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moCa Curator La Tanya Autry Advocates Museums Are Not Neutral

A frustration with museums inspired La Tanya Autry to want to work in the industry.

A variety of things bother her, from exhibits that don’t connect to communities where the museums are located to spaces that seem cold and quiet.

“I love meeting artists, seeing what they do,” she said. “I like connecting that artwork with other people, especially people who do not often go to museums.”

Autry is a firm believer museums are not neutral spaces and often wears the message on a T-shirt to work at moCa. She began a two-year curatorial fellowship at Cleveland’s contemporary art museum last March.

“I feel good that I work somewhere where our deputy director has one of the shirts and did a program with it,” she said.

But Autry knows that’s not the case everywhere, which is part of why she and a fellow museum professional at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Mike Murawski, started making the T-shirts in 2017 as part of an awareness campaign.

“We were both pretty frustrated at one point with some of our coworkers in museums who use this excuse… ‘Oh, we can't do that because the museum has to be neutral,’” she said.

The campaign hasn’t stopped. They are still printing T-shirts and conversations continue around the topic, particularly among museum workers posting on Twitter under #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. The discussions are wide-ranging, from examples of racism in exhibits to issues working in the museum industry.

“It is not encouraging museums to be taking on a role of being partisan,” she said. “But everything a museum does involves some kind of social connection.”

Autry launches her first exhibition for moCa this weekend, Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom, which features works by indigenous and black artists.

“It's based off of an article of that same name, and it's a conversation that was between Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Dionne Brand. They both live in the Toronto area and they basically are talking about the need to fight the ideology of white supremacy, how to fight colonialism, the difficult work of this and the need for care,” she said.

"Leaks" music video by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Cara Mumford with music by Tara Williamson.

Through a variety of media, the artists explore the struggles and joys indigenous and black artists experience as well as visions for the future. Part of that work is supporting communities, and the exhibit includes an installation focused on rest, where visitors can relax.   

“We have got beds. We've got pillows. There's some blankets. It's very comfy,” Autry said.

The artist behind the installation, Tricia Hersey, is known for designing spaces for rest through the Nap Ministry.  

"A Resting Place" by Tricia Hersey, 2019. Installation: Flux Projects, Atlanta, Georgia. [Tabia Lisenbee-Parker]

“It’s also activism,” Autry said of Hersey’s work. “It's an actual action against capitalism, as it is trying to get us to disconnect.”

While Autry sets a reminder on her phone to rest for just five minutes a day, it’s not always easy to stick to as she’s writing a dissertation, too. But even after a night of little to no sleep, she spoke with excitement about the exhibit and change taking place in museums.

I want to try to keep building more connections locally. I want to keep encouraging people to see these as their spaces,” she said.

Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom is on view at moCa through May 17.

"Rest as Reparations" by Tricia Hersey, 2019. Performance, Atlanta, Georgia. [Charlie Watts]

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