Guest columnists Dean Brown and Mary-Moore Cathcart: Juror says Biennial judging process is not fair or right

Published: 10/14/2021 1:55:18 PM

I was one of the jurors for this year’s Western Mass Visual and Poetry Biennial and I fully support the Northampton Arts Council’s decision to cancel the Biennial.

I was the only white juror on the jury panel. It did not occur to me that the process we were in — the “blind” jury, etc. — was not an equitable process. I thought that if we were all judging the submissions without knowing who the artists were — not knowing their race, their gender, their nationality — that it meant somehow that the process was fair.

Since then — in listening to BIPOC folks’ protests — I have realized how wrong I was. I have realized that the process is not only not fair, it is not right. We have more than 500 years of history to address. We cannot do that blindly, but must do it with intention and purpose. In the future, the Biennial process, and any public art process, should be based in reparative justice.

At the same time, white people, like the artist who painted the Mayflower, need space to work out our issues around our settlerhood and around our whiteness. If there is to be real change in our hierarchical society, white people have to deal with what it means to be settlers and colonists. We must address our privilege and the harm we do in our whiteness — both to BIPOC folks and to ourselves.

I believe that the artist in question was attempting to address some of these issues in their work. I believe that the artist in question had the best of intentions.

And yet, what has become clear to me in the last week is that white people do not have the right to work out our issues in spaces where BIPOC folks will have to deal with us in that process. Our stuff is too damaging. White people cannot perpetuate harm as we work through our issues around our settlerhood. We cannot continue to create and show images that are triggering and cause damage to BIPOC folks. We have to learn how to step lightly and with great care.

In our shame and our guilt we — white people — want to turn away. We want to claim that we have been somehow wronged. And yet really we need to sit in our pain and turn toward the work that we have to do to learn and grow and get better. We will make mistakes.

We will do it wrong. But the only real choice is to stay open and keep trying.

I am grateful for the artists and community members who brought these issues to the attention of the Northampton Arts Council. I am grateful for this opportunity for learning — for myself and for our community. I am grateful that we have the chance to come back and try again — and to become better in the process as a community.

Dean Brown and Mary-Moore Cathcart own Pulp Gallery in Holyoke. Brown was one of three jurors for this year’s Biennial.

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