Arts & Culture, Interview

Interview with Palace Shaw and Ariana Lee of The Whitest Cube

On power in museums, institutional barriers, and plans for their podcast


Palace Shaw and Ariana Lee are the co-hosts of The Whitest Cube, a podcast about the racial politics of art institutions. Palace and Ariana are not only archiving resources and history in depth for the listeners, but also reporting on local news on Boston’s art culture, and highlighting groups and organizations doing work to address these problems.

The Hassle had the pleasure of speaking with Palace and Ariana about the institutional barriers that make it difficult to dissent and protest from within the museum, and how the two co-hosts created their own platform to tackle these issues.


Image taken during the panel for the “Reporting On The Arts In Boston” episode


How did you get started with this show? How long has this been happening?


Palace: We’ve been recording and compiling material since October of 2017. Ariana and I both applied to work at the same museum because we really liked the exhibitions and felt connected to the identity the museum portrays about itself, and then when we got there we were like “Ha, this is fucking bullshit,” and it was just really uncomfortable working there. I was really, really upset. It didn’t make sense to me the way everything was stratified; it just makes me wonder how other staff members who have been there a long time do it. Yeah, so October is when we met for the first time and I sent Ariana a message.


Ariana: We were on a group message and we were raging about something about working at the museum and Palace goes ‘We should make a podcast.’ That was the beginning.


The big steps were that I had a friend who was a producer who helped with the theme song and got us in the mode of speaking with each other, facing each other, with two mics, because before we actually just had one mic that was duct taped to this jar. So he got us all set up for that and then he moved to Brazil, but we were pretty independent by that point.


So far you guys have collaborated and worked with Dr. Porchia Moore, and done the episode with Hoodgrown Aesthetic and also done a lot of fieldwork. What are some other groups and people working out there that you would love to have on air?


A: Right now we’re thinking about dream stories and then filling in who would collaborate from there. We’ve been really developing the same storylines since we started. For example, we always wanted to talk about gentrification and we always knew that we wanted to talk about state violence—but the ways we’ve thought about those stories have really changed, and now as we’ve learned more about the medium of podcasting and storyline-making, I think that those stories are beginning to make more sense.


Currently we’re in a mindset of being more timely, and that’s our next challenge. This is great because it’s drawn us into thinking “Okay, so this January 26th town hall thing happened at the Whitney with Decolonize This Place—how can we try and push ourselves to collaborate around that?” So if we want to make a story about that, that’s a story about state violence and therefore the people we want to get talking about it are the people involved in this event, you know what I mean? That’s a big process change for us.


And that’s what I’ve really loved about the episodes so far, they seem really genuinely tied to what’s happening in the communities you report on rather than trying to contrive a story… Like the piece that you did on AAMARP- that was really timely and when all that was happening.


P: (laughs) I have dream collaborators! I think it’s people I just really admire and want to talk to. I really love a lot of the collective work that’s coming out of New York— like there’s Chroma NY, and By Us For Us and so many other cool folks that are organizing in ways that are either adjacent to or act as alternatives to art institutions.


What other kinds of experiences or events are shaping your development of the show and the stories you’re working on in relation to those themes you mentioned?


P: Yeah, so there are a couple things currently that come to mind. Ariana and I went to the Steve McQueen talk after the showing of Ashes, and someone basically asked him “What’s it like to show your work in Boston?” And what she was trying to say was “What it is like coming to this very white city to show your work?” I was like first of all boo, there’s more people of color in Boston than white people; what you’re not thinking about is there’s so much segregation that doesn’t even allow you to see that those people exist. And he was just like “I don’t care. I literally don’t care anymore”


I think it’s really interesting that that can be a perspective. Like wow, when you get to a certain level and when you have to give that baby away, you can’t think about how it’s going to be received by the public of that particular institution, and you have to put it in the back of your mind how they’re going to use your work. It is really sad.


But another kind of response is this—in the 60s, the Artist Workers’ Coalition started in New York in 1968-69. And one of the contexts for its formation was that this artist, Vassilakis Takis, didn’t like the way his work was shown, so he just went in the museum and took his work back.


This connects to a story we’re working on right now. At the Whitney, they’re preparing for the Whitney Biennial this year, and semi-recently it was uncovered that one of the vice chairs of the Whitney owns Safariland the weapons manufacturer. They manufactured the tear gas used at the US-Mexico border late last year and the weapons used in Ferguson and Baltimore, and also in Palestine. There was this huge backlash but the museum refused to make a statement, so all of the frontline staff that were getting backlash from activists and questions from all these people asking what was going on— you know that feeling from working at a museum, like “Okay, now I have to answer on the behalf of an institution, while I’m not even invested in this person, I think he should not even be in this position.”


So the staff got together and wrote an internal letter to the director asking them to make a statement, saying that they were putting undue pressure on the people that work frontline staff and it’s unacceptable, and then they ended up teaming up with Decolonize This Place, an organization that regularly protests museums, and W.A.G.E, which does activist work about artists’ economic relationships with art institutions, to come up with different tactics against the museum


After they sent that letter they organized a town hall last weekend, working with W.A.G.E, and they basically wrote a letter to all of the artists accepted for the biennial and said “Pull your work from the show to show solidarity with the staff workers and against Warren Kanders.”


