Fearlessness in “For Us, By Us” Institutions
by Nico Wheadon
“I have been thinking about the notion of perfect love as being without fear, and what that means for us in a world that’s becoming increasingly xenophobic, tortured by fundamentalism and nationalism.” ―bell hooks
I have an image in my head of bell hooks, lying awake, plotting against this world’s many “isms” through fearless love. Like the hooks of my dreams, existential questions keep me up at night. In the face of so many ideals-induced fears, I ask, who might teach us to value process-based practices over product-driven outcomes? What can be learned from modeling institutions that privilege people over profit? And how can operationalizing love yield connection and collaboration in lieu of competition?
In this segment, I survey two experimental designs for Black social institutions—a guild and a school—offering insights into what cultural institutions might learn from their organizing principles and values-driven approach. Each boldly subverts the popular expectations of its chosen form, and embodies perfection as the ability to scale an idea into an institution, whilst staying true to one’s core values and constituencies. In my analysis, I consider how “for us, by us” (FUBU) institutions redesign rigid cultural infrastructures into modular forms that resist perfection’s holy grail of “wholeness.” While The Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG) and The Black School (TBS) were designed as FUBU spaces, their blueprints dare all cultural institutions to experiment with form and, in so doing, set new standards of excellence.
BADG Featured in the April issue of Elle Decor Magazine. Photo by Alaric Campbell
The Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG)
“There’s no reason for the establishment to fear me. But it has every right to fear the people collectively— I am one with the people.” ―Huey P. Newton
As a socioeconomic project, the guild upholds equal access to resources, professional opportunities, and decision-making power. This collective embodies skills, values, and relationships that serve as the foundation for both individual advancement and community wealth. In this context, community operates not only as a means of economic and spiritual survival, but also as a tool to challenge the modus operandi of the establishment. BADG―founded by Brooklyn-based artist Malene Barnett in 2018―is committed to “building a more equitable and inclusive creative culture by advancing a community of independent Black artists, makers, and designers in creative industries.”
“We value the excellence of Black artists, makers, and designers; We value our ancestral legacies in art, craft, and design; We value Black talent and culture as a necessary component of design; and We value inclusive and equitable practice within the art and design industry.” –BADG
While “excellence” and “talent” are part of any guild’s value system (and have roots in common ideals of perfectionism), I would argue that BADG’s commitment to craftsmanship moves beyond merely setting shared standards of quality. Where the guilds of centuries past saw craftsmanship as a driver of trade and wealth, BADG also discusses craftsmanship as a tool for building equity and inclusion. BADG’s people-powered engine is built wholly on access, transparency, reciprocity, and collaboration, values most cultural institutions struggle to espouse, let alone name as core commitments.
Their organizational structure brings these values to life through a set of modular platforms: an online talent directory to directly engage its members; a platform for member-driven collaborations; an e-commerce platform; and a series of professional development workshops and networking events that regularly bring the guild’s communities together.
I was most drawn to the guild’s first project, The Obsidian Virtual Concept House, which is the collaborative work of all 23 BADG members and “showcases an enlightened way of being and dwelling, designed on our own terms.” The design features: landscapes and exteriors that acknowledge the Black family’s longing for nourishment and healing; interiors that center gathering spaces like “the kitchen as the heart of the Black home”; and thresholds for wellness and self-care that respond to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact our safety and wellbeing.
In their first Creators in Conversation event, Nina Cooke John―an architect, designer, and educator―articulates the essential prompt for Obsidian’s creation as, “How do we design ourselves into the future?” The question holds a heavy paradox―that blueprints for a future without Black people exist. Former Black Panther Party leader, Ericka Huggins, later recalls visiting a housing project in Chicago; “States often produce housing for people who are living in conditions of poverty that replicate something of carceral architecture.” Here, we are reminded that oppressive structures don’t just happen―they are designed and selectively imposed. And, in closing, architect and designer Leyden Lewis reminds us that, “Harmony is built by listening.” But let’s be honest―who most often has (and hogs) the mic?
