Artist whose exhibition on police brutality was abruptly canceled in February says institutions must do better

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Written by Shaun Leonardo

Contributors Introduction by Ananda Pellerin, CNN

Shaun Leonardo is a New York-based artist whose work is about masculinity and the violence perpetrated on Black and brown bodies. He creates drawings and videos, does participatory art with audiences, and has founded a diversion program called Assembly, with nonprofit Recess, for youth who are in the court system. The opinions expressed in this article are the artist’s own.

Last Friday Jill Snyder, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland (MoCA), stepped down from her role after 22 years as the gallery’s executive director.

The resignation was announced in the wake of a controversy surrounding the cancellation of an exhibition by artist Shaun Leonardo, whose “The Breath of Empty Space,” which deals with police brutality against Black and brown boys and men, was due to launch at MoCA this month. The decision to cancel the exhibition was made in February this year. Leonardo was not asked to be involved in this decision, and though the museum sent a statement of apology to Leonardo, in which they say, “we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes,” they did not make this statement publicly available at that time.

In a recent email to his followers, which was picked up by the press, Leonardo explained the reason for the show’s cancellation had not been due to Covid-19 restrictions, as the timing might suggest, and called it “an act of censorship,” on behalf of MoCA that came as a result of “institutional white fragility.” MoCA followed this up with an apology to Leonardo, signed by Snyder, which states: “[R]egretfully we did not engage Mr. Leonardo in creating space for dialogue and debate. We did not expand the conversation within our community… We failed. We are learning now.” Leonardo’s email, as well as MoCA’s two statements of apology are now available on their site.
In her statement of resignation Snyder said, “I came to this decision with the understanding that the world at large, and our museum in particular, are in a powerful moment of disruption and possibility.

“Now it is time to select a progressive and innovative leader for the next phase in our history who will carry forward this work with new passion,” she continued. “For that new leader to have a seat at the table, I willingly give up my chair.” However Snyder did not specifically mention recent events, or Leonardo in her resignation statement.

What follows is an edited account of Shaun Leonardo’s recent experiences and thoughts on the need for institutions to do better, shared during a conversation with CNN’s Ananda Pellerin.

“Freddie Gray (drawing 3)” 2015. From “The Breath of Empty Space” series by Shaun Leonardo. The artist said of the charcoal drawings that he hopes to “elicit a kind of slow looking.” Credit: Courtesy Shaun Leonardo

Is the system beyond repair?

Shaun Leonardo: Over the last decade there has been a rise in exhibitions that show work by Black and brown artists at major art institutions. This, I say, is the easy part. The difficult part for institutions is to do what’s necessary to hold BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) audiences with care.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter messaging coming from art institutions felt flat and empty. Something in me said: We have to better hold these institutions accountable for what they promise.

What we have often seen is that Black and brown faces, whether consciously or not, are used as the disguise for work the institutions need to do themselves, whether changing their own hiring and curatorial practices, or in their relationship with communities. So much of that responsibility is shifted onto artists who are propped up as the voice, as the commitment to these difficult dialogues, while the institutions do not truly push themselves to change.

For me, what hurt most was that MoCA leadership was using me and my work as the opening for their “outreach,” while their efforts should have been there in the first place.

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“Freddy Pereira (drawing 3)” 2019. Artist Shaun Leonardo said he removes the victims of violence from many of his drawings, “which forces you to witness the aggression, the aggressors.” Credit: Courtesy Shaun Leonardo

White-led art institutions often truly feel that they’ve done the necessary work in terms of conversations and external organization. So, when any grievances or agitation returns to them, quite often it comes as a shock to their system. But a White institution can’t enter a true and difficult relationship with the Black and brown community until they understand their whiteness and their privilege within that dynamic, not to mention the historical complexity of how we have all arrived at this moment.

It was only after the media reported my story that MoCA publicly apologized. Now, Snyder has resigned. And though she did not mention this recent incidence in her resignation statement, it’s clear to me that there is a deeper, more important narrative being buried here.

My own accountability, then, is to reaffirm that this conversation continues well beyond my exhibition and well beyond my relationship with one museum.

Shaun Leonardo in the Sky Room at the New Museum.

Shaun Leonardo in the Sky Room at the New Museum. Credit: Lelanie Foster for the New York Times

Institutions have to do two things: they have to do the internal work of assessing what it means to be an institution with gatekeeping power, and secondly, they need to confront their resistance to making room for Black and brown leadership, so those voices are already present within.

According to a study published last year, upwards of 90% of those filling leadership positions at art museums in the US were White.

Some people think, similar to other powerful institutions like the police force, that the current museum and gallery system is beyond reform; the power structures and the hierarchies are so entrenched that there’s no trust to be found in what they might do internally.

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“Laquan McDonald (drawing 2)” 2016. By Shaun Leonardo. Credit: Courtesy Shaun Leonardo

I have a conflicted relationship with this argument. I do often feel the system is beyond repair.

I think of myself as a young boy visiting museums before I started identifying as an artist. While I was fed a Eurocentric view of what was great and beautiful throughout my upbringing, and I did not see my own experience reflected or my own subjectivity within much of the work, I also remember the first time I cried in front of a piece of art at a museum.

I was in my late teens and it was one of Kerry James Marshall’s huge paintings from his “Souvenir” series. The rendering of Black skin that Marshall was able to accomplish, there was such beauty in that dark hue. It seemed so daring in its attempt to capture the Black spirit in visual representation.

This is the first time that I saw myself in a work of art, and it is a powerful experience, seeing yourself represented like this.

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“Eric Garner (drawings 1-6)” 2015. With his drawings, Leonardo said his intent is to “change people’s looking to bearing witness.” Credit: Courtesy Shaun Leonardo

I still hold out for these moments, and I still feel that they are and can be sacred. I want to trust that experience. But if museums resist contending with the power that they hold, we should no longer rely on them to curate the spaces for these kinds of experiences. Putting a painting on the wall is not enough.

What feels different in this moment is that museums are now competing with one another in terms of what they’re going to commit to. The earlier messaging around inclusivity and anti-racism was empty — a continuation of the lip service we’ve seen over the past decade — the “we will do better” that is never delivered. Institutions like the Whitney Museum and Queens Museum have been honest about their shortcomings, and their commitment to anti-racism. I am paying close attention to what they do next.
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“Sean” 2014-2017. By Shaun Leonardo. Credit: Courtesy Shaun Leonardo

We must all stay tuned to see how the institutions act in the coming years. And we all must interject when they don’t.

Beyond this, what I hope is that the role museums play will shift. That they will become sites for debate — places of constructive interpersonal conflict meant not to reap immediate resolve, but to enter into complexities of thought and emotion that the rest of the world will not allow.

That accountability is what I want from museums. And as an artist, this is what I’m committing to when I work with these institutions.

Top image: “Trayvon” (Detail) 2014-2017. By Shaun Leonardo.

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