Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world, but didn’t know who to ask
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today I’m joined by Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation—a philanthropy organization with a $13bn endowment, which is principally focused on social justice.
In addition to his work at the foundation, Walker co-chairs New York City’s Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers; and he serves on the boards of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, Carnegie Hall and the Committee to Protect Journalists—to name just a few.
Darren Walker: The tension is real. But if we were to think about what constitutes trusteeship, it’s not just money.
We’re also joined by artist Teresita Fernández, known for work—including her public sculptures—as well as her commitment to creating social change through art. She is a subject of a retrospective, “Teresita Fernández: Elemental”, which is on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami until 9 February next year, after which it will travel to the Phoenix Art Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art next spring.
Teresita Fernández: The truth is that equity is not given. Power is not given. It’s often taken. That’s actually the history of power, is always that it is taken, that it’s demanded.
Before we get to today’s episode, here is your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now onto today’s show.
Thank you both so much for being here. We really appreciate your making the time. When we were researching the show, we were looking for areas of commonality and realized that you, of course, have collaborated in several quite profound ways over the course of the past several years. Can you tell us a little bit about how this fruitful relationship came to be?
Darren Walker: Well, I would start by saying that Teresita Fernández is one of the most dynamic, vibrant, brilliant and exciting artists working today. We at the Ford Foundation have come to know her because of her commitment to both artistic excellence and social justice.
We first began a collaboration with Teresita on an initiative that she brought to us. The idea was for a Latinx Futures Symposium, which emerged because Teresita realized—just as we realized at the Ford Foundation—that there was very little diversity within the museum ecosystem, particularly at the curatorial ranks, but also just across the sector generally.
And that that has had an impact, actually, on what we see on the walls of museums and what we read about in media. It has resulted in an under-representation of the excellence and creativity that actually exists in the community.
From this early idea grew, what is now I think a movement that Teresita is leading to raise awareness, to mobilize support, and to build consciousness in the mindset of those of us who are investors and consumers of art in this country.
Charlotte Burns: And Teresita, you said: “The project was born of frustration I felt over people’s confusion between Latin American and US Latinos.” So you approached Darren, who you called “the first person to really listen to what I had to say”, to discuss the fact that, “this is the largest and fastest growing demographic in the US and yet we’re virtually invisible in every aspect of the art world.” How did it feel to be listened to for that first time?
Teresita Fernández: Well, I would back up a little, because Darren—who’s very flattering, I might add—also is describing something retrospectively. It’s easy to talk a lot about a lot of these things now and speak of these ideas of leadership and having a vision. But it actually felt quite different when I was doing it. I think it’s worth mentioning that, because I don’t think that most artists and many people envision themselves as becoming a leading voice.
It started with my own practice, which people like to think is about landscape but, of course, is really about finding oneself and placing oneself. When we say landscape, it’s also a metaphor for socially locating yourself.
Over the last couple of decades, I started to become much more visible in the art world and I started to create large-scale public artworks. I was often the person invited to sit at a table. And the more visibility I got, the more I realized that I was seen as an anomaly. Sometimes I’d be the only person in the room that had experiences that were like mine.
The mounting frustration came out of this realization that I was somehow always being asked to choose between excellence and my identity, who I was and some of my social concerns as though these things were mutually exclusive. And of course, what I realized is that being forced to choose was precisely what was wrong and that I was no less of an artist: that that wasn’t different than the fact that I was concerned about these issues of invisibility for Latinx people. Realizing that those two things had to be brought to the table and that you couldn’t take one without taking the other was important.
I actually met Darren in a really casual way. We were at a MoMA garden party sitting at Aggie‘s table. I said to Thelma Golden, “You have to introduce me to Darren Walker.” And she did right away, of course. We made an appointment later that summer. I sat in his office and literally it was like the floodgates opened, because I had never had that conversation with anybody. The conversation really did not stem out of seeing myself as a leader or even wanting to kind of—
Charlotte Burns: Take that position.