The point they’re making is that the frontline staff don’t have the privilege to dissent or resist and keep their job because they’re seen as disposable, whereas these artists who are working for the museum do have the platform to be able to dissent. There’s this really cool collaboration that’s happening there


And I think of that as being similar to this artist workers coalition thing where they were like ‘I’m taking my art out of this museum’ and these people are now taking their art out of the biennial.


That’s just a really good way, when you understand how it works, to do something effective and strategic.


P: It is so cool, and what I love about it is it’s poking these artists right in the integrity. If you are making work about any sort of social issue or even institutional critique, anything like that— like actually put your art and your money where your mouth is and support the people who work in these institutions that make them run.


It puts them in a bind, yeah. This is really encouraging to hear this.


P: Yeah, it’s all happening at the Whitney—if you follow Decolonize This Place you can see that this is just the beginning, this is the first thing they’re doing. Basically the Whitney Biennial will never be the same. They’re really trying to grow this movement and it’s exactly what I would love to see everywhere.


But the thing is, all that dirty money that comes from defense tech and weapons manufacturing—there are so many people who do that who have their money in museums. And what Ariana and I are focusing on more is why? Why do all these super wealthy people have so much money in the art market? And it’s totally unregulated and they have incredible influence over cultural institutions both national and private— that’s ridiculous, and it’s underreported, you know?


If you think about the stories you hear it’s often like… “Oh this art piece sold for 21 million dollars, wow that’s crazy,” you know? But we’re not asking “Okay, so why did this painting sell for 21 million dollars? What are people doing with that money?” It’s just hiding assets.


Yeah, and is it intentionally trying to maintain power, to be a gatekeeper of culture, or is it just a status thing?


P: I think it is a status thing. I think museums are such an old institution and they’ve been run the same way forever—museums were built to educate in a way that libraries weren’t. Museums control the narrative, they control all the information you’re getting when you go in there, and it’s one of the last places people ask “Is what I find here truth?” It’s just really crazy that there’s something out there that exists that way that’s controlled by these mega wealthy people and you’re just supposed to accept it. Like we don’t trust any other media institution but we trust museums.


What do you think it would take for these art institutions to change in significant ways? And what would it take for you personally to go back to work at a museum and feel like that’s a place you can invest in from within?


A: I think it takes a lot of coordinated efforts and different kinds of systemic change. Right now there’s this new Chief of Learning and Community Engagement, Makeeba McCreary at the MFA, and she’s someone who doesn’t come from a museum background. Her previous work in Boston Public Schools brings a positive, different lens to the MFA. I think she is someone who is willing to have challenging conversations within an institution.


But just looking at the topic of race, you also have an issue of people of color being in the institution who aren’t necessarily thinking beyond themselves, right—that’s also a very real thing. So when I think about what makes change, I think it takes hiring motivated people who will have actual power to change what the institution’s structure is.


And one thing I also think about—I think for me the sweet spot of what I’m trying to navigate personally is how social justice language is so invalidated to such a deep extent in museum workplaces in general, and in most workplaces. Which is funny in a museum because you can have any social justice-y, pithy title to an exhibition with artwork that may hold that value in the artist’s heart and in the hearts of people, right? But when you look at a museum as a workplace those words are actually slapped on the wall the way diversity photo ads are slapped onto some company’s marketing materials.


So thinking about that, if you want to make change within a museum, you don’t use the language of social justice and you don’t talk about protests being valid. You talk about stakeholders and money and constituency, and the visitorship and their comfort while they’re in the museum, things like that. That’s how you make a persuasive argument within the museum. And at the same time there’s this sort of outside-of-the-museum work on the activist side, which is very much using this language of decolonization and social justice and anti-capitalism.


I think looking at both of those things and putting them in conversation with each other is just a really helpful constructive thing to do you know?


P: And when I think about this project, we’re doing this to learn and to figure out how we feel, what is useful conversation, and what is really interesting and productive work—like I don’t think when we put out an episode we’re like “We’re here to teach the people, and this is what’s right, and this is how you do it. ”Like one day we may be like “ Burn the fucking museum,” and the next day we’ll be like, “Well what if museums did this interesting thing, and if they did would we still be interested in them?“ It just goes back and forth like that.


And as to the question you asked earlier, about going back to work at a museum—I don’t know, I really don’t know. But I don’t think museums are for me, as a career.


I was thinking about Reporting On the Arts and the more I think about it, the more it feels like that event represents exactly what we’re about—we had folks who worked in institutions and folks outside of the museum talking about the ways in which you create change. One perspective was “amass as much power as you can within the museum and do something with it,” and the other was “build something outside of that and work really hard to do it.”


And in a way, Ariana and I are like those two different things? I think Ariana is someone who is smart, diplomatic, a total killer, and someone who I think would be the person to amass a lot of power and use that power conscientiously, but I think I’m less inclined towards that path. So it’s kind of cool to be focused in different ways and have this conversation. And it’s not a clear line, it’s just kind of like, when either of us come to a situation or an idea my interests are a little different because I’m not in a museum role where I have to make these decisions and live with myself, you know? Like we both gotta eat.

Image taken during the panel for the “Reporting On The Arts In Boston” episode

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