Published on December 17th, 2015 | by Christopher Jordan64
“You’ll have to wait for the next one” Rock Hushka’s case for the exclusion of Black artists from Art AIDS America
Alternate titles for this interview included Blood on White Hands – The Massacre of Art History by Rock Hushka and Jonathan Katz, or The Last Whitesplanation – Lighting the Way to Black Visibility. But I settled for Rock’s own words.
I’m at Mad Hat Tea, my other interviewer is en route, and my laptop is dead and charging. So I’m taking notes at first in an old journal full of prayers that I wrote seven years ago. These prayers would soon carry me through what’s likely the most painfully disturbing conversation of my life to date.
I’m here to talk with Rock Hushka, chief curator at Tacoma Art Museum, about the lack of Black representation in the nationally touring exhibit Art AIDS America, a project he’s curated in collaboration with Jonathan D. Katz and is a decade in the making.
I was not interested in having this conversation with Rock Hushka at all. When you curate a show about HIV in America and all but entirely exclude Black artists, we are past the point of dialogue. Out of 107 artists in the project only four of the artists are Black. Since Black Americans are more severely impacted by HIV in the US than any other racial group I recognize that this exclusion is a serious problem.
Curators and panelists at the Tacoma Art Museum insisted that this interview take place because they believed that if Rock explained his intentions for why only four of the 107 artists featured in the exhibit were Black that I would understand. Rock reached out to me over email requesting that we meet in person after I raised the question of Black representation to one of his panels.
Another TAM curator told me that they knew the representations may be an issue but figured that Rock had his own rationale and they wanted to stay out of it. These are the behaviors which allow for a project like Art AIDS America to develop over the course of ten years, to be sponsored, supported, and celebrated and not once consider that Black voices might need to be emphasized.
I came to this interview with a prepared list of questions in order to accurately record answers Rock gave. All of the quotations listed were given in direct response to my questions and were recorded and transcribed in complete sentences. Many of the answers were uncomfortably abrupt, this is exactly how they came out. Occasionally my questions were cut short. These transitions are also indicated in the record.
Without further adieu, the Interview
CJ: Before I ask any more questions can you tell me about Art AIDS America as a show and the history of how it’s come together?
RH: First I need to emphasize this is not an exhibition about the crisis, but about the way the general arc of American art history was bent by the crisis. This is a small distinction but an important one.
We included works from almost every year, and that’s a lot of real estate already. We tried not to cluster things too much, and it has to do with what works we can borrow and who would lend. Once we did it then we asked if we had the right amount of representation.
We knew the representation wasn’t right but we had to keep moving. It’s been two months now and I’m just getting comfortable with it.
Our goal with this show is to write a scene interspersing dialogue with action while allowing people who come to see themselves in the show.
People asked for example why aren’t there more women artists in the show, while Katz is standing right in front of a piece by Deborah Kass.
We don’t really want to correct them. We need to hear it, we know this.
No that’s about right….Well maybe in the work Divinity Fudge. A Black artist was also modeling in that piece.
Was he [the model] credited?
This show borrows largely from the Visual AIDS database, correct? Which includes 18 HIV+ Black artists. Why weren’t those other Black artists’ works included in this project?
We wanted to focus on iconic works in the history of art about AIDS and not necessarily work from the database. There is a similar database in San Francisco called Visual AID that recently closed due to loss of funding.
So I want to make sure that I am hearing you correctly so that museum visitors understand, as it relates to the Black artists’ work not included in the show. You’re saying the problem was not that those artworks don’t exist but they were not included based on something else?
Well yes, sort of.
So if you could list the factors in a few words ordered highest to lowest impact of why there are only 4 Black artists in this show about HIV in America, What reasons would you say? Is it space? Is it funding?
I’d say that it’s a hard story to tell.
Can you tell me about the timeline of developing this project and how the body of work evolved over time.
About 50-60% of the show was identified close to five years ago.
And those were primarily works from before 1993?
Rock goes on to explain works that needed to be recreated for the show. Though tension in our conversation ebbed and flowed, the mood was mostly placid, almost clinical, as I attempted to make Hushka feel comfortable enough to openly share his thoughts in developing this project.
CJ: I need to explain that for me, as a Black male walking through Art AIDS America at the opening, I was anticipating a show that was deeply representative of Black people. I went with a friend. We were so excited to see what work was in the space basically because demographically HIV is us, and we expected to see a lot of work relevant to our experiences.
I was disturbed however when I walked in to an utterly white space. I felt like I was back in the 80s and my life didn’t matter.
RH: Yes I totally get it, kind of. I’m interested in how this is historicizing for you. It tells us one of two things. One, that the practice that Jonathan and I are trying to get people to think about is so embedded that we’re right, that the change in American art-making is so profound, that we both can’t ignore it.
