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Film: How Museums can build collaborations with LGBTQ communities

Martha Hill, Vice President for Public Programs & Visitor Experience and Johanna M Blume, Assistant Curator of Western Art, History, and Culture from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015.

This presentation was a case study for some of the ways in which museums can engage marginalized communities through programs and exhibits, and create more inclusive environments. The specific focus will be on LGBTQ communities. It will conclude with a discussion of the lessons learned through the process. Chief among these is the importance of fostering authentic relationships with the communities museums seek to represent.

Good afternoon. I am Martha Hill and I’m Vice President for Public Programmes and Visitor Experience at the Eiteljorg, here in Indianapolis, and this afternoon Johanna Blume who is our Assistant Curator for Western Art, History and Culture, we would like to give you some information about how we created a series called Out West at the Eiteljorg Museum.

We did this, we designed it in close collaboration with LGBT communities, both locally and regionally and very importantly for our museum with a focus on the west with those communities from the west.

A little history to begin. Over ten years ago the Eiteljorg Museum Board of Directors adopted a diversity statement which defined diversity in a fairly broad sense, including sexual orientation, mind you this was in 2004. This diversity statement directs everything that we do at the museum from exhibitions and programmes to the daily operations of the museum and leading to what we strive to create the best possible and most inclusive visitor experience.

In December 2005 the film Brokeback Mountain premiered and in February 2006 the Eiteljorg hosted a panel discussion and dialogue with a historian, film studies expert, representatives from the LGBT film festival here in Indianapolis and the film critic from the local alternative weekly publication, Nouveau. We drew a capacity crowd to that event which explored a strongly held stereotype about the American West, that of the white, male, straight cowboy. This event was the first in what was to become our series ‘Out West at the Eiteljorg’.

Shortly after that event Greg Hinton, who is an independent curator, contacted us about our interest in working with him on LGBTQ programming that he had been developing on the West Coast. He was familiar with the Eiteljorg through his work with the Autry National Centre in Los Angeles and there are some fairly close ties between that museum and ours, and he hoped that we were an organisation that would be interested in telling everyone’s story.

Greg is a researcher, he’s a playwright and a gay man who had left his boyhood home in Cody Wyoming to search for what he says was companionship and community and safety on the West Coast. As Greg told an Indianapolis audience several years ago, many western history institutions claim to want to tell all the stories of the American West yet several years ago, when I first went looking, I couldn’t find my community anywhere. Through his research and his work with the Autry, the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre and other western institutions he was finally able to return to his boyhood home and was welcomed for the man that he is. So when Greg contacted us we felt that working in collaboration with him was an opportunity and definitely a natural step for us to take in providing LGBTQ programming at the Eiteljorg.

Greg is the Curator and creator of Out West and this is a programmatic initiative that the Eiteljorg has embraced and brought to Indianapolis by working in close collaboration with Greg and with our local community and partners. The series is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two spirit communities to the history and culture of the American West. It includes films, lectures, plays, exhibitions and scholarship. Over the last several years the Eiteljorg has included several programmes in our series, the first of course was the screening of Brokeback Mountain and a panel discussion. The second programme that we worked on with Greg was called ‘The Hidden Histories’ which was a talk and a gallery tour and it was delving into the little known stories of LGBT historical figures and artists of the west.

After that we presented with the IRT, a local repertory theatre, a staged reading of Beyond Brokeback and this featured selected essays from over 500,000 posts that were written by members of an online community called ‘The Ultimate Brokeback Forum’, and this was created following the release of the movie. We followed that with a screening of the film ‘Two Spirits’ followed by a panel discussion with the film’s Director, two spirit individuals and two spirit scholars. We followed that with Blake Little Photographs from the Gay Rodeo, and you’re going to hear a little bit more about that today and the creation of that exhibition.

And then coming up in November we’re offering our first female focused, truly female focused offering, called ‘A Montana Artists Utopia: Out West with the Women of Basin’. In developing our Out West at the Eiteljorg the importance of our local and regional partners and collaborators really can’t be overstated and we’ve listed a number of them here so that you can see who they are. These partners have worked with us very closely in planning and developing ideas, they have spread the word, they’ve participated in the programming and they’ve attended the talks, the films and the exhibitions.

At this point Johanna is going to give you more information, more specific detail, about developing the Blake Little exhibition which came out of some very early discussions with Greg Hinton and an initial programme suggestion that he had concerning a panel with photographer Blake Little.

Johanna: Thank you Martha. So as Martha was saying, I’m going to delve into some more specifics about how we collaborated with members of the LGBTQ community, both here and in Indianapolis, and then also more broadly in the American West and very specific targeted groups that we worked with in order to produce the exhibit Blake Little photographs from the Gay Rodeo. It was several years in the making and there were a lot of partners, I’m going to call attention to a few that we’ve named here, Greg Hinton, of course was the one who first introduced us to Blake and to Blake’s work, also the International Gay Rodeo Association which I’ll be speaking about in a little more detail, the Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Heritage Foundation and then the mid America Arts Alliance and Exhibits USA who are actually helping us to tour the exhibit currently, it’s just begun its five year journey around the country so if any of your institutions are interested, come find me afterwards.

