Power, Privilege and Idealisms

Interview with Kerry Downey, transcript by Christopher Kennedy |

CK: I wonder if you could talk about your relationship to museums, and how you got started as an educator at the MoMA?

KD: I was working at a nursing home and was asked to take an older woman named Eve, who was in a wheelchair, around to cultural sites in New York City. The family encouraged me to take her to places that I was also interested in, to make it mutually beneficial. So we went to MoMA and the MET a lot. I worked with her for six years and we went to museums that I didn’t even know I was interested in before like the Museum of the City of NY. We would travel from the Upper East Side to the Brooklyn Museum using Access-a-Ride. We were very committed.

In trying to develop conversations with her at museums, inadvertently this meant I was trying to make museums accessible, both physically and socially.  I was having to articulate my passion why we were there, what we were looking at. I have been developing affective labor skills around art since I was in high school — I worked one summer at a Senior Center. This long term caregiving deepened my patience and gave me space to hone in on my own passion for talking about art and using art as a model of being with others. MoMA hired me based on some of these experiences. I think I got really lucky because I had no museum experience, never studied education, and had very little teaching practice. But I think they recognized that I have some qualities that are innate and hard to teach, skills I’ve inherited or absorbed having grown up with parents as teachers.

C: What was it like for you when you started?

K: Blissful. Every time I walked into the galleries, met with my colleagues for training or meetings, I felt enormous enthusiasm for being with so much incredible art and wonderful minds.  I was being taught flexible ways to engage with the museum and an expansive range of populations. I was and still am particularly enamored with our Alzheimer’s programming. I’ve been trained to engage people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, using artworks in the museum to stimulate an experience, creating generous space driven by care and curiosity. We lead conversations and activities around an artwork from a unique point of view, moving far beyond the very narrow ideas of what it means to “understand” art. This was the beginning of my understanding of what it means to queer museums.

Being queer and working with people with disabilities has offered space to rethink the structures of knowledge and what it means to imagine a museum as resource. What does it mean to be in front of an artwork and to imagine a conversation with a group of people that are (at least in late stage Alzheimer’s) mostly non-verbal? What other kinds of “conversations” can open up? What are the small ways that people participate non-verbally, with one word, with a nod of a head, or by energetically being together and caring about each other’s point of view?

I continue to learn from these processes but early on, I found it breathtaking. I was exhausted all the time, in very profound ways. I realized one day after teaching that I was using every part of me — intellect, compassion, listening skills, drawing connections, paying attention to many kinds of communication, observing and taking in a group of people on many levels at once. I’ve learned since then ways to do all of this without feeling completely zapped.

These early days of discovering ways of re-performing and recreating what it means to be a viewer, was also opening up for me what it means to be a human, what it means to be a thinker. Museums, knowledge, archives, and artistic legacies are so problematic to me, not only as a feminist gender non-conforming queer, but also on a very basic physiological, phenomenological level. Museums can feel very normalizing of behavior.  I’ve had to do a lot of work to feel comfortable being so visible, teaching in a museum with so many people around me. It’s so performative and public. This work has also be remarkable in creating beautiful overlaps between queer and disability advocacy.

If you think of queerness in terms of orientations, and here I’m thinking of Sara Ahmed, how we orient or arrange our bodies, physically and psychologically towards an art object, then the work I’ve been doing has been a kind of queer pedagogy that is also interested in difference — making room for different bodies, realities, subjectivities. People with Alzheimer’s are reality. Children with ADHS and  Autism are real subjectivities, valid and valuable citizens of the world;  museum education can expand and contract and shift and reorient itself around differences.

I’ve heard a lot of pushback. Things like: “I’m so tired of education departments always interfering with the experience of just looking, can’t we just go to a museum and just look anymore?” My response is: Sure. There’s always room for that. We don’t want to undermine that kind of basic wonder of just being in the space and just looking. That’s not being foreclosed upon, but I think that the problem is that the position of being comfortable, of just looking, is predicated on a person having a particular kind of education, background, and agency. This person who just goes to a museum to look has some sense of feeling safe. Museums for many people don’t feel safe. They’re loaded with obscure, hard to decipher, heavily coded language (both visual and written), security guards, and behavioral protocols.

