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A Well Curated Life

My first official job out of college was as a curator for The Children’s Museum of Rhode Island. Back then, it was a small outfit, nestled in a historic old homestead in Pawtucket. (I had started a couple of galleries on my own by then, the entrepreneurial bug hit me while I was still in college.)

One of the first “big ideas” I had while I was on staff was to commission an exhibit of artwork by kids with AIDS. It was not an easy idea. It was the late 1980s and AIDS was still an automatic death sentence, an invisible grim reaper walking among us. Fear (and homophobia) were ripping the nation apart. By then, some of the most beautiful people I’d ever met had already died of the disease, horribly, often shunned and alone. But kids! What about them? I wanted to make a point.

I enlisted a groundbreaking daycare in Boston that was caring for H.I.V.-positive kids and their siblings during the day. Most of the kids had already lost their parents to the disease and they were living with exhausted grandparents just trying to keep it all together. The daycare was a place they could feel normal for a while, free from judging eyes. A small grant allowed me buy some art supplies, and we set on a theme: My Favorite Things. After I picked up the artwork and started laying out the exhibit, the museum’s executive director, Janice O’Donnell, made a brilliant suggestion. “Hey, let’s not tell anyone which kids have AIDS and which ones don’t,” she said. If our goal was to humanize kids with AIDS, why label them? And sure enough, Janice was right. When families came to see the show, they just saw pictures of puppies and chess sets, basketballs and teddy bears, plates of spaghetti and well-worn sneakers. Kids with AIDS were kids first. We asked visitors to sketch their own favorite things on index cards which we posted. For a brief time, everyone was united in delight rather than separated by a retrovirus.

It was a good, early lesson for me: What (or who) you leave out should always be a conscious choice.

Curation of any kind is an exercise in strategic exclusion. It’s also the nature of business, whether it’s a start-up clinging to an outdated notion of culture fit, or a marketer choosing a spokesperson and tagline, there’s always a winnowing toward a final goal. Questioning our assumptions often makes for a better final product. But under stress and deadlines, we tend to default to our old worldview.

Art has a real role to play in all of this. It’s where we can see other lives and other stories play out, with little at risk except some time and maybe some feels. Unless it changes your mind. It’s why Alvin Ailey mattered back in the day, and why Moonlight, Fresh Off The Boat and Marvel Comics matter now. And by supporting art—through grant-making, underwriting, producing, and ticket-buying—we make a business case that assures that people who have been excluded from making (or seeing) art get the platform they deserve.

I interviewed Wynton Marsalis for Fortune years ago, and he shared this piece of advice for people who didn’t quite know how they felt about new jazz forms, but it works for all the arts. “You have to bring yourself to it,” he said. “Jazz does not come to you. It’s not there for you. It’s you who must bring something to jazz.” The act of bringing yourself to something new is an act of courage, sure. But in this case, you always get more than you give.

Today’s mostly artsy raceAhead is a selection of links to things that might be worth bringing yourself to if you’re so inclined. Send me some of yours, and I’ll keep passing them along. We’ll hit the news again on Monday. Looks like it’s going to be a big week.

Have a great weekend. Don’t forget to color outside the lines.


On Point

The eight lies of Hollywood bias It’s been a tough month for racially insensitive casting choices, many of which we’ve covered here. They come in predictable forms—casting a white character in a role written for a person of color, centering a white hero in a story that borrows from “exotic” cultures, or just failing to cast people of color at all. Angie Han does an admirable job breaking down the nonsense excuses studios use to defend these choices and explains why they no longer work. I guarantee you’ve heard versions of these come out of the mouths of executives you know in other industries, too. “We just hired the best person for the job,” is always one of my favorites.Mashable

China’s hottest new “boy band” consists of five androgynous girls
Acrush is a hot new band from China’s southern Zhejiang province, five women with Bieber-ish hair who carefully cultivate the universal dress and mannerisms of a hip, yet approachable, boy band. Everything about them is a statement. Their agent, who led the search for unisex stars to promote, describes them as “a group advocating freedom, not bounded by frames.” Their mostly female fans shower them with the unalloyed adoration usually reserved for male pop stars, and although they’ve not released their first full album, they rival Katy Perry in social media popularity. On stage, they prefer to be introduced with the gender-free phrase, meishaonian, or “handsome youths.” But honestly, they’re just adorbs.