Teresita Fernández: —take that position. And that’s important to talk about too, because it required giving up some of the visibility that I was getting because of my artwork to speak about something else. That’s a very precarious position to be in. When we talk about the labor of representing and who does this work. This often falls in the lap of people of color, and immigrants and all the same people that are being oppressed to actually point to the invisibility. And it’s very hard to point to invisibility.
Darren Walker: It requires actual courage. I think Teresita, when she visited my office to talk about her frustrations and also her vision, I think there was a path that could have been: “I’m going to put this off on you, the Ford Foundation, to help fix this.” But she said, actually, “I’ve got to be a part of the solution here.”
Often for artists and particularly for women of color, it is hard to step out and step forward and speak out, because you’re vulnerable and because you are often alone. And so, the courage to actually speak up and raise issues of injustice and inequality and inequity in the system to a community that actually doesn’t really want to hear that message takes courage.
Charlotte Burns: Right, yes. We recently published our second major data study looking at representation in the art world. Last year we looked at the representation of African American artists in American museums and the international art market. This year we looked at female artists in American museums and the international art market. It’s a collaboration that In Other Words does with artnet News.
For the women artists data, actually, there’s no trend. There’s no progress. If you look at the past ten years, there is no step in the right direction. There has been no upwards trend whatsoever. It actually peaked in 2009.
And when we’ve spoken to people, people have expressed real surprise about that. They were unaware. Does that data surprise you in any way?
Teresita Fernández: It doesn’t surprise me. But there’s this other conversation that Latinx thinkers and scholars and activists and artists have, which is that we kind of need to talk about how these categories are defined and how they don’t make sense.
Take Basquiat for instance. Basquiat is lots of different things. Basquiat is an African American, he’s an Afro-Latino. He is many things at once. When we use the word Hispanic, for example, Hispanic is a reference to language. It’s like saying Anglo. You can be from Spain and be Hispanic. When we say black and Hispanic and some of these measurements, it becomes really hard to actually understand how extreme the invisibility and the lack of representation is because it’s actually much, much worse than even those numbers indicate.
Latinx is an ethnicity, which means everybody’s in there. It’s very convenient to lump it together and often make it interchangeable with Latin American and Hispanic, which are totally different things.
When all of these things become interchangeable, all of the things that are wrong and all of the people that are most oppressed—and this always falls along the lines of gender, race and class—they all get hidden and tucked away conveniently into these titles.
We need to sort of break down these things a little bit finer in order to understand what those numbers really mean, because what we know is that when we look at the leading museums in this country and museums of American art, there are almost no representations of what Latinx means.
For example, when you call a Mexican-American artist Chicano but not Latinx, you remove them from the Latinx context. When you call them a Mexican-American and not Native American, even though they may be both of those things, you also exclude them—
Charlotte Burns: You’re creating distinctions that don’t exist.
Teresita Fernández: Yeah, exactly.
This is the case across the board. This is how people have been kept invisible constantly. If you look at the US census from its inception—and the US census is important because it’s about resources and it’s about budgets and it’s about who gets money, this is important and it actually relates to the art world—ever since the inception of the US census, the only category that has not been changed in terms of what it’s been called is white. Everybody else has been called something different every 20 years. The fact that all of these things keep changing means that you really can’t organize around something.
When my parents arrived in this country, they had to check white. That’s important because they weren’t white. There’s a lot of manipulation around what people call themselves or what they’ve been forced to call themselves. And so it looks like there’s a lot more white people than there really are.
And I want to bring that up because in these measurements of demographics, Latinx people always are not enough of anything. They’re not black enough. They’re not white enough. They’re not indigenous enough. It’s a very successful strategy for keeping any kind of visibility from actually manifesting itself and to become a reality.
Charlotte Burns: This is something that academics we spoke to pointed out, that if you’re in a minority then there’s this idea of competition. There’s this sort of “superstar effect” that one or two people will rise to the top, and we see this in the museum data; we see this in the market data. There are a small handful of people who get to the top and they’re then said to represent an entire body of people, as opposed to representing, if you’re an artist, your own specific unique, individual vision.
That’s sort of what you’re talking about. This burden of having to be one or the other rather than lived experience of being both—and which lived experiences are taken as the norm and which lived experiences are taken as less believable and need to be advocated much more for.
