The commercial art world is steeped in capital, class structure and consumerism, but is there any redeeming value outside of the market-centered model of contemporary art galleries? In some instances, galleries have transformed their physical spaces to mimic the austere and institutional vibe of art museums. With major global operations like Pace, Hauser and Wirth and Gagosian presenting well curated exhibitions of some of the most widely known artists; art galleries are exploring ways that they can exist as both pedagogical and profitable frameworks.
One of the better examples is Jack Shainman Gallery’s exhibition program, which includes an upstate New York viewing outpost, called The School. Jack Shainman Gallery, which is headquartered in New York City, is known for its representation of incredibly influential Black artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Barkley L. Hendricks, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nick Cave and Hank Willis Thomas. Many of the artists the gallery exhibits make art that communicates both personal and collective aspects of African diasporic identity. The diversity of the work (both in style and subject), illuminates issues and experiences that speak to past, present and future Black aesthetics (see: ‘Funktional’ Art Education).
This is exemplified by simultaneous exhibitions in Jack Shainman Gallery’s Manhattan, upstate New York and virtual viewing spaces. The online group show, Black Joy, and Nick Cave’s large-scale public artwork, Truth Be Told at The School, are examples of the breadth of the gallery’s programming and the myriad of artistic themes related to the Black experience in America. Each exhibition focuses on topics that are pertinent to understanding diversity and learning from each other’s experiences, emotions and visions. The contrast between the seriousness of Truth Be Told and the more jovial nature of Black Joy illuminates the need to present a more holistic and overarching picture of Black identities throughout culture. Both exhibitions present bold pedagogical statements about speaking truth to power, being true to oneself, placing value in the community and fighting for equal, equitable and justice driven representation within a democracy in one of the most diverse nations in the world.
Nick Cave’s twenty-five foot high artwork, Truth Be Told (2020), envelopes the facade of the Jack Shainman Gallery’s ‘The School,’ in Kinderhook, NY. The building, a former high school, has been the site for ambitious and artful explorations, discoveries and insights into contemporary matters of value, accessibility, cultural identity and aesthetics. The gallerist, Jack Shainman, comments that “We are living in a moment when the distinctions between fact and fiction are often blurred,” and that “This work speaks to those concerns at an especially timely moment for our nation’s future, and while the words themselves may be simple, the message it delivers is anything but. I am proud that just as it was when it first opened, The School continues to be a place of learning, and perhaps today, of reckoning.”
Truth Be Told blatantly draws awareness and conveys a strong sense of urgency for a dialogue around social justice and democracy. It is the epitome of the current social, cultural and political climate where truth, facts and reality are called into question and perceived differently according to partisan demographics. This is all too jarring with regards to unsubstantiated statements, deceptive narratives and bald-faced lies from political figures like President Donald Trump. Differentiating between fact and fiction and determining reliable sources, is a key critical thinking skill that we learn and strengthen via our educational curricula. In subjects ranging from algebra to art history, students are prompted to show their work, cite their sources and engage in peer review. When baseless, brash and brazen attempts are made to undermine our democratic processes, a strong educated response that maintains integrity speaks volumes. The words Truth Be Told couldn’t be more apt and more dire.
In Black Joy, the mood is playful, yet the ideas around equity and equality are just as pertinent. Photographer Tyler Mitchell, whose work, Untitled (Group Hula Hoop) (2019), features an aerial perspective of Black adolescents hula hooping in an urban playground, writes in the show’s main text that: “I was starting to understand picturing joy. And how people in a picture embody an entire moment. I wanted that. But I didn’t just want exactly that. I wanted to know what that looks like for Black people. And what that looks like for me” (Mitchell, 2020). Play is an essential part of experiential learning. We develop social skills such as teamwork, empathy and self and collective value via playing. Additionally, play inspires joy, imagination and enables us to hone our critical thinking and problem solving techniques in tangible ways (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). Seeing images of Black children and adults engaged in play eschews the negative images of Black bodies that are perpetrated by the media. Everyone deserves equal and equitable access to public spaces that are also sanctuary spaces for people of all ages to express joy, love and communal spirit. The paintings and photographs in this online exhibition, by artists including Mitchell, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Malick Sidibé, Odili Donald Odita, Radcliffe Bailey, Barkley L. Hendricks and Paul Anthony Smith, reflect hope and exhibit artful representations of self and collective healing and wellbeing.
Jack Shainman Gallery’s commitment to community and equitable access to cultural discourses, makes this commercial gallery unlike so many of its blue chip confrères. The gallery’s ongoing States of Being initiative is dedicated to advocating for racial justice and social equality via artistic expressions, social gatherings and public programming. Jack Shainman Gallery has been using its esteemed artworld platform and multiple sites as environments to foster community engagement and facilitate art-centered conversations in support of civic engagement. In this regard, the gallery is a school. To paraphrase artist Luis Camnitzer (see: A Museum is a School), the gallery is a school, where artists learn to communicate and the public learns to make connections.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Mitchell, Tyler. “On Black Joy.” Jack Shainman Gallery, 2020. https://jackshainman.com/viewing_room/the_salon_working