UW Graduate Students Ask Seattle, Tacoma to “Queer the Art Museum”

Photographic still of David Wojnarowicz from <i>Silence=Death</I>, 1990.

How can museums better address, engage, and integrate queer culture? UW graduate students Erin Bailey (Museology) and Nicole Robert (Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies) are organizing “Queering the Art Museum,” a symposium that they hope will invite attendees to explore such questions.

The symposium will take place both on and off-campus, in Seattle and in Tacoma on May 11 and 12, 2012. Through lectures, performances, tours, and community conversations, speakers and attendees will engage with queer themes.  It parallels the exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through June 10.

This symposium extends out of the Queering the Museum project which, according to Bailey and Robert, is an ongoing coordinated intervention into representations of LGBTQ people in museums. The project’s goal is to facilitate critical dialogue between community members and museum practitioners addressing the role that museums play in forming social norms around gender and sexuality. 

“Museums have the ability to make lasting impressions,” says Robert. “They’re also often perceived as spaces of authority. As such, they serve as sites in which visitors can practice critical self-reflection on subjects such as race, gender, and sexuality.”

“They have the ability to change lives,” adds Bailey. “In addition to being places where people can engage with exhibitions, museums can also be safe spaces—safe for questions, reflection, dialogue, and exchange.” 

Bailey and Robert have created the Queering the Museum project as a way to bring together their theoretical research with the practices of museum work.  Bailey, whose research interests focus on queer representations in museums, understands the concept of queer as fluid and dynamic: “It positions us to constantly ask questions about how we view and are shaped by institutions and social structures.”

Robert, a PhD candidate and Fellow in the Simpson Center’s Certificate in Public Scholarship who holds an MA from the UW’s Museology program, researches at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Though her work usually focuses on history museums, she was eager to work on this project. “I hope that people who attend the symposium will start asking questions and critically thinking about what and who gets normalized in exhibits, whether they’re in an art gallery, history museum, or science center.”

Bailey and Robert acknowledge the reluctance that some may have to the term queer; they hope that this symposium will debunk misconceptions about the word. “Historically the term queer was used as hate speech demeaning the gay community,” explains Robert. “Since then the word queer has been reclaimed by activists who use it to refer broadly to any persons that defy sexual normalcy.” Thus, queer functions as an umbrella term that can encompass the range of identities which fall outside of heterosexuality, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified individuals, among others.

She continues, “The concept of queer also works to un-fix static identities, preventing the strict codification of binaries like male/female or homosexual/heterosexual. In this way, the term queer allows for conversations supporting the past—acknowledging its derogatory use and making space for those that fought to claim the identities of gay and lesbian.  Queer is inclusive of younger generations that resist clear gender and sexuality definitions.  And because of queer’s inherent resistance to codification, it leaves space for the as-yet-unknown conversations of the future.”  

Both organizers are excited about the opportunity to connect with the HIDE/SEEK exhibition. “People want to be able to see themselves in exhibitions,” says Bailey. “HIDE/SEEK is powerful. It’s one of the first major art exhibitions that’s both all-inclusive of and sensitive to differences in terms of gender and sexual identity.”

The exhibition, which has been co-curated by Jonathan Katz and David Ward, traces the evolution of sexual identities through nearly 150 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, prints, video installations, and photographs. Watch this video and hear Katz discussing the exhibition and how artists whose works appear in the show—such as Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, David Wojnarowicz, and John Singer Sargent—explore and question the definitions of sexuality and gender through their art.

The “Queering the Art Museum” symposium begins Friday, May 11, with a keynote lecture and conversation at the Henry Art Gallery. Katz, who is director of Visual Studies at the State University of New York, Buffalo, will dialogue with curator Rock Hushka and director Stephanie Stebich, both of the Tacoma Art Museum.  Their talk, titled, “How Did We Get Here? Current Practices in Queer Engagement and Exhibiting in Art Museums,” will take place at 6:30pm and will be preceded by a reception at 5:30 sponsored by Emerging Museum Professionals, also at the Henry.

Symposium events on Saturday take place in Seattle and Tacoma. The day begins in Seattle at 10:00am at the Henry Art Gallery, with a panel discussion.  Featuring Katz, UW professor of museology Kris Morrissey, Cornish College of Art humanities professor Rahul Gairola, artist Wynne Greenwood, and art critic Jen Graves, who is also an art writer for The Stranger, the panel will collectively explore the future of queer in museums.

Their discussion will be followed by a performance by ilvs strauss, a writer, performer, mixed media artist based in Seattle.

The symposium then moves to Tacoma, with an afternoon of activities beginning at the Tacoma Art Museum.  At 2:30pm, Katz will lead a tour of the HIDE/SEEK exhibition. Following, Robert and Bailey will lead a community conversation and reflection workshop.

The symposium closes with a reception and exhibition opening of Hide//Seek//Difference//Desire//Northwest at The Space Tacoma. This exhibition, which Bailey organized, features works by local artists responding to similar issues as explored in the HIDE/SEEK exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum.

 Tickets for the symposium are free for UW students and staff, $10 for Henry members, and $20 for general audiences. For more information, visit www.henryart.org


Image: David Wojnarowicz, photographic still from Silence = Death, 1990. Photo by Andreas Sterzing. Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, New York. Special thanks to the Tacoma Art Museum.

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