September 15, 2020

Smart Voices: University Admin Must Listen to Students and Act Promptly on Racial Justice

The Smart Museum’s nascent Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility working group urges the University to address policing in Hyde Park

On June 15, 2020, members of the Student Advisory Committee of the Smart Museum of Art wrote a letter calling on the museum to speak out and take action on three issues: 1) campus policing, 2) redirecting the campus policing budget towards caregiving community initiatives, and 3) developing more public programs that address the University of Chicago’s harmful record of displacing and excluding Black people from its campus in service of “urban renewal.” We address these calls as members of the Smart Museum’s nascent Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility working group—Smart IDEA. A cross-departmental group of over 20 staff members, we came together this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The formation of this group was overdue at the Smart Museum, and out of that recognition, we call for greater urgency within University administration to address these long-standing issues. We write to reflect on what the students call for in their letter, and why they have come to an art museum to make their voices heard.

Art museums have always been about more than art. They traffic in power, possession, display, and accumulation. They tell us about what we value. And while the missions, collections, and communities of museums change, as Yesomi Umolu has recently argued, museums remain fundamentally bound to the colonial vision and violence that shaped their beginnings, and the exclusionary practices that have marked their operations. Even as we work against that history, we know that many people do not feel welcome at museums or cared for or listened to. At the Smart Museum, we believe we must be a place of welcome and care. We must be a place that not only listens, but also acts. And we must be a place that is imagining the future of museums. We do that work with our students.

Students are integral to the Smart. They are hands-on. They don’t just share their ideas; they make them into exhibitions, programs, and dissertations. We are a platform for their learning. And we have a role as a platform for their speaking.

The Student Advisory Committee’s letter speaks to the writers’ sincere belief in the museum’s “willingness to hear, support, and foster student voices” and its robust community engagement, speaking directly to the exhibitions, programs, and partnerships in which they have taken part. Signed by many of the Smart Museum’s current and former student workforce and student visitors, the letter first circulated within the museum, followed by a period in which it was open for signatures and comment. Throughout this time, the Smart Museum has begun its own intense and challenging work to scrutinize its history, mission, structure, and operations. Through honestly reflecting on our past and the transformations we still need to make to more fully support our community, we seek to hold ourselves publicly accountable to the responsibilities that the Smart Museum articulated in its public statement.

The Smart IDEA working group joins with students in their concerns about campus policing. As we continue to experience aggressive and violent policing practices nationally and locally, we affirm the urgency through which our students advocate on these issues, and the efficacy of past student-engaged protest movements to address community needs. Two months after the Student Advisory Committee's letter was written, and nearly three months to the day of George Floyd’s killing, another unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We need an end to this violence now, but we know full well that the roots of these recent events go far deeper: America has policed Blackness from its beginnings. In schools, libraries, parks, and museums, Black people still find their right to exist in those spaces, not only met with suspicion, but with violence and impunity. Systemic racial profiling and use of excessive force in policing has disproportionately precluded Black people from achieving a sense of belonging, certainly in our surrounding community, but also here on campus. This counteracts the Smart Museum’s efforts to be a space of welcome and care.

Within Smart IDEA, we openly acknowledge the challenge to achieve consensus on a new vision for campus safety, but we need better campus dialogue on these issues in practical terms. We want more urgency in the University’s efforts to address these issues, even as we know the road to action is long:

●      Many students have yet to feel truly listened to by University leadership. If and when they get that hearing, they need to know that their speaking matters. We empathize with students’ wariness and weariness of meetings and bureaucracy that—intentionally or unintentionally—stymie momentum. Affirming and empowering their voices is critical.

●      The very first ask in the students’ letter is for the University to openly engage in public dialogue about the failures inherent in policing as a system and how that directly implicates UCPD specifically. Only by coming to such a conversation willing to go beyond defending policing and citing reform efforts, can we collectively imagine a new vision for community care.

●      We demand an earnest, solution-based conversation between students and University leadership about specific actions to address their concerns. This should include discussion of response protocols—including de-escalation—to offer a wider range of resources to address emergencies.

●      Last October, the Smart Museum hosted the Pozen Center for Human Rights’s panel discussion “The Problem with Police,” which explored matters of reform, abolition, and new visions for justice, while also offering us an opportunity to make connections to artworks on view. We encourage more campus partners to view the museum as a venue for moving these conversations forward.

We join with students in their desire for deeper excavation of the University’s history. The University’s removal of the Stephen A. Douglas plaque was only a start. Monuments can be removed, but the systems and structures that create and perpetuate these insidious symbols are far harder to dismantle. Delving into the University’s history is not about navel-gazing into oblivion. It is about the University claiming its place at the forefront of addressing the crises of anti-Black violence and systemic racism just as boldly as it claims to be at the “forefront of medicine.”

Towards our own accountability, the Smart Museum has created a number of non-hierarchical working groups to better understand our shortcomings and architect near-term structural changes in areas of urgency such as equity in human resources, accessibility, internal communication, and audience engagement. Together with colleagues at all levels of the museum, we recently implemented one initial, yet vastly overdue step in this direction, by converting our Guest Services staff positions into part-time, benefits-eligible positions. We see healthcare and equity as inextricably connected, perhaps never more so than in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond this, we aim to build on existing partnerships and create new ones while equitably bringing more diverse voices into all levels of the museum.

We are developing our own vision of an anti-racist museum and helping each other make it happen—however long it takes. This is not easy nor is it linear, but we are dedicated to making tangible progress. We continue our work with caution as we flag that important calls to action from faculty, students, and librarians on matters of inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, security, and accountability at the University remain unmet. But we continue our work because we find the structures and support within our museum to do so.

As the Smart Museum approaches its 50th anniversary in 2024, the museum is reflecting on its past while seeking out a future that attends to the clarion call for museums globally to address their imbrication in systems of white supremacy. We bring that weight to examining our collection, exhibitions, and programs as we look ahead. As one of the letter’s student signatories put it, “As a museum that serves not only UChicago but the greater South Side, the Smart has the unique ability to employ its existing culture of inclusivity to create opportunities to discuss the University's involvement in neighboring communities.” We know that we can do more.

The University students are more than payers of tuition and winners of future accolades that reflect positively on their alma mater. They are the architects of our shared future. If we don’t listen authentically, we cannot claim to be committed to building and maintaining excellence. The Smart Museum is listening. We are taking action. We summon University leadership to do the same.


Smart IDEA is the Smart Museum's new working group focused on inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility.