IN CONVERSATION WITH CURATOR ALLISON GLENN
There’s never been an exhibition quite like it. The program was put together within just four months – a highly unusual timeframe for most museums – and involved an unprecedented degree of community engagement. Breonna Taylor’s family was consulted throughout, and curatorial decisions were guided by a Steering Committee of Louisville community members and a National Advisory Panel of artists and stakeholders.
When WHY embarked on the redesign of the Speed Art Museum (completed 2016), our goal was to expand the museum’s capacity for progressive programming, to open the spaces to new audiences, and to facilitate efficiency of operations. In many ways, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is the expression of everything we could have hoped for the new spaces – and as a curator, Allison Glenn shares some of our primary instincts for what makes an inclusive and thriving museum environment.
We caught up with Allison to discuss her vision for the exhibition, her hopes for the future, and how to reshape existing spaces to accommodate new ways of seeing.
For those who might not be able to visit the Speed in person, can you give us a sense of what it’s like to enter the exhibition?
Allison Glenn: In a way, the visitor becomes involved in the exhibition before even stepping inside the galleries. “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is installed in the original neoclassical building, and when you enter the museum and cross the glass bridge that connects the new and the old buildings, you catch sight of the portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald – the centerpiece of the exhibition.
There’s a glow to the way Amy paints her surfaces, and that glow is reflected by the terrazzo marble floor, amplifying the presence of the portrait. A transition in wall color also serves to draw you through the galleries – the portrait is anchored by a shade of deep purple which is actually called “Galaxy Black.” The dark colors recede, making the bright turquoise blue of Amy’s painting pop even more – the colors seem to expand and radiate outward.
So you were actively changing the perceived dimensions and experience of those spaces?
Absolutely. Everything was thought out in response to the architecture. The experience of the portrait is shaped by the structure of the building – the work is reflected from afar by the glass bridge, and the enfilade creates a series of frames.
These galleries usually display the Speed’s collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting, and the architecture of the neoclassical building holds certain implications. Marble-clad doorways, terrazzo floors, super-high ceilings… Architecture speaks. These older galleries feel intentionally regal, they place a certain value on the works within. De-installing the paintings of the Dutch Masters to make way for contemporary work by Black artists is essentially to decolonize those spaces; it’s a way of decentering the way we look at art history, transitioning from a western-centric lens to an outlook which occupies the “both-and.”
When there’s so much to challenge and deconstruct, it can’t have been easy to strike a balance between the old and the new?
True – but at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that Amy Sherald’s painting-style is influenced by Rembrandt; she loves the fact that the portrait is displayed in a gallery that typically holds a Rembrandt from the Speed’s collection. The reason we don’t usually see contemporary work by Black artists in these spaces is due to the way encyclopedic museums traditionally operate – galleries are either medium-specific or period-specific, and so these artists don’t fit within that context. The spaces become exclusive rather than inclusive, not necessarily by intention but because of the ways the structures of art history have informed museum practice.
The process of staging and installing the exhibition wasn’t easy, but the museum team had an overwhelming desire to make this happen – nothing was a “no,” it was just a matter of “how.” The Speed had never fully de-installed those galleries, and one of the primary questions was whether they had the space to store the paintings appropriately. We made it happen – it was a question of space and care.
How did that dynamic of space and care play out in the process of installation?
One challenge was how to install Carousel Form II (1969) by Sam Gilliam, a work which is part of the Speed’s collection but had never been displayed in the round. It was assumed that the gallery ceiling wasn’t load bearing and so the work couldn’t be suspended – but all it took was two people from the prep team to get inside the ceiling and discover that it was in fact possible to display the work as intended. All it took was curiosity and determination from our small team – the desire to ask “how.”
Another example was installing Alls my life I has to fight (2019) by Theaster Gates – the sculpture is heavy, and it took some figuring out to locate a load-bearing section of the floor which could accommodate it. And there’s Terry Adkins’ 22 ft tall sculptural installation, Muffled Drums (from Darkwater) (2003) – the work needed to be secured from the ceiling, and the dimensions of the gallery only just about allowed for that.
To work with the original architecture was also to amplify it. A contemporary intervention in these older spaces can reveal hidden opportunities, bringing out alternative interpretations of what the design is speaking to. There’s so much that buildings can do – if the right questions are asked.
That’s very true to WHY’s approach to working with historic buildings – what are your thoughts about the contemporary expansions at The Speed?
The new North Pavilion feels much more open and modular – the spaces afford the possibility of being considered and reconsidered. Compared with the neoclassical building, the architecture feels less obviously “present,” less imposing. In general, I get the impression that contemporary architecture is more about absence. It’s about scene-setting and framing rather than prescribing a narrative of how to act and feel.
In the new spaces, you could say that the “why” is foremost. You can tell that questions like “why are we building this,” and “who is this for,” were probably on the table early on. But in the older building – where “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is installed – it’s more about the “how.” You have to find the hidden secrets within the architecture, the implicit passageways that afford the “how”: the hidden “why.”
What are some of the routes and hidden passageway that you found?
Ultimately I didn’t feel weighed down by the spaces we were working in – the limitations opened opportunities for expansiveness. For instance – given that we had three audio works to install in marble-clad, cacophonous galleries, we had to be very intentional with placement. The voices of Jon-Sesrie Goff’s video work, A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield (2016), echo through the exhibition, sounding “come, come, come to the battlefield.” It’s like a bell at the center, beckoning everyone in and carrying them through.
I also thought a lot about sightlines. When you’re standing in Gallery 5 looking towards the portrait of Breonna Taylor, you can also look down the stairwell towards the cinema corridor where you see the glow of Hank Willis Thomas’ work in neon, Remember Me (2014). We also placed two works by Hank Willis Thomas either side of the exhibition entrance; the drapery of 15,433 (2019) and 19,281 (2020) create the sense of entering an embassy – but each ivory star represents a person killed by gun violence in the United States that year.
A very different mood is created by Alisha Wormsley’s text work There Are Black People In The Future (2011) which winds around the interior of Gallery 2, just below the wainscotting. The height draws your gaze up, as though to imagine a future – and that sensation of looking upwards is somehow strengthening. So, there are many ways of responding to the issues we’re all facing, many different feelings that arise. These questions return and are kept open as you are drawn in different directions – towards the portrait, around the galleries, and back to the center.
What are your hopes for the exhibition’s long-term impact?
I hope that this exhibition does a few things. We worked closely with Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and above all I hope that the family feels supported. I also hope that the exhibition opens up space for museum curators to feel comfortable moving beyond traditional approaches to programming. I hope that it allows people to feel welcomed and included – communities who might not have felt represented in museum environments. And I hope that “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is one of many propositions for addressing this kind of content – one of many ways of working with what exists, to ask how things might be different.