Darren Walker: I think part of what we’re seeing with this new generation of artists is an unwillingness to accept tokenism, but rather to say we want transformation. That the idea that one of us is anointed by the system to represent quote unquote, “our people,” is no longer acceptable. And as artists, we are going to demand the kind of behavior from the system that brings about long-term systemic change.
So you find artists like Teresita, Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Carrie Mae Weems, who are saying, “It’s not enough to have one of us on your walls, but rather you have to re-center how you think about presentation, how you think about your institution.”
This really begins with the trustees, the boards of these institutions, which have significant power as gatekeepers and as people who underwrite and finance the priorities of these institutions.
And of course, the curators, who ultimately determine what goes on the walls and what is important and what is not important.
That is why we have to address, systemically, the boards: how we diversify and ensure that these institutions, which our mission to serve the public, actually represent the public.
That’s a challenge in a time when there is greater demand for private philanthropy to basically underwrite the expenses of museums and cultural institutions.
The tension is real. But if we were to think about what constitutes trusteeship, it’s not just money. If the only lever or the only definition of a board member is that he or she has to be wealthy, then you’re actually not going to have an effective board. You may have a wealthy board, but you won’t have an effective board. You certainly won’t have an excellent board. The same goes for the curatorial ranks.
I’ve heard for a long time that the problem is the pipeline. I’ve had directors say to me, “We just can’t find African American or Latinx curatorial staff.” And that simply is a function of a lack of will, not because they are not there. They are there. I have known, in my time, some brilliant curators. I can think of one off the top of my head who could not find a job, whose dissertation for her PhD won the best award of her class. Yet, she was not employable until she recently emerged as one of the star curators in one of the most celebrated shows of the 2019 season.
So, I believe that until we change the behaviors of boards, and the leadership of museums, and those critics—because another reality is that within the media. There’s very little diversity among those ranks as well. We have to be honest with ourselves, that until we see the kind of change at those levels—at the board level, at the curatorial ranks, from the art critics—we’re not going to see the kind of transformation that we’re talking about.
Charlotte Burns: What you’re discussing is the need for a transformation. It’s that sense of if you can’t acknowledge the problem, you can’t own the problem. And there still seems to be, within the art world, a sense that “maybe the numbers are wrong; maybe the lived experiences of people who are telling us that they experience discrimination, maybe that’s wrong. We’re all trying. We’re all getting there.”
With our data study, we spoke to a consultant externally who has been advising on gender parity and boardrooms and said, “How do you structure your reports to create impact?” She said, “The problem is that the numbers are so sobering and nobody likes to be told off. So, you have to point people in the path of change, towards something positive. Take some case studies of things that have worked and write about them so people can see the way out.”
We thought that sounded like terrific advice and went about spending the past month interviewing people, saying at the end of the interviews, “What is working? What is not working?” We found it incredibly hard to point to the path towards change.
There aren’t, it doesn’t seem to us in our interviews, an incredible number of people are really focusing in detail—not just in sort of general abstract terms—on what change would look like, how that would happen, what those positive steps are.
How can you point people towards positive progress, positive steps for taking that change? How can they reconsider their boards and critics, and so on?
Teresita Fernández: I mean, I’d love to answer that.
Charlotte Burns: Please.
Teresita Fernández: Because I think some of the inherent issues or even the way that you describe that as, “You have to give equity.” The truth is that equity is not given. Power is not given. It’s often taken. That’s actually the history of power, is always that it is taken, that it’s demanded.
So, there is this sort of sentiment that I always find in these conversations about inclusion and diversity. The label changes all the time, right? Which is, how do we invite these people? How do we serve this community? It never ever brings to the table the fact that in order to create equity, you actually have to give something up. It’s very hard for people to give something up. If we want to stop having thousands of panels on diversity and actually create change, what we need to do is understand that compassion is a relationship of equals.
If you want your table to be diverse and inclusive, it means somebody’s going to have to get up from the table. That’s the conversation that nobody wants to have.
