Artist sought to transform gallery into beacon for Black lives, then the university stepped in

Record Scratch

Artist sought to transform gallery into beacon for Black lives, then the university stepped in

The American MONUMENT exhibition by the artist lauren woods has been “paused” following the firing of UAM director Kimberli Meyer in September. Pictured: lauren woods pausing the monument late last month. (Linda Pollack)

Late last month, just six days before the debut of American MONUMENT, an installation created by the artist lauren woods for the University Art Museum (UAM) at California State University, Long Beach, that focuses on police brutality and institutionalized racism, UAM executive director Kimberli Meyer, a key collaborator on the project, was abruptly fired.

Meyer was chosen to head the museum in 2016 after an almost 14-year tenure as the head of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, where she specialized in pursuing provocative and intellectually-expansive exhibitions and public programs. At the time of her appointment to UAM, Meyer told The Los Angeles Times that her move from the private art world to an institutional setting was driven by an interest in the role university museums can play as “independent, academic space[s] that really can dig into issues and encourage critical thinking in ways that private museums cannot.”

When she arrived at CSU Long Beach, Meyer did so with the intention of using her position as a vehicle for, among other initiatives, staging and organizing pointed exhibitions, installations, and public programs that would deal directly with issues of anti-Blackness, police brutality, and institutionalized racism.

That’s when the problems started.

American MONUMENT was developed by woods—who stylizes her name using all lowercase letters—and Meyer as the inaugural work for this new focus and as a collaborative project where Meyer and CSU Long Beach played the key role of institutional steward for the project. The installation was developed as a group of 25 freestanding displays, with each stand featuring a record player that would play sound clips related to recent episodes in American culture that highlighted the pervasive and forceful presence of institutional racism against African Americans, including the murders of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. The recordings, obtained mainly through Freedom of Information Act requests, include police reports, court transcripts, witness testimonies, and even recorded audio captured by bystanders, according to the American MONUMENT blog. For the installation, visitors are invited to pick up each of the turntable needles in order to activate the sound sculpture.

A description from the American MONUMENT blog reads:

[American MONUMENT] prompts the consideration of the cultural circumstances under which African-Americans have lost their lives to police brutality. The new-media monument is conceived to be nomadic and continually expanding, with the UAM serving as its launch site and steward. The artwork provides a vehicle by which to analyze the complex relationship between the construction of race, material violence and structural power.

Meyer told The Architect’s Newspaper that her approach had initially received push-back from university administrators who were fearful that exhibitions and programming centered around African-American voices and explosive themes like police brutality and institutionalized racism would incite racist, “tiki torch-bearing” mobs against the university. Despite institutional unease, however, work on the installation pushed toward its September 16th opening date.

That was, of course, until Meyer was abruptly let go, removing woods’s major institutional partner and throwing into question the university’s commitment to the installation and the themes Meyer was focused on bringing to light there. In response, the artist decided to “pause” the work, essentially shutting down the installation in the hope that Meyer would be reinstated. Backlash against Meyer’s firing has been swift, with a pair of public petitions that were created in response to the dismissal garnering over 800 signatories. An open letter was also created by prominent female arts and architecture figures, including Emily Bills, Andrea Dietz, Jia Gu, Lucía Sanromán, and Mimi Zeiger, in response to Meyer’s firing, which the group highlighted as part of a troubling “spate of firings of significant women in the arts over the past year.”

When reached for comment, Jeff Bliss, executive director of media and digital news for CSU Long Beach, said, “We cannot comment on personnel matters,” adding, “American MONUMENT is ‘paused’ (at the artist’s request). We remain open to dialogue with Ms. woods and pledge that we will continue to work toward encouraging her to ‘un-pause’ American MONUMENT on campus, so that the educational opportunities it promises can be realized.”

Meyer is currently appealing her firing. While they wait for the lengthy administrative process to play out, she and woods have proposed the creation of a “parallel museum” to allow woods to “unpause” the monument.

Essentially, the proposal, if accepted, would allow Meyer and woods to carry on their work and the ongoing research that was meant to be developed over the course of the run of the installation under a separate, independent administrative vision that would be part pop-up, part sanctioned occupation of the museum.

With their own staff and organizational structure, woods and Meyer hope to pioneer a new way of approaching how institutions address issues of structural racism.

Meyer explained: “[The parallel Museum] would mediate the borders between the ‘parallel’ and existing museum to not only get American MONUMENT up-and-running but to also pursue a different set of agendas, missions, and procedures for the work” than was originally planned. Explaining the institutional inertia inherent in approaching deeply-entrenched and unquestioned racism-related topics and cultures, Meyer added, “White supremacy is alive and systems don’t want to change—we’re experimenting with non-violent system change.”

Meyer explained that the parallel museum “can be set up almost as a kind of mirror showing another way of doing things that doesn’t disrupt the museum but instead provides a different model for how it might work.”