So Blake Little photographs from the Gay Rodeo opened at the Eiteljorg in January of 2014 and was up through July of that year. The exhibit was comprised of the work of one artist, one photographer in particular, Blake Little, and all of the photos were taken during his time as a participant in the Gay Rodeo circuit. Now how many of you have heard of the Gay Rodeo or know what that is? Oh yay, we’ve got a couple, alright.

So just a little bit of background on what the Gay Rodeo is and then the nature of the content of the exhibit. The Gay Rodeo is really just what it sounds like, it’s an amateur competitive rodeo circuit, it’s open to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and there are chapters of the IGRA, the International Gay Rodeo Association, that exist throughout the United States and Canada and they’re very active, it was started in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and is still very active up to the present day, it’s a very vibrant and welcoming community.

The exhibit consists of 41 black and white photos, they were selected by myself as the Curator of the project, but in close collaboration with Blake, the artist. And it’s important to know this was the first time any of these photos had ever been exhibited or seen publically so it was a pretty momentous occasion for us to be able to collaborate with Blake and present this work to our local audience and now to a much broader, national audience through the touring exhibition.

All of the photos were taken between 1988 and 1992, this is during the period that Blake was an active participant in the Gay Rodeo circuit, and one of the things that I found most fascinating about the photographs and one of the interpretative messages we sought to call out in the exhibit, was this sort of insider/outsider or dichotomy that’s present within the work. Blake joined the Gay Rodeo community, and I’m going to go into a little more detail about that in subsequent slides, but he wasn’t initially an insider with that community at first, he was a gay … he is a gay man so he had that sort of connection but he wasn’t a westerner in sort of the classic sense. So the photos sort of manifest this really interesting juxtaposition of somebody who is both within and without the community he is representing in the work.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting to note about these particular photos is that Blake was taking them as he was participating in the rodeos and for those of you who may not be familiar with rodeo, there’s a very specific course that the day takes and a sort of line of events and Blake himself was a bull rider, which is the very last event that happens during the day. So he would use his photography as an outlet to sort of calm his nerves and get through the day because it can be a long wait anticipating that bull ride coming up at the end of the day.

Blake did eventually become a bull riding champion within the circuit, this is actually Blake right here in the lower, right hand corner, riding a bull coming out of the shoot. The exhibit consisted of three main types of photos, action photography, so the actual rodeo events, candid photography sort of behind the scenes, at the rodeos and in the audience of the rodeos and then more formal portraiture.

Going into this project, as you can imagine, there were a number of competing goals. The museum of course had goals for the project, Blake had his own, and then one of the things we really needed to figure out how to do was how to collaborate on achieving those goals in a way that everybody could leave the project getting what they wanted. So for the museum a big goal for us was to explore the complexities of intersectional identity in the American west, you know, this sense of being an LGBTQ person in the west but also being a westerner, those identities have sort of classically been in competition in many ways so how could we explore those complexities and highlight them.

We also wanted to celebrate the contributions of LGBTQ communities to western culture and call those out, that’s a piece of western history that has been sort of obscured over the years, we wanted to really bring it out for our audience. And then of course for Blake, his goals involved showing his work, having it in a museum setting is a pretty big deal, but also to memorialise his friends and fellow competitors who were the subjects of his photographs. I have just a few more examples of some of the work from the show.

So a little bit of background on Blake, he was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1980s. He wasn’t raised in sort of a traditional western setting by any stretch of the imagination, he hadn’t grown up with horses, he’d never ridden a horse but he considered himself an athletic and a very competitive person and so not long after moving to Los Angeles, that was when he first came across a Gay Rodeo and he and his best friend went and they were completely captivated by it, this idea that these men and women and, you know, other persons were out there competing in this really rugged sport and they were LGBTQ people, was really profound for him.

 So in thinking about the themes of the conference today, how can museums demonstrate a commitment to inclusiveness and diversity through exhibits? And one of the things we found at the Eiteljorg and in particular with Blake Little, is that collaboration is key, it’s pretty easy I think for Curators and for institutions, particularly art institutions, to kind of take that baby step of Curator artist collaboration, that’s sort of a more natural fit I think in a lot of ways. But I think we can extend that sense of collaboration to apply to representatives of the communities whose art, histories and cultures we’re presenting in our exhibit spaces. So after connecting with Blake, and Greg Hinton was really instrumental in making that initial introduction, our next step was to connect with the IGRA community. I was able to attend their annual meeting in 2013 out in San Diego and there I got to meet people who had actually participated in the rodeo at the time Blake was photographing the rodeo and people who were competing today, and I made a lot of really valuable connections with people who I would later interview and use those interviews to help incorporate their voices into the exhibit.