A controversy at the Whitney Biennial raises important questions who gets to tell a story
When Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” appeared as part of the Whitney Museum’s famous Biennial exhibit this March, it drew immediate public protests. The painting depicts the mutilated body of Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1951. Schutz is white. People demanded to know why a white woman’s interpretation of black suffering was elevated, while black artists continue to be denied access to the esteem of the fine art world. But her whiteness alone isn’t enough to condemn the inclusion of the piece, argues Slate’s Lisa Larson-Walker. It’s that her way of working, which uses an almost cartoonish approach to tackling gory fare, is deeply wrong for the subject matter. “It’s exactly this fanciful artistic style that makes her portrayal of Emmett Till’s very real mangled body so questionable.” She gives examples of other artists, white and black, who successfully tackle powerful subjects, including Till, without drawing fire. The Biennal runs through June 11, 2017.

When the human face becomes the canvas
You’ll recognize the work of Nobumichi Asai right away. He’s the artist who created the face mapping for Lady Gaga at the Grammys in 2016, and this “Connected Colors” video for a recent global campaign by Intel. The Tokyo based visual designer has a resume that reads like a mad scientist, but his now signature move—real-time face tracking and 3-D projection mapping feels consistently otherworldly. Here’s just one short but mesmerizing video called Inori, or prayer. Click around for more and watch your day fly by.

Reclaiming the African voice in the fine art world
For the last two decades, Senegalese-born Koyo Kouoh has become a quiet force behind the growing understanding of the art and intellectual tradition in contemporary Africa. Her unique eye and facility for communication (she speaks four languages fluently) has helped her elevate extraordinary themes and artworks; Her three-year project, “Saving Bruce Lee: African and Arab Cinema in the Era of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy,” debuted this year at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. Click through for her extraordinary life story, but here’s a quick quote. “I think curating is pretty much like cooking,” she said. “As you move on, you see what should be added or taken away or not considered, so I really like that. And as you taste and see what works and what does not work, you adjust.”
New York Times

The Woke Leader

50 Must-See Modern Native American movies and performances
The Indian Country Media Network has become a regular read for me. In addition to essential reporting, they compile necessary lists that help outsiders better understand Native culture, history, and needs. This list includes many films I’ve never seen, all of which fall outside of the anti-Indian, pro-cowboy narrative that dominated entertainment for decades. “Moving into the 21st century, techniques once restricted to filmmakers with millions of dollars became accessible to young Native talent armed with lightweight equipment, such as digital cameras,” they say. Though the films are often restricted to art houses and film festivals, there are still plenty to watch this weekend. There are also a lot of cool Native filmmakers out there, make some new friends on Facebook if you’re into networking. (Free download with registration.)
Indian Country Media Network

The Guerilla Girls, art world diversity provocateurs for three decades, are still necessary
When I was first starting out in the art world, the Guerrilla Girls were new, and they were thrilling. Since the 1980s, they’ve been wearing gorilla masks, naming themselves after famous women artists, while making art and anonymously calling out the art world for its lack of diversity. They were intersectional before it was hip. Their latest diversity report shows that women remain underrepresented in European museums across the board. “So we always embarrass institutions and it’s been helpful: There are a lot of issues now that we are at least aware of,” says the G.G. known as Frida Kahlo. “When we started, museums used to tell us that they don’t show women artists or artists of color because they don’t rise to standards. They’d never get away with saying that now.” Click through to see how they turn their data into art.

It’s worth saving the National Endowment for the Arts
If it things weren’t bad enough, planned cuts to the NEA budget proposed by the Trump administration would disproportionately impact already marginalized audiences and artists. Though the NEA costs the taxpayers just 46 cents per year (.004 % of the overall budget), they provide arts programming in all 50 states. And, some 40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty areas, 36 percent of its grants support organizations working with disadvantaged populations and 33 percent serve low-income audiences. Save the pipeline, save your soul.


How can we expect a student to make the next Hamilton or to become the next Kara Walker, Natalia Anciso, or Kehinde Wiley if she’s never been inside a theater, analyzed a painting, or had the chance to deeply study American history?
—John King