, let us participate, not just be in the building. Bring us onto your board. Hire us. We want to help choose the shows that are going to be here. These are the kinds of questions I anticipate you’ll get. What kinds of answers do you have? Is CAM willing to open organizationally and procedurally?


I think that we’re staying open. We’re a small organization right now. We don’t have a position open today but that doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. We’re coming out of a pretty epic period of construction here. Our neighborhood is changing and we’ll change with it. Do we understand that we’d like to be a more inclusive organization in terms of board and staff? Absolutely. That’s been a goal for a long time. So, yes. We’re open to all of that.

We do have a board at this time called CAM/now, which is a group of people from all ages and from all backgrounds. Part of their work is to help us be more inclusive and welcoming across the community, whether that community is Durham or North Raleigh or people living with disabilities. So that’s an immediate way that we can welcome people in. We’re always looking for board members. Are we going to meet someone on Saturday who would make a great board member? Maybe, and that would be awesome. It’s a process, but we welcome people into that process and we always have. If people on Saturday have a question like, “How can I be considered for a board seat?” we’ll have board members there who will say “Here’s my card and here’s our process.”

CAM/now—how big is it, and how often do you meet?

We meet monthly and we’re always looking for new members. For our board of directors, there are fundraising commitments and time commitments, so if you join our board we have to make sure that you’re joining because you are excited about everything we’re doing and you want to be a part of it. It has to be a good fit for both. CAM/now is a less-structured board and there are not fundraising requirements, so the time commitment is less. Exposure Time, our annual photography event, is very much planned by CAM/now. And the CAMversations came out of a planning initiative of the CAM/now board as well.

We’ve had a wide-ranging conversation here. Any last notes to hit?

Where we go next is something that the community is welcome to participate in. We want to listen right now, and we want people to feel welcome. Saturday, I hope people do. Regardless of how they come in, I hope that’s how they leave.

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