Might it be too much to start with the word ‘love’… too cliché to begin with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Well, I will still offer the paradigm below.

In a speech to my alma mater, Bowdoin College, in May of 1964, MLK lamented that in the English language there is only one word for ‘love’ while in Greek there are three. We know amicable love, fileo—one of reciprocal friendship that endures in the most difficult of times. The second is most familiar in name—that of eros, romantic partnership with an individual we wish to build a life and/or family with. The third, agape, is less describable, less tangible of an exchange as it transcends aesthetic, interpersonal or romantic love, and instead, equates a love with our world—the ways in which we are in relationship with our surroundings and the people around us.

We all innately understand what this means, what this feels like, even though we may not carry the proper language to describe such existence in “love.” It is the love which fills us upon moving and learning in the world, while open in our senses, with vulnerability, to the information our surroundings offer us. This is found in every exchange on the corner, block, neighborhood, city… however close you wish to zoom in or out. And to be clear, it is a fulfillment that is not prescribed solely by joy, but also with discomfort. It is a love which allows for all the complexity of life to fill us with a realization of wonder—that which we thought we once knew is unfixed, and therefore, always changing.

To apply this third love to institutional behavior may seem like a lofty, if not foolish, task. But let me propose an attempt with the following framing question: What would it look and feel like for an institution to be in community rather than purport to serve community?

To do so would mean to see the cultural institution as only part of a larger ecosystem rather than the progenitor of all things brilliant and worthy—outside of a settler mentality in other words. An ecosystem flourishes only when each part of the whole sees itself as a component of a working mechanism, and therefore, each other as necessary. This approach would maintain that the institution is only upheld while in partnership to achieve something greater than all the community’s parts. It requires that an institution approach a relationship with an openness—that which you know may not be the only way to perceive things and that which you don’t know, you do not know; and therefore, must be open to receive.

Yes, let’s be more precise. If we investigate this concept through what a museum would codify as public programming or community engagement we get closer to the manner in which the institution performs its hierarchy—its imposition of knowledge and perfectionism. So often, the rhythm, scope, texture, and output of a program is predetermined by prescribed modalities and detrimental notions of success; both ultimately driven by budget. The result is a failure of relationship building where the values of the exchange remain transactional, or worse, extractive. The parts of the whole are not met as collaborators—agents of their own participation. As collaborators, these parts would, instead, collectively determine the flow and output of the exchange, allowing for evolving outcomes.

To be in community, then, prioritizes existence among its members; centering, therefore, the wellbeing of the participants in the ecosystem. And yes, this must include the minds, bodies, and psyches of the overwhelmingly black and brown practitioners that enact the programming at museum education and community engagement departments.

But let’s speak clearly of what prevents this mode of experimentation and belonging in community. Resistance to relationship building is not simply the result of bureaucratic barriers and antiquated methodologies. It is a mode of operation which deliberately distances the institution, and those from within, from its own communities. It is the distance created by a service model that continuously recreates structures of harm. Because to focus on product disavows people and the closeness required to be in relationship. For many institutions we are speaking of their black and brown neighbors. And for museums, this is inclusive of the artists they purport to serve. We must also speak of the BIPOC educators that are so often asked/required to be the face of relationships with surrounding communities, preserving this distance, while not being held with care themselves. And this mode of operation is consciously and unconsciously embedded in the culture of the institution. White cultural supremacy persists in its need for exactness—a fixed notion of correctness only compounded by a colonial inheritance, which bestows upon one with power the “right” to dictate what is important and true… and who matters.

An interruption in this practice of exactness would require something radical… no? Why not return to a proposition of love? But again ‘love’ in this sense welcomes the messiness—the discomfort of being in relationship and the un-fixedness, the constant learning, which invites each part of the whole to consistently analyze their work, contributions, and most importantly, implicate themselves in failure. Ahhh… now we’ve arrived at the real difficulty for cultural institutions. For a museum to implicate itself in failure would require humility.

This year, I joined Recess as Co-Director under the belief that a core element of reimagining and changing organizational operations is revising leadership models. Since its inception, Recess has been guided and led by artists. And for Allison Weisberg, Founder and Co-Director, the team and I, it made sense to recognize that leadership and name it in the same way executive leadership is named. It is our hope that, in turn, our organization can function like an artist collective rather than a corporate entity. The organization thus seeks to emulate an artist’s practice by becoming an engine of revision and imaginative expansion. One in which our connection to community, both within and outside our walls, is grounded in principles of mutual care, ethics, and basic human decency.

Throughout the organization we encourage one another to ask the most difficult questions to see our way toward solutions that will impact the ecosystem we are a part of. We look deeply inward and examine our unique DNA and consider who is at our table, examine our skill sets, and map our assets to decipher how to make our organization more accountable to our workers, community, and the industry at large. One example of this is the development of support circles—fostering a robust community which centers care for artists. The support circles for each incoming artist are structured to aid them with actionable resources before, during, and after their residency. Stretching the trajectory of collaboration and communication fortifies a bond between artists and Recess that nourishes the individuals and communities we come in contact with. Physical and mental health options, legal assistance, and increased financial support are just some of the offerings within the institution-wide asset portfolio that will be made available to our artists. In these support circles, each artist is offered the aid of board members themselves, members of our youth community, writers, and industry advisors.

Most importantly, we arrive at each support circle without ‘exactness’—with an openness to be in relationship; to reach fulfillment through exchange. As MLK offered, this is a redemptive love. It is a desire to see community, and all of its messiness, as the very thing that provides sustenance and wonder.

Image Captions:

  • Assembly Program, workshop & performance, Recess, Brooklyn, NY, 3/9/17. Photo by Kaz Sakuma. Courtesy of Alloy. (images Assembly_65 & 49)
  • Assembly Program, workshop & performance, Whitney Museum, New York, NY, 6/22/18. Photo by Andrew Kist. Courtesy of Whitney Museum. (image 72A0188)
  • Assembly Program, workshop & performance, Guggenheim, New York, NY, 10/29/19. Photo by Enid Alvarez. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum. (image eye-to-eye_112)
  • Artist Maryam Monalisa Gharavi works with Assembly Print Shop Apprentice Saint to install a floor to ceiling vinyl that reads, عالم الغيب والشهادة, in Arabic. (image 7139)
  • The phrase, عالم الغيب والشهادة, translates roughly as, “The Knower of the Unseen and Seen.” Artist-in-residence Maryam Monalisa Gharavi used these words, which appear a total of ten times in the Quran, as the basis for a vinyl work she’s created here at Recess.
  • Artist Ash Arder and Assembly Peer Leaders pull screen-printed vinyl album sleeves—created using Black sand, soil and Fine Turf “Green Grass”. (image 5511)
  • Over the course of Arder’s two-month residency, the artist regularly met with Assembly Peer Leaders to discuss the relationship between Black culture, music, and plant life. Using Recess’ in-house print shop, Assembly youth screen-printed record sleeves marrying the music of artists like Al Jarreau and Lenny Kravitz.