Access: A Discussion About Being Black In The Art World


By Indy Mcnalist / August 14, 2020

Access is a year’s worth of educational programming that highlights the experiences of BIPOC artists and curators. This panel discussion served as the official launch of the program. During this virtual event, the moderator and panelists engaged in a discussion about their personal experiences as art professionals, the current climate of the art world, and opportunities for change. All participating panelists have either exhibited at CityArts or participated in an arts engagement program at the Downtown Arts District.


On the evening of August 13, 2020, before the discussion began, Olyvya C. Kelly beautifully performed the gospel song, Open Up My Heart by Yolanda Adams. 

Then, Julian Chambliss, Ph.D, a Professor of English with an appointment in History and the Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU Museum at Michigan State University, lead the way into the discussion as the moderator. He began with an introduction of the Orlando based panelist comprised of art curators and artists. The panelist for the evening were Sorcha Baty (an independent curator), Dr. Gisela Carbonell (a curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, at Rollins College in Winter Park), Zoraye Cyrus (a multidisciplinary studio artist and graduate of the University of Central Florida, who received her Bachelors in Fine Arts in Drawing and Illustration), Peterson Guerrier (a fine arts artist with a focus on figure painting), and Kalup Linzy (an American video and performance artist who received his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of South Florida in 2003).

The first question of the discussion was directed to Peterson Guerrier. The question was what are the inherent biases or barriers to entry for Black artist, administrators and patrons by museums and art galleries?

Peterson answered, he can only speak from his perspective and witnesses in the art world locally and internationally. He stated it is hard to be a Black artist without being labeled urban. Art galleries welcome Black artist and their “Blackness” but, you are not allowed to create anything that reflects you as a Black person, “because the minute you do it you are being offensive, you are shaking the world that they are part of…”. He went on to state that he was told multiple times by galleries that his work was worth the minute he stopped being political. He defined political as, “my world and how I see the world and how the world sees me, but to some people it’s being political”. 

Peterson felt Black artist outside of their support network were told to make things that were just pretty, otherwise it could be offensive. He mentioned there was one instance where a counter part created a similar work to his but, his work of art was not accepted like theirs due to being black. He stated, “there are barriers everywhere and those have to do with who you want to be and how you want to be seen…you cannot be main stream and be woke. The minute you become that you offend a lot of people.”

The second question was directed to Kalup Linzy: can you provide both a positive and negative professional experience related to access in the art world?

Kalup began answering this question by stating, “…I sort of broke into the art world unexpectedly.” In 2003, he mentioned he moved to New York. While there he passed around on VHS tape, his thesis video and some of his early grad school artwork. His tape eventually fell into the hands of Pascal S., who eventually became his future art dealer. Kalup also gave his tapes and other artwork to a studio museum in Harlem. At the end of 2004, Kalup had his artwork on display in two art shows hosted by these two organizations. In 2005, on Good Friday, his cellphone rang and it was his friend Suzanna letting him know that he received a rave review in the New York Times and it started with the phrase, “A star is born…”. 

Kalup continued to make his artwork and through his continuation he was awarded with the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant (2005/2006). He also found out during this time that Cindy Sherman was into his artwork, which lead to her purchasing one of his pieces and becoming a good friend of his. In 2007, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

His greatest advantage to funding his artwork was through the grants, fellowships and art residencies he received. Due to those successes, he mentioned that “it doesn’t mean negative things have not happened”. Film festivals became another space where he could present his artwork. His first major rejection came when he applied to a Black film festival and surprisingly was turned down. He realized from that experience that Black people are not all monolithic. But, years later he was able to get his work displayed at Sundance Film Festival and the Lesbian Film Festival in London. 

Another incident of rejection happened when, a collector had purchased one of his pieces and gifted it to a museum. The incident that occurred was a powerful person involved in museums in the area complained about his work that was on display in the museum. As a result, the museum turned off Kalup’s performance art video for the rest of the exhibition showing, which shocked him. But, he did not let that stop him from pursuing his dream of being an artist. Kalup stated with negativity he would, “…flip it off his back and then sometimes I just go in for the battle”, when he knows he can win.

“Lucky for me, I have had people that have advocated for me to push me through.” – Kalup Linzy

The third question was directed to Dr. Gisela Carbonell: in your opinion, what measures can be taken to create a more inclusive environment for Black artists and art administrators?

The first thing Dr. Gisela stated that should be changed is the focus on the leadership in museums and what it looks like. She mentions people of color should not only be given positions as curators but they should also fill the seats of roles on boards, on exhibition committees, and other parts of museum administration like in advancement & outreach and marketing, so museums can have more of a diverse perspective. As a curator, Dr. Gisela mentioned that when she works with artist, it is a collaborative process. She asks artist to partner with her as she allows the artist to create their work of art leaving them space to be themselves, where the artwork reflects the artist’s vision and voice.