C: Right, that’s beautiful. Can you talk about your relationship to the concept of social practice. In both your own work, and experience with the community partnerships program at the MoMA?

KD: Social practice has had a huge influence on my community partnership work, particularly my conversations with artists and curators who are also educators and interested in these overlaps: Douglas Paulson, Hatuey Ramos-Rermín, Elizabeth Hamby, Natasha Marie Llorens, Shellyne Rodriguez, Caroline Woolard, Robert Sember, Cassie Thornton, and my collaborative work with Flux Factory and Action Club. A few of us were discussing Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, a book by Claire Bishop that investigates socially engaged practices, questioning the emancipatory claims of participatory art. I found and still find this book to a be useful guide to the laying out the myriad problems involved in community-based collaborations. I have come to have a more complex understanding of the entangled relationships between aesthetics, ethics, and institutions. I’ve also come to believe that there are no artificial hells. Instead, what you have is a continuum of spaces that do and do not feel safe to experiment and try out ideas, spaces where you can and cannot make room to challenge difficult topics like structural oppression or insecurity. Sometimes these spaces contain both, and are in a kind of tension.  Perhaps this is a major difference between making art through MoMA with vulnerable populations and creating situations as an artist. There are different stakes and certainly very different relationships to power. I look for ways to build trust, acknowledge difference, and create space for listening and play. At the same time, I’m not believing in my ability to emancipate others, this is very dangerous thinking that undermines the work and reinvests in hierarchical relations, a performance of my privilege. I’m simultaneously disinvesting in idealisms — I try to be very realistic about what is possible.

Most importantly, something that social practice has taught me is to try to keep the questions or problems close. What is it that am I doing when I develop art projects with “underserved” communities? What does it mean that I’m a white person visiting so many communities of color? What does it mean that I’m a middle-class, liberal arts-educated white queer going to a East New York’s transitional housing program for trans-folks? What skills, forms of care, forms of attention can I offer than are genuinely desired or needed? At its best, art offers extraordinary flexibility to bend around needs, desires, materials, different forms of time and space, etc. I work to bend the shape of art, education, and “MoMA” to be able to offer something of myself to a group of people. What Artificial Hells and social practice at large continues to make me wonder, is how can this work create space for radical pleasure that’s not an empty container for impossible longings. I believe in the value of generating hope, but it’s a thing that has to come from within a process that is collaborative and shared.  

I have learned that the bottom line of what it is that I’m doing is 1. sharing MoMA’s resources (art supplies, the collection, the classrooms) and 2. Sharing myself (my time, skills, passions, and experience). 3. Creating social and artistic experiences that make space for sharing ideas and acknowledging difference. I’ve learned is not to pretend I’m part of a community; a community partnership is with a community- but does MoMA or do I get to be part of that community? I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes. Over time?  If at the end of the partnership when people hear “The Museum of Modern Art,” if they feel slightly warmer towards the idea of a museum, that’s great. But I’m not proselytizing museums and I’m not proselytizing MoMA or modern art. If anything, I can get down with being an ambassador for art.

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Kerry Downey (Ft Lauderdale, 1979) is an interdisciplinary artist and teacher whose work explores the various ways we come in contact with each other physically, psychologically, and socio-politically. Downey’s videos, prints, drawings, installations and performances reimagine the possibilities and limitations of gender, intimacy, and support in late capitalist America. Private feelings bleed unpredictably into the rug, your neighbor, and the surrounding landscape. Their work uses both feminist and queer experiences of their body to investigate the boundaries of inside/outside, me/you, and subject/object. Uncertainty and desire act as forms of resistance to the values of normative productivity.