Poverty of Imagination in Cultural Institutions

Poverty of Imagination in Cultural Institutions

During a museum studies course class visit to the African American Museum in Philadelphia one of the students expressed that they felt boxed in, discouraged by leaders in the field from pursuing their interest in curation because of their race. My colleague, Brittany Webb, Assistant Curator at AAMP shared tips on how to push past perceptions despite some people’s “poverty of imagination.” Those three words stood out because, for me, they sum up the issues of the lack of the field’s racial diversity as illustrated in Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power.

The phrase is often used in reference to other social ills, like in David Stoesz’s book also titled Poverty of Imagination, which investigates the causes of the ongoing failure of welfare assistance and economic barriers that impede movement out of poverty into the American mainstream. He describes the social welfare system as increasingly inept, corrupt, and susceptible to conservative redesign. In the 2010 article A Poverty of Imagination: Blaming the Poor for Inequality, Peter Dorey examines factors that contribute to the inequalities in Britain over the last thirty years, reversing a slight reduction in inequality from 1945 to the late 1970s. 

Mounting Frustration tells the story of white art museum administrators’ poverty of imagination through a series of case studies of major, moneyed New York City cultural institutions. The book shows the inner systemic workings that preserve the status quo, prevent inclusion, and predict displays in exhibit spaces. Recorded statements gathered from internal memos and documents are evidence of the cause of the persisting lacuna of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American arts and arts administrators within museums today. As a result, Cahan’s work helps frame our understanding of the present. “Five decades later...we find many of the same challenges in the major museums: a persistent belief that token inclusion is synonymous with institutional change…” (Cahan 2016, 2). This is a history of the art system, to uphold a specific standard of what is considered art and control its interpretation of the creation of art forms and by whom. 

Why is this important? Museums help create national values through their narrative practices, and can thereby inculcate a poverty of imagination in the masses. As Cahan states, “As the gatekeepers who determine what passed from the studio into the public realm, museums [are] viewed by many artists as critical conduits through which culture enters in a continuum of history… In the 1960s—and this is still a view today—most museum professionals believed the art system was a valid sifting mechanism that allowed quality to rise to the top as a result of critical consensus” (Cahan 2016, 5). The absence of works by Black artists is no mistake. “There is an undeniable correlation between racial politics in the United States and the visibility of artists [and arts professionals] of color in American museums” (Cahan 2016, 3)... Click here for full article

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