Wait so I’m not saying that I felt like I was in the 80s based on the style of the art. I’m saying I felt like I was in the 80s based on the fact that there was no concern in the space of the show for my life as a Black person or the life of my people who are dying. Meanwhile the show was being referred to as “historic” and a “messy masterpiece” and all the white people at the reception are having a great time.
Well ultimately Jonathan and my intention is that this show is paving the way to make more conversations possible.
Ok I’m concerned though that this show is 30 years behind. You’re saying as far as exploring the story of the prevalence of HIV in Black America…
You have to wait for the next one.
…Ok so based on your understanding of HIV, who does this impact? Who is affected by this disease?
Artists in the canon. That would be my answer.
So when it comes to, for example, the fact that Black Americans share nearly half of the death toll of AIDS related deaths in the US, you didn’t consider it a priority to center on Black voices?
“Well, where did you get those statistics?”
From the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “Blacks/African Americans continue to experience the most severe burden of HIV, compared with other races and ethnicities. Blacks represent approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2010. They also accounted for 41% of people living with HIV infection in 2011. Since the epidemic began, an estimated 270,726 blacks with AIDS have died, including an estimated 6,540 in 2012.”
From the CDC. They keep all of these statistics available online. Almost 270,000 Black Americans have died of AIDS related causes since the 80s, out of over 600,000 deaths in total.
[Hushka paused making no verbal comment]
So in curating a project about HIV AIDS, are you saying that you were not aware of the racial demographics of who is affected by this crisis?
[Shakes head no]
Ok so I’m going to keep going.
One of your recent panelists brought up the ways the body of work is put together so as to make the work relatable despite the lack of adequate racial representation.
Really? That’s probably more his interpretation as a psychiatrist.
Could you discuss your strategies in your own words in terms of the ways or types of work that you’ve curated in the show that maybe helped counter the lack of representation of Black artists in this project?
Yes, for example in appropriation.
Please explain that further. I think I’m barely grasping what you mean.
All of these artists took whatever tools were around them and they appropriated, which is a fancy word for stole, techniques from Feminist artists, Chicano artists, and African American artists for their work.
So are you suggesting that Black and Chicano art history is being represented here by proxy through white artists?
It’s the idea of inherent racism, of taking an art practice developed by the Latino community or the African American community, and then using it for their own devices. Is it racist or when is it acceptable?
So what exactly is important about this?
Because they [white male artists in the show] stole this, all of those things are being transmitted to the next generation.
Ok so going back to the question of what types of artists’ work were included in the show…
We were looking for artists who’ve had a pretty robust museum exposure, versus looking for artists that… [trails off] We wanted more of the artists who were already known
What is the advantage of that?
My intent is to upturn/resist the standard narrative. I did what I could in the way that I knew how to do, to the best of my ability and now you’re seeing the product, and you’re resisting. Which is awesome. It’s awesome to be uncomfortable in this way. Our show is not the authoritative history.
So you elected not to, for example, release a call to artists for work, recognizing that there were gaps in the shows representation of Black artists?
Why didn’t we do a call to artists? Because they [calls to artists] are horrible, messy, and super unpleasant.
Background detail: TAM recently released a call to artists during and in conjunction with Art AIDS America’s launch for things such as “Condom Inspired Fashion.” These may not be within the chief curator’s purview.
This is the point where my fellow interviewer Charhys Bailey arrives and joins our interview.
CB: Why exactly was HIV-AIDS important as an issue to highlight?
RH: Because we know that the conversation isn’t happening, How do we teach ourselves to stop being complicit but give people space to have these conversations
CJ: What partnerships if any did TAM have with Black centered organizations and or Black arts organizations in developing Art AIDS America?
Here Rock explained in great detail the way that TAM’s intended outreach efforts to build attendance for the art show within Black communities and communities of color was unexpectedly defunded due to issues with one of their funders HANK which lost 60% of its grant allocations budget.
CJ: I’m sure Black community organizations, Black arts organizations and Black curators are concerned about this issue. Don’t you think they would have been interested in partnering to increase Black representation in this project?
I don’t do anything without funding.
CJ: Well what about…
Not without funding. I don’t do anything without funding.
CB: Well oftentimes partnerships exist to help alleviate these burdens where there are shared goals. Hadn’t you considered reaching out to these organizations to see what’s possible?
[Rock answers in no words but giving Charhys a deliberate stare]
[Charhys returns and raises Rock’s gaze. A few seconds of staring pass and I interject.]
CJ: So that’s not what happened?
[Rock shakes his head no]
CJ: So backing away from this specific show and more general questions about Tacoma Art Museum, who would you say TAM sees as its community?
Our community is mainly visitors to the museum.
CJ: Are there any African American people on staff at TAM?
CJ: Who are those people?
Bob. [Name changed]
CJ: Do you know Bob’s last name?
I don’t know Bob’s last name.
CJ: What does Bob do?
