Chris E. Vargas on demands for trans+ affirming museums
Chris E. Vargas is the Executive Director of the Museum of Trans Hirstory and Art (MOTHA).
MOTHA was founded as a conceptual museum in 2013 to highlight trans art and history and engage critically with how transgender people are gaining entry into institutions that have historically excluded them. Initially I didn’t conceive of MOTHA as a real place because it didn’t seem possible to radically transform the structure of the museum to truly center the experience of trans+ BIPOC people and culture. After all, the very idea of a museum is so deeply entrenched in white cis colonialist ideology.
However, recently, with the vitality of the Black Lives Matter movement and the spotlighting of institutional racism across all sectors, there is a newfound awareness of and energy for radically restructuring institutions. Whether it is truly possible to transform the very notion of what a museum is and who it is for remains to be seen.
In this spirit, I present a preliminary and by no means complete set of demands for museums to begin the process of dismantling white cisgender supremacy and structural injustice, and to honor the trans+ BIPOC art, people, and culture to which they have always been indebted.
- Free admission. BIPOC queer, trans+, and non-binary people are broke; if you want them to come to your museum, and you should, don’t make them pay.
- Continuous anti-racist, trans-competency trainings for all museum board and staff, including curators.
- All-gender bathrooms. You thought this issue was over? Yes, there are bigger fish to fry, but we still need them. Bathrooms are awkward and scary places for trans people.
- Hire BIPOC trans+ people, and not merely in front-of-house positions but in leadership roles too. Pay them well.
- Make salaries transparent. This is good for all. It’s a necessary step in addressing the ways economic inequality tracks along race and gender lines. We can’t continue to let this fact be invisibilized.
- Pay your interns. Value all labor. An unpaid internship is not an option for people who inhabit lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. BIPOC trans+ people need jobs, not volunteer opportunities that may or may not lead to paid work. Paid internships also ensure that more people, not only affluent ones, can enter career tracks in museums or attend museum studies, curatorial, and other graduate programs.
- Make sure you have BIPOC trans+ people on your board of directors, and not just affluent ones. This committee must help guide the ideological direction of the museum, not just be a fount of donor connections.
- Hire BIPOC trans+ curators. If your museum’s “diverse” (read: BIPOC, LGBTQ, feminist) shows are only put on by guest or contract-based curators, then this means your institution is taking credit for that labor without having to fairly compensate or offer economic stability to those curators.
- Acknowledge the violently stolen and colonized land on which your institution stands. Then give it back! There are many instances of land repatriation. This is not inconceivable.
ARTISTS AND CULTURAL WORKERS
- Exhibit the artwork of BIPOC trans+ artists. We could use the exposure. And pay us! See Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE)’s fee calculator for fair compensation based on your institution’s total annual operating expenses.
- Feature BIPOC trans+ hirstories. However imperfectly archived our hirstory is, it is still important for us to be able to situate ourselves and our experience hirstorically.
- Collect BIPOC trans+ art. And exhibit that work—don’t just let it languish in storage. Also, in regard to payment, please don’t low-ball us and try to say it’s simply an honor to be in your collection.
- Assess your collections and restore and repatriate colonial or stolen objects and artworks to their rightful communities, particularly African and indigenous materials.
- Make your buildings ADA compliant and exhibition designs accessible for all disabled people.
- Topple your racist statues and monuments. Instead of disappearing them and erasing a racist past, donate them to an imminent Graveyard For Toppled Monuments.
- Let BIPOC trans+ people help govern and guide the vision and direction of your institution’s future through a community advisory board.
- Make a Black Lives Matter solidarity statement and include Black Trans Lives, too. Don’t stop there: make concrete structural changes too, like some of the suggestions listed above.
For a concise explanation of their structurally unjust history that museums need to confront in order to rebuild themselves more equitably (if this is indeed possible), I recommend Yesomi Umolu’s article from artnews “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice.”
In closing, many museum doors are just that—closed or closing. Don’t lay anyone off. This is a perfect time for institutional reflection, especially after recent revelations of deeply rooted racist practices in museums. This is the time to make some real plans. Don’t just rearrange the Titanic’s deck furniture.
This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.