So how might a cultural institution listen and learn from how BADG has organized itself? Which institutionalized practices pose obstacles to building more harmony? Firstly, the labor of cultural institutions is largely invisible, and the work product of staff subsumed by the institution or leadership. Imagine if there were a public directory for MoMA, and each employee had a landing page that shared their core values, portfolio, and direct contact? Additionally, cultural institutions typically encourage competition amongst artists, since the narrative of “the solitary genius” (or the “emerging” artist “debuted” by the museum) is sexier and more marketable than the headline, “22 Black Creatives Combat Institutionalized Racism Through Culturally-Responsive Design.” And, finally, could you imagine a museum entrusting its artists to also author the curatorial framework for their exhibition? No, because most museums don’t trust their core constituencies to construct meaning outside of the institution’s own biased interpretation.
Perhaps it is unfair to hold cultural institutions―with all their bureaucracy and red tape―accountable to the same standards of nimbleness and transparency as social institutions. Or maybe it’s just an imperfect exercise of trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. I would argue, however, that cultural institutions built themselves in that square peg image, and then continued to replicate it ad nauseum for centuries! At the other extreme, you have BADG, designed to take on a new shape every day as the composition of its membership changes and it responds to the evolving politics of the field.
I draw inspiration from BADG’s fearless value proposition: to see one another as collaborators instead of competitors; to build platforms that celebrate Black excellence whilst nurturing a community of practice and critique; and to stop fighting for a seat at the table when we can just design the whole damn house ourselves!
Photo by Sindayiganza Photography
The Black School (TBS)
“Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” ―Booker T. Washington
Observing the strategic growth of TBS over the past few years has been inspiring on multiple levels. I first knew co-founders Shani Peters and Joseph Cullier III as brilliant artists, committed to making work that extends beyond the studio. I later participated (as both community member and collaborator) in countless educational events designed by TBS and incubated by museums. And now―as a thought partner, friend, and fellow architect of Black space―I’m equally invested in both the evolution of their model and the evolution of Shani and Joseph as trusted cultural leaders.
I’ve never questioned TBS’s premise by asking, “hol’up, wayment―where’s the actual ‘school’?!” To their credit, TBS’s carefully crafted tagline helps to manage those formalist expectations―TBS is an experimental art school teaching radical Black history. The words “experimental” and “radical” unmoor them from the prescribed academic standards—and dominant historical narratives—that so often oppress and erase the very Black communities they serve. They expound, “The Black School’s mission is to promote and extend the legacy of art in Black radical histories by providing innovative education alternatives centered on Black love.”
These alternatives democratize access to creativity and demystify the artistic process for the general public, and include: a Studio staffed by youth apprentices who design community solutions; the Black Love Fest, an annual celebration of Black culture; public programming including educational workshops, interactive exhibits, and live events; and, now, 5 years after conception, a physical schoolhouse. Each platform works in unison to generate the community and revenue that allows TBS to self-sustain and embody its core principle of self-determination.
In an interview for my forthcoming book, Cultivating The Cultural Commons: A Toolkit For Civic Engagement Within, Beyond & Through The Museum Space (working title), Shani shares the inspiration behind building a modular schoolhouse in New Orleans; “They’re called Rosenwald Schools, but we like to call them Booker T. Schools because it was Booker T. Washington’s vision that Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy philanthropist from Sears and Roebuck, supported financially. Local Black communities enabled this vision, which started with those one-room schoolhouses that we see in the historical pictures.”
“In collaboration with local architect Whawn Allen and internationally recognized sustainable architecture firm LOT-EK, we will explore how technologies like modularity and upcycling could be used to recreate the Washington/Rosenwald Schools initiative.” –TBS
The schoolhouse will build upon TBS’s existing modules and add a few more that celebrate the site-specificity of NOLA: “a library/meditation room, maker space, urban farm, and event space/gallery.” TBS’s intent is to share their blueprints so that the design can be replicated by anyone looking to build a similar community resource. In their modular, purpose-built design, we see a focus on economic viability, eco-sustainability, and hyper-local relevance, something cultural institutions have struggled with for decades.
