Guest columnist Jessica Tam: Biennial juror sounds off on Arts Council decision to cancel exhibit

  • This monoprint by Easthampton artist Doris Madsen, called “400 Years After no. 4,” is at the center of a decision by the Northampton Arts Council to cancel its Biennial exhibit. DORIS MADSEN

Published: 10/11/2021 5:04:53 PM

This letter is addressed to the Northampton Arts Council, following their cancellation of this year’s Biennial during a meeting in which I was subjected to racial stereotyping.

A speaker told the council that I, an Asian-American, am white, and insinuated that my two years of graduate study at Yale University had something to do with this (the speaker himself completed graduate studies at a leading U.S. university, but apparently the council does not think he was similarly transformed). The council later endorsed the speaker’s views, which suggest the offensive stereotype of Asians as a “model minority,” a high-achieving ethnic group in service of whiteness.

As I am making this letter public, I wish the council to respond publicly, too.

To the members of the Northampton Arts Council,

I am one of three jurors you invited to select work for the visual art portion of this year’s Biennial.

I want to first emphasize that the objections brought forth by Indigenous artists at the Northampton Arts Council meeting about the Biennial, and the questions raised about whether an artwork causes harm, are not just important, but crucial objections and questions, and they should be voiced and heard. It is very much a good thing that the council has acknowledged this. The question of representation is a controversial issue about which many are passionate, and what is happening in Northampton is reflective of a nationwide public discussion.

I’m not writing to address questions about the artwork, but rather to address how the council, either tacitly or verbally, affirmed an individual’s offensive language with racist implications about me, which he made while explaining his critique of the Biennial’s jury process, in an Arts Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28.

This individual used a discussion on serious concerns about equity and representation to insult my critical judgment on the basis of my race and education, to insult the judgment of a second juror who is a white male, and to make the labor of a third juror, a Latina woman, invisible.

I first learned there were concerns raised about the jury’s selection process when the council released their first of two official statements announcing that the Biennial was canceled. I had no prior knowledge that two individuals had written a letter and brought up concerns with the council about one of the selected artworks, nor that there was a meeting scheduled to discuss the selection process and the jury committee, nor that there would be a vote to cancel the show.

After one of the individuals, Jason Montgomery, called into the Arts Council meeting last week and requested that the council cancel the Biennial, the council discussed several possibilities of action until one council member on the Equity Committee reminded the board that, “Jason’s initial ask was for a full cancellation” and suggested the council’s discussion “bring that back to Jason a little bit.”

The council voted in favor of the cancellation about an hour later. The chair concluded the meeting shortly afterward, but not before saying “I’m glad that the biennial is cancelled,” and reminding the council to notify NAC’s food and beverage partners and the 60 artists and poets who were to be in the Biennial.

Not a single council member suggested bringing the jurors into the conversation or even notifying them about their decision, though the selection process and the jurying committee were condemned after being discussed at length as both a group and as individuals.

While criticizing the racial makeup of the jury predominantly composed of women of color, Montgomery said, “When you select white people, when you choose white people, when you have them making the decisions, you end up with white people.”

To begin with, in this context, we cannot ignore the fact that two-thirds of the jury he’s denouncing are women of color. I would like the council to recognize that fundamental absurdity.

You might wonder if this individual was simply unaware of the jury’s diversity, but he then said, “Let’s stop pretending that we don’t know who’s on the jury,” as if about to tell some devastating truth, then said that the jury includes an “Asian woman with an MFA from Yale.” The council chair, perhaps recognizing that a discussion on equity and representation in the selection process had devolved into personal attacks, read him the council’s guidelines on communication at a board meeting.

I am a woman and I studied at Yale. I am Asian-American. This individual refers to me only as an “Asian woman with an MFA from Yale,” and at no point is my name invoked. Both of these tactics erased my identity and replaced it with a stereotype. The insinuation is that I fulfilled the model minority myth and that I served in the interest of whiteness. Acknowledging — without the dehumanizing stereotype — that two-thirds of the jurying committee are artists of color would not help his accusation that the committee represented the “white industrial art complex,” but he chose to replace fact with the fiction that the jury committee was white.

Regardless of the undeniable falsehood, the council adopted some of his language almost verbatim for a public statement, as if his views about the jury were not to open a debate, but to close it. You, the council, did this without consulting the jurors — without consulting women of color whose critical faculties were entirely dismissed and deemed “white.”

When Montgomery went beyond important criticism of the commonly used anonymous selection process, and began to criticize the jurors personally without regard to truth, the council failed to recognize that his personal criticism of individual jurors revealed biases about race, and that these biases are not representative of the marginalized group presenting legitimate concerns. The council thereby affirmed this individual’s critique of the jury’s involvement in the selection process.

Only one council member corrected this individual and said the committee was not all white, and no other council members, not those from the Equity Committee or elsewhere, confirmed this, allowing him to repeatedly interrupt and speak over this woman.

It’s important to also point out that Montgomery stresses that I am Asian instead of Asian-American, because he is emphasizing his accusation that I don’t represent the local art community, that I am an outsider, a foreigner. This implication is important because he uses it to support his claim that, “The people you selected to make these decisions don’t represent this community. They don’t represent this community of artists, they don’t represent this, this community of people.”

Asian-Americans are, sadly, told repeatedly that we aren’t really part of American culture; the individual’s implication that an “Asian woman” doesn’t represent the community where she lived and worked for a decade is just another iteration of something terrible and terribly familiar.

Montgomery implied that my having attended Yale also makes me inadequate as a juror for this community event — perhaps there is an education cap the speaker means to put on Asians, or on women. I don’t know. But he insisted that an “Asian woman with an MFA from Yale” does not “represent this community,” and afterward, a council member in the Equity Committee said, “I fully support Jason’s comments 100%.”

The U.S. has seen rising hate against Asian-Americans, and I felt I had to speak up against the council’s apparent acceptance of something that is in fact unacceptable. It is extremely upsetting that a discussion of the misrepresentation of marginalized people included offensive views directed at another marginalized group at a council meeting, and the council allowed it.

If you feel angered, confused, or disappointed by what I am reminding you happened, then I invite you to “sit with your discomfort” and reflect. I ask that you respect my need for responding to a public comment where my voice was silenced, and for correcting some falsehoods that this individual shared and that council members affirmed prior to deciding to cancel the Biennial.

I’m exhausted carrying the labor that this council was not willing to do prior to voting on a contentious issue. You should have spoken to the jurors when accusations were made about biases before issuing a statement; you should have considered that, yes, the council must do more to represent the community and respect Indigenous voices, and also yes, that can and must be done without erasing the work of women of color.

This letter is addressed to you, board members, because this council cannot accept any more rhetoric that alters the facts, undermines the righteous causes of representation and anti-racism, and, subsequently, influences significant decisions that demand careful thought, time, and work.

At the very least, you should reconsider your response. I took the role of juror seriously and volunteered my time, energy, and labor because of the confidence I have in the NAC and their mission statement of developing, promoting, and presenting arts activities and programs in the Northampton community, to stimulate public awareness and support for the arts. The culture of Northampton is known for promoting general principles of tolerance. This is part of what’s so heartbreaking about the council’s actions.

The council’s commitment to social justice is important and necessary and, for it to really work, needs to be accompanied by deliberation and care. In the past week, I am sorry to say that there were insufficient amounts of both. Still, I believe in this council’s potential. The community needs you, and I know that you can meet that need.

Jessica Tam is an artist and was a juror in this year’s Northampton Arts Council Biennial.
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