On April 7, the Speed Art Museum will open a show dedicated to the life of Breonna Taylor and the worldwide events and protests that followed after her murder. In a city still in the grips of pain and division, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is a major step for a large institution to put itself directly in the midst of such a sensitive topic. For the Speed, it represents a challenge to itself to be a better steward of arts to the whole community and not just a select few.
“It’s been a year in which everything going on in Louisville has challenged us to think about how an art museum serves its community at times like this,” said Stephen Reily, director of the Speed. “As the year went on, we really thought about what an institution, and communities that are going through trauma, are supposed to do. How do we each find our way to help? Our way is art.”
To spearhead the project, the Speed tapped Allison Glenn whose long resume of community and creative engagement put her at the top of the list of people who could pull together the many moving parts of a show like this. Glenn’s other work includes a position as associate curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, work with Prospect in New Orleans and Fore at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She has written for Art Papers, Hyperallergic and Art21 magazine.
“Art helps us understand the moment,” Glenn explained when asked why Breonna Taylor’s life and death have inspired so much artmaking. Glenn adds that her life and murder “represents a lot” about who we all are and experiences we’ve all had.
For a major museum to take on such a project seems unusual, and Glenn said that “museums often represent a tone deafness and haven’t reflected the contemporary cultural moment.”
She feels it is time to address these issues head on.
In response, she pulled together a team of national advisors that included strategists like Mecca Brooks, artists and art facilitators like Theaster Gates, Jon-Sesrie Goff, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, historian Dr. Allison K. Young and members of other families touched by police and racist violence such as Raymond Green (cousin of Alton Sterling and retired military officer) and La Keisha Leek (artist advocate and cousin of Trayvon Martin.)
The work of the Speed’s Community Engagement Strategist Toya Northington helped put in place a team in Louisville that included the family of Breonna Taylor, a team of artists, activists, researchers, community members and mental health professionals to help shape the local timbre of the show.
“The challenge is blending those voices,” Northington said. “Finding a way that we are actually reflecting on Breonna Taylor but it also reflects on it from a national pandemic — as a means of saying, ‘Okay, Breonna Taylor is a part of a larger issue,’ but also making sure we capture the local issue. So what specifically her killing meant to us and means to us. For a lot of the Black community, that changed our lives forever.”
It is important that the show, which will include both national and local artists and participants, serves the place and community in which it opens. Getting to this point hasn’t been simple with so many voices at the table.
“It’s not an easy thing to do because there are so many different points of view. Black people aren’t a monolith, we all have different perspectives and ways and methods,” said Northington. “But also artists are different and their ways and perspectives are different. You have a lot of creative people in the room, and we’re really wanting to collaborate and co-create.”
For Glenn, the guiding light has been how the family feels about the show.
“We’re actually a part of the exhibit team,” said Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s sister. “So we’re working with them as they’re doing that. So, I actually think it’s a nice idea.”
According to Palmer, the family has decided to include some of Breonna’s personal things in the show. What those will be hasn’t been decided, but the show promises to touch those who knew her and those who should know about her.
The show, and parking, will be free and open to the public.
‘Promise, Witness, Remembrance’
Opens April 7
The Speed Art Museum
2035 S 3rd St.