On Cultural Intimidation

And Why It Continues

Juliette Harris

Michelle Obama speaking at Whitney Museum building dedication. Photo: Whitney Museum of American ArtAt one time, the concept of “cultural deprivation” was used to describe a major challenge to social mobility. Poor black people were "culturaly deprived." That concept became obsolete in the mid-to-late 1960s, when African Americans and other peoples of color asserted the value of their own ethnocultural heritages.  In recent years, the concept of “income inequality” has been used to describe a major challenge to democracy.

On April 30, 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama poignantly addressed a seldom-discussed topic in this conceptual stream: cultural intimidation. We realize that it may seem like a stretch to call lack of inclusion, "intimidation," but that's the effect. Michelle Obama was speaking at the dedication of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new $420 million building designed by Renzo Piano.

The Whitney Museum's new facility. Photo: Ed Lederman“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood," said Obama. "In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.”

Michelle and Barack Obama and daughters tour the Pompidou Centre modern art museum in Paris, June 6, 2009. Official White House photo by Pete SouzaCiting the museum's opening exhibition theme, America Is Hard to See, the First Lady said the exhibition shows us how we can fully experience the melting pot that makes the U.S. a nation like none other.  Although many of her talking points were planned, she spoke from the heart, without notes, returning repeatedly to what she feels is a mandate for cultural inclusion.  When people — particulary young people from low-income families — are welcomed into prestigious institutions, including the White House, they start "dreaming bigger and reaching higher," she said.

A few major cultural institutions began community outreach programs in the late 1960s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, community-oriented initiatives developed at cultural institutions across the country. Today most large, urban, mainstream art museums have active well-funded, multicultural initiatives and dedicated staff members. The boards of most large urban museums include members knowledgeable about issues pertinent to diverse communities. Education departments have received more funding in the museum budget and are given more respect in the museum hierarchy.

However claims persist that attempts to collect and interpret art inclusively — and to make it relevant to non-traditional audiences — are tantamount to diminishing high standards of scholarship and connoisseurship. 

There has been a lot of wrangling over this issue. A notable example was the controversy in the museum community stemming from the Brooklyn Museum mounting populist exhibitions such as Hip Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage (2000) and Grafitti (2006). There was a shake-up at the Brooklyn Museum — curators who did not want to go in that direction left or were fired. 

Many museums go with their strong suit alone: connoisseurship and art historical knowledge.  They believe that museums are supposed to elevate their audiences — do edifying things through the presentation of fine art that cultivate heightened sensibilities, informed by the Western canon.

This approach misses the opportunity to begin a genuine learning process that meets people where their sensibilities currently reside.  When some exhibitions are planned in this way, along with others based on more standard approaches, outreach goals will be met. Now, despite a legion of community outreach programs, many major cultural institutions remain formidable to average people.

Watch the Whitney dedication ceremony with Michelle Obama, Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio, architect Renzo Piano, Whitney director Adam Weinberg, Flora Miller Biddle (granddaughter of the museum's founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney) and others here.