THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

The Missing Wall Label in Museums

 

by Kaycee Moore

 

It’s a cruel fate that countless queer artists go ignored on the wall and in the texts of art museums, and to what end? To appear “neutral”? How often are even well-known queer artists, like Andy Warhol, put back in the closet in label text and exhibition catalogues? Why would a queer visitor to an art museum feel respected when the artists on the wall aren’t?

Coming out is not an easy thing, nor is it a one-time thing. LGBTQ+ people fight their entire lives for acceptance and understanding. As a trans man, it would be great if I could just hit a button and everyone I encountered would get my identity pronouns right every time. Luckily, my museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, is fairly accepting and recently added the option to have such pronouns on our name tags.

This is a wonderful, easy move towards being more inclusive and has led to some excellent conversations with visitors, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the mis-gendering or weird looks. Some days, people still just look at me like I’m an alien. Like somehow I, the guy with the name tag and security badge, am the person who doesn’t belong in the museum. Then again, nothing on the walls says queer people belong. Certainly not the labels and, as a copy editor for exhibition label text, I should know. There is, at the time of this writing (2016), one label out of nearly 500 pieces that clearly identifies an artist as a gay man. No labels identify any lesbian or bisexual artists, and the collection contains no transgender artists at all.

Museums are not neutral. Everything you see when you walk into a museum is carefully selected and presented with a goal in mind. There is a particular story being told and, usually, only certain viewpoints and facts are used to further that vision. An artist’s queerness is, more often than not, one of those facts that gets ignored.

Unless the exhibition is specifically about queer identity or the knowledge is absolutely essential to understanding a piece, the text will likely omit an artist’s gender identity. As Joshua Adair put it in his contribution to the reader Gender, Sexuality and Museums, “Gay voices and opinions… are often present(ed) in museums we visit; nevertheless, visitors are typically unaware that they are experiencing gay men’s unique perspectives because the institutions that employ them refuse to acknowledge their identities… Honest presentations would not just set the historical record straight (or gay, if you will); it would pave the way for institutional change now.” 1

Plenty of nonessential information winds up on labels, and the choices of what is or isn’t there establish the stance the museum takes on any given subject. Consider the opening example in Gail Gregg’s 2010 article, “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid,” in which the label for a Frank Lobdell painting goes from needlessly describing the visual aspects of a painting right in front of the viewer to a narrative about Lobdell’s experience in WWII as a way to understand the piece.2

An artist’s identity is an incredibly important piece of information to better understand who they are and what their worldview is like. It can also demonstrate inclusive representation. A key part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s guidelines for writing label text is to humanize the objects by connecting sometimes very impersonal or historically distant pieces with relatable concepts and stories. A piece they feature in the guide is a bust of Lady Morgan, an Irish novelist, where her work championing the rights of women as well as her disability are specifically mentioned.3

As wonderful as queer-specific exhibits and programming can be, they can also be othering. This is especially true when these specifically set aside times and spaces are the only contexts in which a museum acknowledges queer people. Inclusivity should not be a last-minute addition. It needs to be woven into the fabric of a museum’s design and language. Doing otherwise comes off as disingenuous and can feel like a cash grab. Make an effort to include a variety of perspectives and tell stories that reflect on a variety of experiences. Stories about the same type of characters get boring fast.

There is certainly no lack of queer artists. Look up a list of LGBTQ+ artists and see how many are on the museum walls: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paul Cadmus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Berenice Abbott, Alice Austen, Catherine Opie, to mention a few. They are there, but few, if any, are acknowledged as such. This is a problem.

Queer people have historically been oppressed and their stories hidden of censored. We deserve to know that someone like us created amazing works of art and that queer artworks are displayed in an art museum. We deserve the chance to see that our creations and output are just as important and valuable as that of straight, cisgendered artists. We deserve the opportunity to share our stories and inspire future generations. If LGBTQ+ artists keep getting put back in the closet, how can that happen?

Outside the museum environment, it is very distressing for someone who has been out for a while to be forced back into the closet. Sometimes, it is for safety concerns or when visiting less-friendly areas or less open-minded people. Usually, these situations are short-lived but, nonetheless, emotionally and mentally exhausting.

Then there are the times queer people are forced back by others. How many stories of trans people have ended in their families dead-naming them and misgendering them after death? How many gay people have had their wishes ignored and partners pushed out of the story by bigoted family members who couldn’t handle their reality? When done by oneself, going back into the closet can be a benign experience, but when someone else is making the choice, it is an act of cruelty and erasure.

So, what do we do? There are plenty of options as far as tombstones and extended label text goes (“Tombstone labels” meaning labels with only some description or narrative about the piece, artist or exhibition). Mention it in the text. Add symbols identifying queer artists. Have a different font/format/color of label to identify different groups. Make handouts or maps pointing out diverse artists. Make it clear that the museum values the work of people beyond the straight, cis, white, male perspective.

 

Puppies Puppies, Toilet Paper Grid (2016). 81 rolls of toilet paper aranged in a 9 x 9 grid, installation view. Photo courtesy of Lawrence and Clark Gallery.

 

Beyond making it clear that their collections are diverse, museums need to train staff about inclusive language and promote their institutions as spaces for all people to enjoy. Support LGBTQ+ staff members and take their feedback about inclusion seriously. Encourage empathy and foster conversations about diversity with staff and visitors to better serve and represent the community. Inclusion and representation are ongoing struggles, but we can make a difference and make more people feel welcome in museums.

 

Kaycee Moore is a transgender activist and museum professional. He is currently working on his dissertation about the experiences of transgender artists and staff in museums for his Master's of Research in Collections and Curating Practices at the University of Edinburgh.

 

  1. Adair, Joshua G., “House Museums or Walk-in Closets? The (Non) Representation of Gay Men in the Museums They Call Home,” Gender, Sexuality and Museums, 2010, p. 264-78.
  2. Gregg, Gail, “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid,” ARTnews, July 1, 2010. http://www.artnews.com/2010/07/01/your-labels-make-me-feel-stupid/
  3. Trench, Lucy, “Gallery text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide,” Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013.

Keith Haring, Altar Piece (1990). Denver Art Museum,

Gift of Yoko Ono. © Keith Haring Foundation. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of the Alphawood Foundation.

Devan Shimoyama, Snake Baby (2016).

 

Make a MONTHLY DONATION or a ONE-TIME DONATION via PayPal

SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal