Dear Students of the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI),
You are beginning your semester in the time of a global pandemic and an imperative necessity to question white supremacy in your country, your institutions, and your daily life. This will not be a normal semester; it can’t be.
The structures and ideas formed before you in the creative field are in both decay and transformation. You are being asked to consider what justice is for yourself and your peers. You will be challenged to shift from business models to forming systems of mutual aid. As someone who was once considered an arts professional, it’s prudent that you take this warning to heart. As the systems around you are questioned, destroyed, and rebuilt, you get to lay a new foundation as a collective. This is a foundation that you should lean into. This time is going to be one that is both of wild ambiguity and form a certainty around your core values and perspectives.
For those of you who are able-bodied, white, and cis-gendered, I call you in, and I ask you to stand behind the demands of KCAI Solidarity and define a method for consistent support and care for your BIPOC classmates. For those of you fellow queer folks and the spectrum of LGBTQIA+ students, I ask that you also stand in solidarity with these students. When learning queer history, you will discover Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson gave you the freedom you have today. If you ever disagree with a BIPOC colleague, begin by asking “why,” continue investigating your own, and listening.
At this crucial moment, the school’s administrative leadership is disappointing. Many of you will be taught this semester by uninsured adjunct faculty. Leadership appears to have made no effort to support the economic needs of this faculty group sufficiently. Lack of emergency pay and no health insurance during a global pandemic does not show support for a group for whom the student body relies heavily upon. While this is how these contingent faculty are typically compensated, we are in a global pandemic, and you are returning to campus. How can you uplift and support your faculty and staff who cannot unionize to bargain for hazard pay and health insurance collectively? If your faculty happen to be full time, you will receive instruction and lectures from educators who are not trained in virtual learning. They are doing their best with limited resources. They are putting their lives at risk for the sake of attempting to perform some semblance of normalcy. Again, this is an opportunity to build new.
You wield power and have so many more outlets to express that power than ever before. I admire all of you who use social media to highlight your outrage, organize, and form solidarity. I read KCAI’s response to the demands of the Student Solidarity Network and the Black Student Union. Based on the statements I read, it seems your faculty are attempting to do what is in their political power. The response is not broad enough. The school is focused on being self-protective. Creating a diversity and inclusion plan, working towards optimistic incremental change with committees, and new hiring practices is a good start if those goals can be reached. But how is it reckoning with its honest past as an institution? How has it historically behaved? In what ways has art education historically been upholding white supremacist ideas at the center? Giving faculty copies of Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be Anti-Racist” does not adequately teach them how to put those ideas into practice. Kendi says so much in that book that unraveled the racism and classism in my experience at the same college you’re now attending. For too long, the school has focused on elite language and critical theory that is so alienating and complex that it excludes most viewers in our broader culture.
The language of KCAI’s response letter comes off belittling at times. KCAI stated that the school was “appalled by the use of social media platforms used to make personal attacks and to perpetuate false information about the college,” critiquing the students’ approach. I don’t believe KCAI Solidarity would have received this level of prioritized response if not for utilizing social media as a platform and tool for accountability. This overgeneralization employs “respectability politics,” which institutions often use to focus on the morality of the way demands are being made, rather than addressing the needs themselves. This particular sentence does not invite a diversity of opinion and insinuates that critiques are a form of slander, a dangerous impediment to change. I know this work happened not out of hate for the institution but out of a desire to create a better place for learning art and design that serves all students regardless of race and socioeconomic class.
This week, I saw through my social channels that KCAI had asked all students, faculty, and staff to sign a liability waiver to relinquish institutional responsibility for harm caused by COVID-19. Because of your continued and determined vulnerability and transparency to hold the institution accountable, it was shared on social media that the waiver stated, “I acknowledge that my participation in the on-campus instruction, studios, and any work-study employment, entails known and unanticipated risks related to infectious diseases including, but not limited to COVID-19 and the health consequences due to such exposure or infection, including significant personal injury or death.“ As an alum, this news was deeply upsetting.
COIVD-19 is a disease that is disproportionately affecting and causing the deaths of thousands of BIPOC individuals in the United States. This disease directly impacts KCAI’s BIPOC population; this puts these students, you all, directly at risk. Kansas City continues to report high COVID-19 cases, and many residents still refuse to wear masks. In the face of this global catastrophe, the idea of a liability waiver is unacceptable. I wrote a letter to the administration to bring about change in an institution I am genuinely furious with. The focus on liability is dark, dystopian, and completely unacceptable.
As artists, you will be challenged throughout your growth and development to challenge the status quo. You must not only challenge the cultural and theoretical norms around you, but you must critique the conditions in which you do work and show it. At some point, it is likely to find yourself renting a studio that seems too good to be true. For decades, developers across the country have used artists as the first line in the gentrification of neighborhoods. Gentrification causes harm often to communities of color and working-class residents. The artists often see affordability as an opportunity to create space for themselves. Property owners follow and use these spaces as marketing that generates pricier housing, displacing the original residents. Keep in mind always that art is not separable from the broader culture. It is in your power to not allow this to continue. Stay suspicious of developers and attend meetings with the local chapter of SURJ and local tenants rights activists, KC Tenants.
Schools like KCAI help students like you build studio practices to prepare for the “art world.” The institutions that manufacture the prestige of the art world are disintegrating in COVID-19. Museums are crumbling, and being held genuinely accountable, mid-tier galleries are collapsing. The systems that have upheld ideas that artistic labor must be voluntary, that galleries should never pay you upfront and should take massive commissions, that you must do work that conforms to an aesthetic suited to art fairs. The pandemic is leaving that system behind, and there is no sense in bringing it with you. You must be an anti-racist student who will collectively build new structures, self-learning and unlearning, directing your knowledge, questioning everything, and supporting your peers in the Student Solidarity Network and the Black Student Union.
You’re going to have to build a new art world that isn’t separate from reality, but is reflective of it, and integrated within it. It’s going to be hard work, and a lot to untangle, but you must stick with it. This process may feel uncomfortable if you are white and have never, since birth, experienced a displacement of power. Suppose you have not in your life experienced the brutality and harassment of police, economic injustice, or witnessing the brutality of state violence against people who look like you. In that case, you must reckon with that to be an artist at this time. Everything is economic, all art is political. You must not make work that uses theory to justify bad behavior. You must not ever make work that inappropriately colonizes the aesthetics of cultures that are not your own. You will all learn to critique each others’ progress and the new system you will have to build simultaneously. Find ways to uplift those around you. Find joy as often as possible while maintaining a safe distance and wearing a mask.
This is not a time where we will succeed as a culture by focusing on outdated, neoliberal ideas of individualism. If you have something to share–money, time, food, labor–find a way to do so. And in your creative practice, speak to as many people as you can.
As students, you should continue to hold those around you accountable. You have power. It is your money that pays tuition. It is your presence that gives the school the ability to function.
The H&R Block Artspace, the space that serves you students and connects you to international art conversations, has not put out a direct response for exhibiting the video work of Jamie Warren in 2013. The work had white students and community members dressed as racist caricatures of Black celebrities. The curatorial staff needs to make a statement and commit to actions that will repair relationships with the communities of color. I attended Warren’s opening in 2013, and I heard first hand the celebratory dialogues. And I, like many of you, was impressionable, naive, and young. I didn’t have examples set for me to see how simply not questioning that work was upholding white supremacy in the art scene. You have the opportunity to call these things out and again, build new. Your participation is essential.
KCAI is the foundation of the Kansas City art community. You, as students, have the power to make that whatever you’d like it to be. Unraveling my relationship to racism and how I have benefited from white supremacy has been awkward, uncomfortable, and raw. It is a privilege to learn about racism rather than directly experiencing it firsthand. I believe that you, the students of the Kansas City Art Institute, can reshape Kansas City’s art community’s culture and examine its relationship to race and class.
Good luck, wear a mask, and stay safe.