He is on security. There is also an intern, Nancy [name changed], a UWT student who will begin after January 1st.
CJ: Ok so when I asked about Black staff in the art museum I’m interested particularly in people who have an influence on the art…
There hasn’t been one to my knowledge in the history of the museum, or since I’ve been with the museum.
CJ: How long have you been with the museum?
CJ: Does TAM have any African American board members?
CJ: Alice McKennell is African American?
CJ: Based on your current marketing strategies plan who is described as TAM’s target market?
55 year old women and their children and grandchildren.
CJ: Information that I have received referenced “whole families” at the center of your target market.
Yes whole families.
Background detail: We weren’t sure what “whole families” meant but we googled it and this is what we found.
CJ: Can you tell us about the last show TAM hosted that focused on the contributions of African American artists to art history?
[Here Hushka hands me a book, which I pass to Charhys who flips through its pages]
CB: 30 Americans is a show of all Black artists?
CB: By this fall you mean fall of 2016?
CB: Prior to the quilt show what is the last show focused on contributions of Black artists that you recall?
It was a solo show from Faith Ringgold that happened 25 or 30 years ago I know there were others, that’s what comes to mind.
I want to say that for the last ten years we have continually shown African American artists’ works, and Asian artists, and works from people of color; and dammit, I want credit for that.
CJ: So unfortunately I am not actually here with you today having this discussion on behalf of art historical concerns, rather I am here because HIV is one of the hardest hitting issues in terms of deaths for Black people in this country.
I’m here because nearly half of the death toll of AIDS related casualties in the US are of Black Americans while we are only 12 percent of the population. And I’m here because as far as prevalence, the rate of contraction in the US is decreasing in all other racial groups but continually growing among Black Americans.
I’m here because I recognize that visibility is one of the most central issues in creating awareness and access to resources on the ground, building the community’s understanding that the crisis is not over.
For those reasons when it comes to exclusion from a project like this, having a show which engages only four Black artists out of 107 contributors, words cannot capture the violence of that type of erasure.
So adding more Black artists to the roster for this show is a demand that I have to make. If I don’t make this demand I too am complicit in accepting this violence as Black people continue to die. People should not be dying from AIDS when we have the resources medically to prevent this.
Ultimately, and this is really my last question, are you sensitive enough to the priority of this issue to change the artists roster for this project to add more Black voices?
Well it’s a question of what is and is not possible. And is it the best investment based on our resources and our time? I don’t know. I can’t tell you right now that I can do that. We can find mechanisms to make sure your concerns are voiced.
CB: So recognizing the complexities and structural challenges of working with a museum, what if we take those external factors away and ask from you personally. Is changing the roster of artists in this show is something you would approve of or consider?
This concluded our interview. I thanked Rock for his time and his earnestness in having a transparent conversation with us.
Rock asked us to promise him that this wouldn’t be the end of our conversations and we explained that the ball is in TAM’s court; that through their actions in the coming months, Tacoma Art Museum needs to prove to Black folks like Charhys and I that they are actually listening and that their institution is worth our time.
Per the interviewee’s request, small components of this interview were kept off the record. We were disappointed in having to censor this discussion but are satisfied that sufficient detail is left to represent Rock Hushka, Jonathan Katz, Tacoma Art Museum, and The Bronx Museum’s values.
It doesn’t matter what Rock Hushka thinks and believes as an individual; please do not make this about Rock; we need systems to change NOW. The real issue is the culture of white silence and disinterest in Black humanity that permeates TAM as well as the silence permeating our entire city in not challenging this. We need systems to change 30 years ago. We need medical access now. We need to dismantle the extreme economic inequality and non-concern for Black life now. Anti-Blackness is the epidemic which catalyzes this crisis.
The night after this interview Tacoma Action Collective (@tacoma_action) held a Die in at TAM demanding more Black artists be added to roster, more Black staff be added to TAM team, and that current staff be retrained in
Charhys Bailey is a Black, queer and gender non-conforming writer, filmmaker, and teaching artist from Tacoma, Washington. They have worked with culturally and economically marginalized youth from diverse backgrounds in arts education, youth development, violence prevention, youth mental health, grassroots community organizing and social service advocacy for thirteen years. You can contact them via Facebook and LinkedIn.
Christopher Paul Jordan is a Tacoma based artist and curator specializing in large scale public works. For examples of his work visit cargocollective.com/chrisssjordan To stay connected follow @chrisssjordan on Instagram and Twitter.
12/18/15 Editor’s note: this interview was edited to protect the identities of museum employees.
12/21/15 Editors note: Chris Jordan and Charhys Bailey clarified the attribution of quotes so some of the “CB” and “CJ”‘s have been changed. Additionally, we added information from Chris Jordan to the initial disclaimer and in the conclusion. You can follow updates as this action develops at the Tacoma Action Collective Facebook page and on Post Defiance.