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Visual Arts

Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Art: A UNT Speaker Series Provides a Vision for the Future

Just imagine what an equitable art world would look like.
By |
Courtesy UNT

A new virtual speaker series from the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design seeks to imagine a future where the art world is equitable. In such a world, the students and the teachers, the art collectors and museum directors, and the artists and the art would all better reflect the larger world.

The title of the event, 2044 Series: Anti-Racist Praxis as Futurist Art and Design Pedagogy, is a bit of a mouthful. But it’s a thoughtful nod to Bennett Caper’s law review article, “Afrofuturism, Critical Race Theory, and Policing in the Year 2044.” The year 2044 is significant, Caper notes, because that’s the year the United States is projected to become a “majority-minority” country. For the state of Texas and the city of Dallas, both of which already have majority-minority populations, the future is here. Yet, the event organizers point out, there’s plenty of work still to be done, especially in the arts community.

The UNT faculty members who have put the speaker series together — Dr. Kathy Brown, assistant professor of art education, and Dr. Lauren Cross, assistant professor for the Interdisciplinary Art and Design Studies program — have put together a dream team of speakers for the three-part series, which launches on February 12 from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The first discussion, focused on anti-racist pedagogy in art education, will be led by Joni Boyd Acuff (The Ohio State University), who has written about Afrofuturism and art curricula, and James Haywood Rolling Jr. (Syracuse University), the current president of the National Art Education Association who recently penned an open letter to art educators on constructing an anti-racist agenda. Attendance is free and open to all.

I spoke with Dr. Brown and Dr. Cross about their goals for the series and their thoughts on the future of Dallas’ art scene. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

D Magazine: What led you to create this series?

Dr. Brown: The impetus was the events of the summer. We had a very tumultuous summer. And once we came back to the school year, I think the thought on our minds individually was, what is the role of the Black scholar? What do we do to further contribute to what is happening in the world? I was happy to have a conversation with another colleague, Nadine, and she said, “What about an anti-racist pedagogy panel talk?” So then I brought it to my chair, and he said, “What about Lauren?” So then once Lauren and I got together, it was like pow-pow-pow — you know how you get together with somebody and just vibe? And then she and I started playing around with ideas, and Afrofuturism came up. We started talking about all these crazy cool titles like Parliament Funkadelic. And then the next time we met she came back with 2044, because she had read [Bennett Caper’s] article. And I thought, this is amazing. From there, we just started thinking about who are the leading voices in the field and who is on our dream list to invite.

D Magazine: What are some of the biggest challenges in terms of addressing racism in the art and design field?

Dr. Brown: We know that the art world in general has been more elitist and traditionally White for many, many, many years. One of our speakers, Cheryl Holmes, said in a talk that she did that Lauren put on a couple of months ago, that this is a time of reformation. So not reparations in the traditional way we think of that — although that’s something that probably needs to be on the legislative table — but as far as art and design, as far as education, it’s a time when the whole world is willing to listen.

Previously you’d feel kind of like, OK, I can’t say too much about these issues. We all have to assimilate sometimes in some way, but I think we felt like you couldn’t be so open with this. But this summer it broke wide open, and unfortunately our brother George Floyd had to be a martyr in order for everybody to listen. I think at our juncture, where Lauren and I are, we’re saying let’s continue the conversation in our field in the way that we want. I feel our sphere of influence is our students, our colleagues, our families, and within the field of the arts. How can we talk about these things in a way that is effective and that can make change within our sphere.

Dr. Cross: You can drop the mic on that, Kathy! To expand on that, I think that so much of our field is focused on few examples — examples of people who have been in museums, who have gotten awards. On a surface level, that may look like progress. But for those of us that are actually in the field doing work, it can be limiting in the sense that we know that there is a lack of representation. But in the field, it may be perceived that because you may see X, Y, and Z artist or designer doing something or being represented in the world that there are all these opportunities for Black artists and designers. But for those of us that are doing the work, we know that’s not true. We know that there’s so few of us that are able to fully express ourselves without consequence.

The best example I can give is the ARTnews article in 2015 [“From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?“]. Everybody thought that women artists were doing better. But then when they collected the data then we realized that — oh, snap! — we aren’t. It’s been how many years since [the first publication of] Linda Nochlin’s article in 1971, and we haven’t quite arrived.

That’s one example from a woman artist’s perspective that I think we can all relate to. From a Black artist’s perspective, it’s even more so. I think we talk about women artists to kind of understand that juncture. But then we always say, “That right there, what does that mean for women artists of color? What does that percentage look like?” I think a couple of years ago they came up with research that talked about how more than 80 percent of representation in museums was White males. We know what the data and research shows is happening, but I think that what we try to do in our work is to say, OK. What does that mean in practice? And what’s the solution to that?

Dr. Brown: I was talking last semester in my class about social justice art education and Black Lives Matter, and we were bringing up representation in the art world of African-American artists. And we talked about Kara Walker, who I think most people are familiar with. And we were talking about the reason why she was an art star was because of the subject matter — her subject matter is sort of the Antebellum South and those images. A student of mine said that Kara Walker said in an interview that she knew the art world was looking for certain images. Well, why not produce it? That relates back to Lauren’s statement, that there are so few presented. That already is going to cause a certain view of what Black art is or what Black artists do.

Dr. Cross: Darryl Ratcliff [“Whites Only: Diversity and the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas“] did a study back in [2014] that was probably not well received when he released it, but he looked at the roster of artists for Contemporary Art Dealers Association gallerists locally. [It showed that of 189 opportunities for artists to show work in a CADD gallery from January 2013 to March 2014, only 2 percent were given to Black artists.] So locally, we already can get a sense that there’s a lot of discrepancy there.

In the conversations I’ve had with gallerists, there’s certainly an attention to, how can we do this differently? A number of initiatives have come out. Talley Dunn did a fellowship for artists in the Cedars. And Thomas Maddrey and CADD came together and did a fellowship. So I’m happy to see that there’s at least some action happening here. I’m happy to see that at least people are acknowledging and saying OK, we admit we haven’t been doing our best work. We still have to see what that looks like over time. I think that’s a lot of what futurist thinking is about — what are the possibilities to envision?

Dr. Brown: Afrofuturism is about forward thinking as well as backward thinking. Having a distressing past, a distressing present, but still looking forward to thriving in the future. So I think that ties into what you just said and how present day, we’re still in the struggle. But we look forward to a point when artists of color have equal space on the walls and in schools.

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