Let’s just say that people in positions of power—and that includes museum directors, that includes philanthropists, it includes artists, that includes anybody, really. It includes curators, critics, journalists, anybody who has any kind of power—and we all have power in different sorts of scales. It means that somebody has to give something up. If we could switch every panel at every museum that’s about diversity inclusion to equity, literally signifying that somebody has to give something up and teaching people how to give something up, then you’d get what you’re trying to do.
If you look at, for example, the gallery at the Ford Foundation—the newly-opened gallery at the Ford foundation—one of the things that is so incredible about this project, it was automatically all the things that everyone is putting all of these resources into trying to change. I think we need to focus from, “How do we change?” to actually changing. What happened at the Ford Foundation was, if you invite people who are already diverse amongst themselves and you give them resources, it happens automatically.
Charlotte Burns: Of course.
Teresita Fernández: It actually isn’t mediated. It just happens automatically.
I think it’s about, how do we ensure that the resources and these measurements and this desire to change includes giving up some power and resources for people who are actually experiencing these things, to create change?
Charlotte Burns: That’s something that came up. One of the curators said that one of the struggles they’d faced was this idea that the board was in line with their mission to fundamentally change the structure, to give resources differently. Then the tension came when they realized it wasn’t an add-on but a takeaway—that’s this moment of great tension and rupture, actually, in that instance.
Darren, this is something you’ve spoken about. You wrote very eloquently about in July. You waded into one of the most toxic debates that’s been going on in the museum world in recent years.
You talked about museums needing to step into the future in an op-ed you wrote in The New York Times, making the case that museums reflect the nation’s deepening inequality and that the trustees of the museums, as you were just discussing, have a mandate to fix this. You were talking about the fact that a lot of philanthropists expect appreciation rather than scrutiny for giving as generously as they do to arts venues as government support increasingly goes down. But on the other side, are the people whom the system excludes and exploits.
You talked about how you think museums have a responsibility to hold up a mirror to society and that importantly, this isn’t about doing the right thing. This is about doing the necessary thing in order to become more excellent in order to ensure a viable longevity of an institution being supported by the public that it represents. It would create more robust institutions to have more voices.
What was the reaction—I understand the external reaction to the op-ed. It caused a splash. What was your sense of reaction that you personally experienced?
Darren Walker: I experienced two reactions. The first was one of gratitude from people who are on the front lines of this shift in paradigm of recognizing that our institutions have to change, that the underlying inequality that we’re seeing in American society today is reflected in our institutions and that this inequality has to be addressed.
The second reaction was one of a recoiling: a rejection of the idea that excellence needs to be defined through any lens of diversity and that these museums must have wealthy people on their boards, otherwise they’ll go out of business.
I think that the second reaction is the one I’m more focused on because these are often the people who are large donors, who, when the boardroom door closes, are the loudest voices and wield outsized power in governance, in their institutions.
So those people have to understand that their narrow view of the art world—that is really parochial in many ways, and that is informed by their privilege—that that privilege has to be challenged. It’s hard to challenge people with privilege because they don’t want to be challenged. They’re often unwilling to listen.
What I find is that some of our most privileged, wealthy people are not good listeners because they don’t exist in an ecosystem that demands of them that they listen, like the rest of us. There is a set of people for whom this idea of change, viscerally, the response is simply to dig in their heels. We just have to acknowledge that.
I’m optimistic because I think that population is a dwindling population. But the system itself still is imbued with those values, imbued with this idea that excellence will be harmed by diversity, rather than seeing that actually you can’t be excellent in 2020 in America without being diverse, particularly if you are a public institution.
Even if you are significantly funded privately, you remain a public institution. Serving the public requires that the public has confidence in you and that confidence in part comes from seeing people who look like the public on your board, on your staff, and not just the guards and operations people.
Charlotte Burns: It’s also the idea of the sense of possibility. If you grow up as a young child seeing that your future is limited in the way that the world views you, that constricts your sense of personal possibility, your sense of personal potential. If you think the only roles available to you are all those of the people in the lower-paid jobs, for example, the people who get to take care of the creativity rather than the people who are in charge of distilling creativity.