Dr. Gisela’s second point in answering the question was that artist of color should be supported whether their work is about race or not. 

The fourth question was directed to Sorcha Baty: how can art institutions be more intentional about increasing Black audience participation?

Sarcha made some great points in answering this question by asking, are museum events accessible to Black audiences? Are the events like free museum days happening when people in the Black community have down time from other extra curricular activities that may happen on the weekends like sporting events? Is there online free programming that they can get involved with? Is the message in the marketing for certain programs messaged in a way to attract Black audiences? or is the verbiage more geared to the general art world? Is the institution willing to create spaces where Black audiences will feel welcomed?

Sorcha then pointed out the topic about authenticity in the art world and how Black people and other people of color, sometimes feel like pieces of their identity and culture have been kind of stripped away from them and then, rebranded and regurgitated, then presented back to them and then they are expected to show up and feel grateful and empowered. For instance, when corporations and organizations began posting up Black artist to their social media platforms due to the Black Lives Matter movement, this approach by companies did not really feel authentic in anyway. 

One solution she stated was that when tragedies in the Black community happen like the death of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin, organizations should make sure their response to the Black community is woven through the institutions mission, so trust and a safe space can be established, so Black people would want to show up, consistently to that institution.

“…You put together a black show, yes, most Black people will show up because Black people love to see themselves reflected in  a way that empowers them and shows them in a respectful way, but not as an attraction that you see every February.” – Sorcha Baty

The final question for the evening was given to Zoraye Cyrus: what are the different roles of Black artists in this particular moment?

The topic of police brutality and incidences like George Floyd should be given great care when talked about. She mentioned that even though these are symbols of people to whom we connect with, “…George Floyd was an actual father with actual parents with an actual fiancé.” 

She continued to highlight that the imagery pertaining to the tragedies like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin should be taken with great care on how they are being used for artistic purposes. For instance, the artist, Shawn Leonardo created in 2018 images of people who have died by police officers and in the art he depicted certain aspects of the tragedies being erased away. Zoraye mentioned that, recently, Shawn was going to have a show in Cleveland with his artwork on display but, it got cancelled because Tamir Rice’s mother was not okay with the image of her son being used in the artwork. So, artist must be careful how they address situations like these recent tragedies when developing their works of art.

Art Guide Orlando’s two cent on this event: We love how all the panelists pointed out different experiences they encountered in the art world as artist and art curators. A great point during the discussion was made in that institutions in the art world should figure out better ways to connect with the Black community to enrich Black artists without placing them in a “box”, as well as, institutions should recognize that the language and goals in marketing to Black audiences must be changed in order to capture Black audiences to get them to continually participate in local Orlando/Central Florida art happenings.

Golden tips to Black artist from the panelist: 

“I realized early on in my career, the reason I was getting into so many museum shows and with all these institutions is because the collectors who were collecting my work were actually on the boards of those museums. They want the artists that they are collecting to be in shows. I’m not saying every artist that is in a museum show is in the board member’s collection but, that played a huge role. Pay attention to whose names are on the wall and who the donors are because those people in terms of the collectors are having influence on who gets into the institution.”  – Kalup Linzy

“Right before I graduated, a curator from New York came in and she hooked up her laptop to the monitor and she pulled up everybody’s Instagram and she was dissecting the hell out of it and she was like I don’t want to see pictures of you drinking, I don’t want to see pictures of you hanging out with your friends. This is how curators are looking for artist now…it’s like a new form of business.” – Zoraye Cyrus

“If I could reflect and look back to my younger self I would be like, no don’t shrink down what makes you unique in this art industry…don’t feel like you have to shrink yourself or change any physical attributes about yourself.” If you lean into who you are that is going to put you into a position of power. – Sorcha Baty

“I would say to my younger self don’t wait until you are in the big city to do the important exhibition, don’t wait until you meet the famous artist to then do a project. Do it now and create with what you have in the context where you live. Create a thing and make it happen with what you have and that will be your great thing. – Gisela Carbonell

The discussion ended with a powerful poetic performance by Ebony Stewart, an International touring poet and performance artist.

If you would like to watch the full discussion that includes the question and answer session at the end, press play in the video below:

This event was hosted by Downtown Arts District Orlando and CityArts Orlando.

This event was sponsored by the City of Orlando, United Arts of Central Florida, Sanders Collective, Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs, the Downtown Development Board, the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and Remixed (Branding Agency).

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