The Black School. Photo by Sindayiganza Photography
So, what could a university art gallery learn from TBS’s approach to manifesting history’s contemporary relevance and building an engaging arts education program? Firstly, TBS is explicit in naming the core principles that guide how its mission shows up in its teaching, programming, and partnerships. Oftentimes, academic institutions get so enamored with “standards” that they forget to align them with measures beyond compliance, or lose sight of the educational value of experimentation. Secondly, they also often look only to other vetted institutions as subject-matter experts, and deny the wealth of knowledge that lives within individual people. TBS, at the other extreme, shifts expertise away from the centralized role of educator/academy and back to their communities as subject-matter experts on the Black experience. Lastly, TBS doesn’t rely on a finite collection of art objects as a launch point for its educational programming―they instead make art of the everyday, offering a fluid accessible model that engages non-dominant histories and source materials.
Shani and Joseph’s authentic, patient, and values-driven approach to scaling TBS from an itinerant program incubated by NYC museums to a deeply-rooted (yet willfully freeform) cultural institution in NOLA is not just an inspiration―it’s the future! Guided in all endeavors by “self-love,” “community building,” “Black radicalism,” and “economic justice,” TBS has never wavered in its commitment to these values, and has, instead, scaled at a pace that would allow them to remain intact. They have also used modularity as a strategy to remain operationally nimble and infrastructurally sound, whilst retaining creative license to experiment with form.
TBS’s commitment to designing a full range of experiences, from self-guided workshops to city-wide festivals, acknowledges the many invisible barriers to participation in art; reflects a deep knowledge of the specific challenges our communities face; and exposes their solutions-oriented approach.
Call To (In)action
To steer away from perfection’s rigidity isn’t enough—we must also chart the course toward the fluid futures we wish to inhabit. In this unprecedented moment of diversity hires, deaccessioning debates, and solidarity statements, majority-white institutions are clearly doing the work to appear responsive. But what values are guiding their response? And what should their work actually embody in this moment of reckoning? I argue the first step is resisting the urge to act, and, instead, listening to the harmony emanating from FUBU institutions. Their work matters to the particular communities that they serve and to the entire cultural ecosystem of which they are a part. The emotional and intellectual labor performed by FUBU institutions is what ensures that the broader culture, in which we all trade, remains authentic, dynamic, and unbound. It’s high time these culture palaces pass the mic, and learn from the artist- and community-led innovation already transforming our field, just simply beyond their walls.
Nico Wheadon is an independent art advisor, curator, educator, and writer. She is also founder and principal of bldg fund, LLC, an innovation platform for BIPOC artists, entrepreneurs, and neighbors. Nico currently serves on the Board of Governors at the National Academy of Design, and the Advisory Board for the Lubin School of Business.
An adjunct assistant professor at Brown University, Barnard College, and Hartford Art School, she has also guest lectured internationally on topics including: the future of museums; art and entrepreneurship; navigating risk in the nonprofit industrial complex; and building artist-led institutions. In 2020, she was appointed as a Guide at The Institute of Possibility.
Nico’s first manuscript—On Museum Citizenship: A Toolkit for Radical Art Pedagogy, Practice & Participation—is slated for publication in Spring 2021. The book brings together over forty pioneering voices from the field to reflect on canon-shifting practices currently taking place within, beyond, and through the museum space. In recent posts, Wheadon served as Inaugural Executive Director of NXTHVN (2019–2020); Inaugural Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2014–2019); and Curatorial Director of Rush Arts Gallery (2007–2010). She holds an MA in Creative & Cultural Entrepreneurship from Goldsmith’s College University of London (2011), and a BA in Art-Semiotics from Brown University (2006).