Darren Walker: Well and we see within the museum ecosystem, the cultures, and the behaviors and the processes reinforce the privilege of the already privileged. One example of that is the internship programs at most museums. A few years ago, I wrote about the fact that far too many of these internships are unpaid. Now, I was a low-income kid. There was no way I could have worked for free. So, what we find is that these on-roads to a career in a museum are pre-selected to be students who are already privileged because their parents can pay for them to live a good life.
Charlotte Burns: The pay to play starts early.
Darren Walker: It starts very early. I’m happy to see that more museums now are doing away with unpaid internships. In fact, the American Association of Museum Directors passed a resolution at their annual meeting to discourage unpaid internships. But these are the kinds of systemic interventions that I’m talking about, that we need to accelerate as quickly as we can if we actually want to see the transformation that we’re talking about.
Charlotte Burns: There’s one just note I wanted to add to that, which is that everything you’re saying is what we experienced in our interviews, that the people at the very top… It has to do with privilege, but I think any art world where gut instinct and an eye are so valued for obvious reasons, there is a sense that a lot of the people who are really in power—and like you said, there are different scales of that and different expressions of that, different roles—those people ostensibly have got there because their opinions are so valued. And so it’s almost a sort of psychic shock to think that your opinion may not, in fact, be right on this.
Maybe more needs to be done, and quickly and urgently. Maybe the steps that we’re taking are actually part of the system holding people back because, actually, the talk of progress is blindfolding us to the fact that there is none really happening.
Darren Walker: It’s the tyranny of expertise.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Darren Walker: The fact that incumbents believe that their training, their experience has given them a unique capacity to determine whether something is worthy or not. I believe that those of us who are gatekeepers have an obligation to ask, “Whose eye gets to determine? Whose gut is right?”
Charlotte Burns: It’s also the harder work. This is something I was talking to a curator at one of the big museums about last week. As an editor, it’s much, much easier for me if I’m in a pinch—which we always are because we’re very short-staffed and we’re always on deadline—to just commission a run of the usual suspects.
I think it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not a case that the people aren’t out there. It’s the case that you don’t know them, and you have to really try harder. It always requires much more work. There’s a woman coming on the show in January that I’ve been trying to get on the show for three years and it just takes more time and more patience. But it has to be really conscious. That’s what I’ve noticed. Without it being a target, it doesn’t really happen.
Teresita, I want to talk a little bit about your exhibition coming up. It’s your first mid-career survey. Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect?
Teresita Fernández: Yes. So, the show “Elemental” will cover about 20 years’ worth of work. And for me it’s really sort of an incredible opportunity to make sure that the narrative and the context around the work is accurate. And I say this as someone who has very few mentors and who sees the work of, for example Ana Mendieta—who never had a museum show in her life—be completely fetishized and have this incredible market value now, and knowing that in her life she never really experienced any of that success. Or even Félix González Torres, who was a dear friend of mine and who has in large part been whitewashed. I remember Felix, he was a brown man with a thick accent—and to read his narrative now is very different than the person that I knew.
Charlotte Burns: In what ways?
Teresita Fernández: Félix was an immigrant. He came to this country, as an adult—this part of his narrative has been sort of omitted in relation to how the work is read. It was a really important part of who he was and of why he became an artist and how he negotiated the world. But his work is also deeply rooted in American identity. These are some of the things that concerned me, too, because I see so many people with the same background as myself—take Carmen Herrera for example, who didn’t have a show at her retrospective at the Whitney until she was a 100 years old, but she lived down the block from Union Square.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Teresita Fernández: Since like the forties, right? It’s not about not being in the right place at the right time. It is about omission. And so, this mid-career show is really important to me because it’s an opportunity to get my narrative right. It’s also this important moment where I can say, “Yes, this is the social, political part of the work. And I know it’s there because I put it in there.”
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Teresita Fernández: You can’t just say it’s beautiful and put it in your living room or in a museum. This is a really important part of that.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Teresita Fernández: And I refuse to choose between making work that’s intellectually rigorous and politically relevant and beautiful, and dealing with the imagination and really understanding beauty as one of the most powerful vehicles that we have.
