Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave," which gets its area premiere at Walker Art Center Wednesday.
When a prominent arts organization presents events themed around an important era for a specific demographic group, how much responsibility does it have to ensure that a fair number of that group has access? That's one of the questions being raised by several Twin Citians who posted an "open letter" to the Walker on the commentary blog Opineseason.com.
The writers, including poet/ activist Chaun Webster and north-Minneapolis artist Jeremiah Bey Ellison, expressed concern that Walker Art Center has not done enough outreach to give African-American people equal access to its sold-out regional premiere of "12 Years a Slave" Wednesday, and a Nov. 9 discussion with its director Steve McQueen, also sold out.
The letter calls the movie, based on the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, "one of the most highly recognized, fully Black cinematic collaborations in the history of film.
"We are concerned...that peoples of African descent, whose ancestors’ lives and histories were disrupted by the slaveocracy, will be largely underrepresented in the audience. Our position is that equity is not just about the diversity in the art being shown but the material work of creating greater access to exhibitions to ensure that audiences are representative of the subject matter."
The letter goes on to suggest that promotional efforts by the Walker, whose audiences tend to be mostly white, could do better at ensuring "that audiences are representative of the subject matter."
"Over the years we have become acutely aware of the way that art institutions are guided by an exceptionalism that will welcome works of art by select artists of African descent and other historically marginalized groups but will largely have little to no relationship with members of those communities. This in no small way contributes to the issue of representative audience," the letter continues.
"When white-dominated spaces, often of a homogenous class, bring work like McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in, they in many ways manage the narrative and the way that it gets interpreted."
The entire letter and posted responses may be read here.
“We don’t question the intentions of the Walker, we just think they haven’t made the necessary effort,” Ellison said in an interview. “They have some pretty cool relationships with arts organizations that work with people of color and they could have maybe done a better job of using that.”
A lack of inclusion can become a form of exclusion, he said, citing his experience working as a political organizer on the campaign of his father, Rep. Keith Ellison. “You learn that if you don’t actively engage a marginalized community, you can’t blame them if they don’t show up at the polls to vote for you.”
Asked by the Star Tribune for a response, the Walker sent this statement:
"The Walker’s retrospective of the film works of Steve McQueen launches October 30 with the first regional screening of 12 Years a Slave. This viewing will be followed by additional screenings of McQueen’s previous films Shame and Hunger and will culminate with a dialogue between McQueen and Stuart Comer, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on November 9 addressing McQueen’s renowned visual arts practice and his more recent feature films.
"These programs were announced broadly, and after a short presale to Walker members, the dialogue and 12 Years a Slave sold out to the general public in a matter of days. Tickets to Hunger and Shame are still available. Unfortunately the Walker’s agreement with the film distributor prohibits additional screenings of 12 Years a Slave since it will be released in commercial theaters in the Twin Cities two days later, on November 1.
"The Walker appreciates and respects the voices of concern expressed by members of our community regarding questions of access to and representation of diverse audiences. We agree that this is a worthy and important topic for broader discussion within our arts community and we welcome this dialogue."
Ellison said he and his fellow letter writers hope that the Walker will consider asking director McQueen to schedule "another conversation in a community space, or invite more of the community into their space."