When I began my tenure as director of Art21, I was working with an artist from New Zealand on a survey exhibition of her work. Complicating the project was the geographical distance between us, a circumstance made doubly challenging by the fact that the artist, Susan Te Kahurangi King, didn’t talk.* King stopped speaking as a young child growing up in Auckland, and now, sixty years later, she is what is called non-verbal. The irony of the situation tickled me: at the same time that I was taking on the stewardship of an organization built on the dissemination and broadcast of artists’ voices, I began working with an artist who didn’t vocalize her words. What did it mean to be an artist without spoken language? Of course, King had a voice; it was embedded in the beauty, wisdom, and mystery of her drawings. Allowing myself to recognize this was the real challenge. I realized that I was seeing binaries that didn’t have to be there.
Conversations about cultural equity live deep within Art21’s identity as an organization. They inform our curatorial point of view and, being cognizant of the broadcast medium, we consider questions of inclusion and exclusion as we decide who and what to feature in our films. Art, for us, is a human right. But what does it mean when one doesn’t have access, when social determinants preclude the availability of resources, information, and knowledge? Access to culture has been proven to strongly affect people’s health, education, and general well being. This quarter’s issue of Art21 Magazine addresses the right to access—what we are calling “rights of passage”—and not only as it relates to conversations about art. LaToya Ruby Frazier has made this question a subject in her work since she began her photographic series, The Notion of Family (2001–14), documenting the socioeconomic inequities in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the notable changes in the wake of the closing of a major medical facility. A conversation Frazier led recently at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, in Harlem (accompanying an exhibition of her work), addressed the subject of mental-health resources in the Black community. We are pleased to share parts of that conversation in this issue.
The question of access is a question of rights and who is afforded them. But many of the structures in our world rely on exclusivity: for someone to be in, someone else has to be out. This issue of Art21 Magazine explores a diversity of perspectives on this topic, from the role of immigration, disability rights, healthcare, and artists who are trying to address inequality in their work. The test is trying to think beyond established binaries, as I struggled to do in working with King. As Jack Whitten identified in his final interview (also featured in this issue), we can opt for a third track, discarding the limiting binary of this/that in favor of a more of a fluid one: neither this/nor that.
*Te Kahurangi is a Maori name given to Susan by her father, meaning “the treasured one.”