The catalog is a really important component for me. This kind of interview around the show where I can say that it is both of these things, it is many things at once, is really important.
Charlotte Burns: This is something you said in a talk to graduating college students that art really comes from life. And what’s so interesting about that is that it comes back to really what we keep talking about, which is whose life? Whose narrative? Because for all the artists who get that lion’s share of the museum shows, of course their art came from their lives too. It’s absolutely no different.
Teresita Fernández: I am definitely someone who is putting a voice to some of these issues. And I do that proudly. And sometimes it’s a lot of work to do that. I do it because I believe in it.
I am also deeply aware that the most radical thing that I can do is to simply make it as an artist and to have my work be visible and celebrated and in museum collections and have a market around that.
The people that I know that have that kind of success around them are all dead.
I live that, because I know that I am not an anomaly. The richness comes precisely from who I am and from my experiences and the kinds of joys and injustices that I have experienced in my life, and that I have seen my parents experience. It isn’t that the work is about that—and this is an important distinction as well. I have no idea what Latinx art is. I’m definitely not making Latinx art. I’m doing my own thing. I’m interested in ideas. I’m making art about ideas. I have an MFA, I’m a rigorous intellectual thinker.
I know, though, that I am a Latinx artist and that the artwork that I’m making that exists in this contemporary art world is informed by that—even though I refused for it to be called Latinx art, because that’s a ridiculous notion.
So those are all some of the things that I’m trying to own and make visible through my own practice. And I do that too in other ways. I employ five full time women of color who are all Latinas in my studio. This is part of that idea of when you do have power, it’s really important how you use it.
Charlotte Burns: To dispense it thoughtfully.
Teresita Fernández: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah.
Charlotte Burns: We saw that, actually, a lot last year with the African American artists data: that idea of dispensing your power, when you acquire it, thoughtfully, that was one of the pathways to change that you could see that was becoming embedded. If an artist received recognition institutionally or commercially, they would then say, “Well these are my reference points and you should look here too.” Rather than just being folded in as a sort of tokenistic gesture to say, “Well this is an art history that is important to me, that you just frankly overlooked.”
Teresita Fernández: I think it has to do a lot with what gets perceived as having permanence and being solid. You could be an artist who does have a market around their work, whose work is in lots of private settings and who is not represented in museum collections. I think that one of the biggest things that museums can do is actually collect works of underrepresented artists—and that, to me, is the place where it happens the least.
Charlotte Burns: Agree.
Teresita Fernández: Even if you do have a market around your work.
Charlotte Burns: Looking at the figures, it’s absolutely true. You see that curatorial timidity. This idea that the museums are so separate from the market, you see it’s embedded largely due to the funding structures and the way in which consensus is formed. You know, they’re so closely aligned. It’s a small industry after all.
Darren Walker: But one of the things that philanthropy can do is to ensure that we are supporting and underwriting those voices, those artists who need to be heard and who are doing truly exceptional, brilliant work.
It’s one of the reasons why we’re happy to support Teresita’s show and why we’re happy to support a national tour of the show. Ultimately it costs money to produce the kind of high-quality catalog that will be worthy of her art. It costs money to stage the kind of exhibition with the monumental works that she has produced, and so we can’t kid ourselves.
Part of the reason that we don’t see enough of that representation is because philanthropy, corporations, have to be willing to underwrite that. And often boards and curators take their cues when they see that, “Oh, well there’s the possibility that if we put on this kind of show, that might be seen as quote-unquote ‘risky’, that we will have the financial underwriting to make that possible.”
So, I believe that philanthropy has a role to play here and we have to start being less timid, less risk averse, and really support bold and creative artists like Teresita.
Charlotte Burns: It’s also the case that our definition of what “risky” is, is an expression of our unconscious biases anyway. When you look at some of the most successful museum shows of the past couple of years, they weren’t necessarily the expected hits.
The expectations of what is risky aren’t necessarily. We’re limited by the past.