And really I think what we’re talking about here is this concept of shared authority or at least that sense that Curators need to relinquish some sense of sole authority for the content of exhibitions. I think it’s important to acknowledge the expertise of Curators, particularly you know in the sense that we understand the museum world to a certain extent, and we understand the needs of museum visitors and museum audiences. But you also need to acknowledge and honour the expertise of the subjects of our exhibits and the artists whose work we show. In our case we were trying to blend both curatorial authority, artistic authority and then the authority and experiences of the subjects of the work.

One of the core ways that we did this was by using participant voices in the labels in the exhibition, as a combination of curatorial or institutional voice, artists voice and participant voice. So this is the introductory panel to the exhibit and in it we opened with Blake’s own words about the art and about the nature of the content in the exhibit followed by sort of a contextual segment from the curator’s perspective. But then on the object labels we used quotes from participants and often from the subjects of the photos themselves.

So, at the same time all of these labels were being written and photographs printed and framed and everything is getting installed and all of that sort of behind the scenes work of creating an exhibit was going on, we were simultaneously cultivating relationships with the local Indianapolis LGBTQ community and this was largely built upon previous connections we’d made through Out West programmes.

Museums like the Eiteljorg face unique challenges because of the nature of our mission and of our content and we constantly have to struggle against this sense within the local Indianapolis community of why should people care, they don’t live in the American West, why should they bother going to a museum about the American West? And I think shows like Blake Little help specific audiences and also more general audiences to see themselves in our galleries and in our content and this leads to them forging their own personal connections to the mission of the museum.

One of the ways that we did this was through our opening party for Blake Little, it was, you know, very obviously about inviting the LGBTQ community of Indianapolis into the museum, showing them that they were welcome to be here and overwhelmingly we got just wonderful, positive feedback throughout the run of the entire exhibit, you know from LGBTQ visitors, we kept hearing that they were seeing themselves in the exhibit space and that they were seeing how their stories were connected to the west in ways that they maybe hadn’t thought of before, by identifying with the struggles that face the subjects of the photos, from discrimination to the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and from non-LGBTQ visitors, they were seeing those commonalities and forging those bonds, really building that empathy, that’s a word that’s been coming up a lot today over the course of the presentations.

So where do you go from there? What happens next? So the exhibit, as some of you may know, opened in the midst of a bit of a controversy here in the state of Indiana, the state legislator was attempting to pass HJR-3 which was a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Obviously we didn’t plan for that, we had been working on the exhibit for several years at that point but you know the timing was fortuitous in a lot of ways and it certainly helped garner a lot more local attention because of the controversy. But after the exhibit closed we were fortunate enough, we were awarded the Paladin Award by the Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Heritage Foundation, that’s what’s in the upper corner here in the centre photo is us accepting it.

But I think what’s important is that as institutions we have to remember that a true commitment to inclusiveness extends beyond the life of specific programmes or exhibits, it’s a commitment we have to live every day and every facet of our institutional lives and it kind of comes full cycle back to that diversity statement Martha mentioned at the beginning of our talk, cultural diversity enriches our world and the Eiteljorg really firmly believe that and so we try to live out that mission, that goal in everything that we do from exhibits and programmes to hiring practices at the museum and all of that.

So when RFRA hit this last spring, some of you maybe familiar with that controversy, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we joined with many other arts and culture organisations in this city as well as many businesses in the open for service movement, that’s the business serves everyone, you might have seen those around the city, and also reiterated our commitment to being a museum that is open and welcome to all.

Martha: Hey, and here’s a shameless plug for those of you who are in the Indianapolis area, we’re very excited that this year our Out West programme offering centres around, as I said, it’s our first female oriented programming, and we were accepted to be part of a two week community festival called Spirit and Place which offers programming around a theme for a two week span. This year’s programming focuses on dream and we were thinking of, we were looking at our Out West programming for this year, last year, dream, imagine dreaming about a world where everyone is treated with equality and so dream kind of stuck with us and we decided yes, we need to look at our Out West programming for dream.

On November 8th we will have jazz, trombonist MJ Williams, come join us from Basin, Montana, talking about, with Greg facilitating the conversation, about her dream, she and her partner and two very good friends had been on the West Coast, they’d been travelling up and down, they had been performing in Europe and their dream was truly to return home to Montana to be accepted and they did that and their dream was to create a refuge for artists where they could come and do their art and so they created the Montana Artists Refuge. And so following the discussion with Greg and MJ for this programme we’re very excited, being a jazz trombonist, she’ll be doing a performance then following the talk.

 So thank you and questions.

Martha Hill, Vice President for Public Programs & Visitor Experience and Johanna M Blume, Assistant Curator of Western Art, History, and Culture from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015.

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