Darren Walker: Because the public is out ahead of us.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Darren Walker: The public is hungry, thirsty for this kind of experience, but we incumbents aren’t always ready and willing to give the public what the public wants, which isn’t entertainment. They want intelligent, deep reflection. They want to experience the kind of beauty that Teresita is talking about, which everyone deserves in their life but far too few people have it.
I again just come back to this idea that we need disruption of this ecosystem that is entrenched and embedded in retrospective, retrograde ideas of what art and excellence is. What I’m thrilled about is seeing the willingness, I think, at last, of many institutions to begin to do the hard work of transformation, of moving from tokenism to transformation.
Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm. Both of you have strong beliefs and a lot of the collaborations you’ve done have been about this idea that art has the power to create change and transform. What happened in your lives that caused that belief? What was your encounter with art that was seismic in that way?
Teresita Fernández: I suppose it’s different if you’re an artist because your encounter with art is sort of just looking in the mirror oftentimes. But I do think that for me, it was about taking the convictions that I felt in the studio and the kind of intimacy I think that I sought after in making a work that prompted a response from the viewer. For me, that became more public and I started to talk about that. These were very private things that informed what I did in the studio, and that I was hesitant to talk to.
I mean, I really kind of held back because it was private.
Charlotte Burns: It was vulnerable.
Teresita Fernández: It was private, and it was actually my own lived experience of these, of these difficulties and how they manifest themselves in real life. It was really overcoming those vulnerabilities when I started to be a little bit more vocal about those vulnerabilities. What I found is that a lot of other people needed to hear it and wanted to hear it, and had a lot to say. And there’s a whole lot of power in that when you can somehow harness it and somehow redirect the vulnerability to open up a conversation that inspires people to see themselves in things that are not them. That is what art is. A moving art experience is precisely about seeing yourself in something that isn’t you. That’s what compassion is based on.
When we can do that for other people, we somehow open that ability to imagine change.
Darren Walker: I would just say that my encounter with art at a young age had a profound impact on my life trajectory. My grandparents were both domestic workers. They had grade school educations and when I was a little boy, I would sometimes on Saturdays go with them to clean the house and work on the yard of the family they worked for in Houston. I started to come across discarded magazines and programs from cultural events and art books that they would tape up and put in their mud room for my grandfather, who would then take it out.
I just asked if I could have some of the things that I saw, and once my grandparents saw that, my grandmother would pretty consistently put them aside for me and bring them to me in brown paper bags. I just remember opening those brown paper bags and being entranced by what I saw, because it was so far removed from the world I lived, in my existence in that small town where we lived. Yet it gave me insight into what’s possible in the world. It gave me an ability to dream about a world I might be a part of someday. For me it was really that experience that began a lifelong journey with art and culture.
Charlotte Burns: And Darren, I know that you have a new book out called From Generosity to Justice but you’re also working on your memoir, aren’t you? Which must be quite difficult—I imagine this idea that Teresita was saying, of opening up your personal life in that way.
Darren Walker: I think writing Generosity to Justice—which is a reflection on Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 seminal essay, “A Gospel of Wealth”—was relatively easy compared to what I’m doing for Random House, the memoir, because it is deeply disturbing to excavate one’s history, particularly if there’s pain and anguish and grief associated with that history. To be candid and frank and transparent about one’s life requires one to engage in a level of self-reflection that is really uncomfortable, and to be prepared to actually have that be consumed by the public is actually quite frightening.
I’m struggling through it, but I’ve got a contract and I’ve got to get it done, in part because the proceeds of the book are going to go to the National Head Start Association—which is a program that in 1965 as a small boy sitting on the porch of our little shotgun shack in rural East Texas, I was given the opportunity to join that first class of Head Start students. So, I feel a deep affiliation with that program.
Charlotte Burns: It changed your life.
Darren Walker: It changed my life. Exactly.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you both so much for being here today. I think we could talk all afternoon, but I won’t keep you for longer. But to visitors, please do go and see “Teresita Fernández: Elemental” on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami until 9 February and after that in Phoenix and New Orleans. Thank you both for being my guests.
Teresita Fernández: Thank you.
Darren Walker: Thank you, Charlotte.