Wrapping the corner walls of the entrance to “The Long Dream” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago are the names of the more than 70 local artists exhibiting work in the exhibition. Some of these names belong to my friends and colleagues, and there are others I don’t personally know but greatly admire. Rather than feeling vicariously buoyed by reading these names, and appreciating the institutional recognition of a segment of Chicago’s arts community, I instinctively flinched. It should be noted that I did not come to the MCA on this day in possession of the optimistic curiosity with which I typically approach an exhibition. The MCA and “The Long Dream” are at the center of a labor crisis, as extensively reported by Kerry Cardoza in The Chicago Reader (March 3, 2021). With my facemask and timed-entry ticket, I came to find out what happens to a show, stockpiled with excellent and timely work, when site-specific ethical turmoil takes over as context.
My flinch at the threshold of the exhibition was the result of knowing that the artists whose names are on the wall must feel involuntarily complicit in the controversy. The curatorial statement of “The Long Dream” explains that the show, which borrows its title from the Richard Wright novel, highlights artists whose work “offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world” — an institutional attempt to acknowledge the revolutionary zeitgeist. That would be all well and good were it not for the fact that MCA staff (organized under the moniker MCAccountable) has been calling on the museum to address its own racism, ableism and poor labor practices, especially in the midst of operating during COVID, only to face layoffs twice — the latest round in January, coinciding with a sickly hypocritical article by MCA Director Madeleine Grynsztein in Art in America (January 22, 2021) bragging about diversity practices at the MCA and how “[w]hen most institutions were furloughing their front-facing employees, we went in the opposite direction.” Cardoza pointed out, however, that “[t]he day prior, the MCA laid off 41 employees.” MCAccountable’s open letters from July 16 and August 21, and one from the artists in “The Long Dream” presented to the Director on March 11 outline the museum’s offenses, and the demands made by the artists and staff.
Some of the artists slated to exhibit in “The Long Dream” — Maria Gaspar, Aram Han Sifuentes, Folayemi Wilson and the For the People Artists Collective — withdrew in protest before the show even opened. Initially, I worried for the artists in “The Long Dream”: that the show’s context had been proven a sham, and subsequently, that powerful work about racial justice, disability activism and LGBTQ+ equity would be grievously undermined. Indeed, the pretense that the museum was in solidarity with these causes was shattered, and an atmosphere of irony, sadness and outrage over the current situation envelops the show. But the convictions within the works reverberate.
Artworks that hinge upon elements of vulnerability thrive in the exhibition’s shifted context. “Birth, Death, Breath,” an installation by Diane Christiansen and Jeanne Dunning with Steve Dawson, features a collection of seasonal, inflatable lawn ornaments: snowmen, ducks dressed in hunting gear, and parts of various animals frankenstein-ed together. All rise and fall as their air supply fluctuates in cadence with original songs. The artists take advantage of how these colorful, smiling forms bob, almost lifelike when filled with air; and the ominous way that they collapse when their supply is cut. Lyrics like “I will not survive / Where am I going / Where will I be” underscore threads of fear and uncertainty — feelings that have become all too familiar, especially during the pandemic when crucial lifelines and livelihoods suddenly became tenuous.
While Christiansen and Dunning keep us at a conceptual arms length as we watch a narrative play out, Derrick Woods-Morrow closes the distance between the audience and the work. In “How much does this moment weigh for you?”, the mangled mass of a compressed police car is suspended from a steel frame by chains. The rusted heap no longer bears any resemblance to a Crown Victoria, but the police spotlight, aimed head-height, is unmistakable. In the darkened room, the sudden, blinding light stuns and disarms. Stepping away from the spotlight, it’s easier to focus on the disembodied voices in the room: two men tentatively discussing race, queerness, law enforcement and their shared memories of childhood. Woods-Morrow doesn’t simply tell a story here, he puts us right in the middle of it, both physically and emotionally. The sensation of being in someone else’s shoes takes us one step beyond mere awareness, and closer to understanding.
But the piece in “The Long Dream” that resonates the most, in light of the collapse of the exhibition’s original intention, is Amanda Williams’ “What black is this you say?” series of watercolors on paper. Her series began in response to “Blackout Tuesday,” the social media event of June 2, 2020, in which Instagram feeds were flooded with blank, black squares by individuals, institutions and corporations alike, in what everyone thought was solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Quickly, it was realized that these posts stifled the crucial communication that was taking place online with the #blm hashtag, and people everywhere seethed at the superficiality of the gesture. Williams, known for her mastery of color in form and concept, began her own Instagram project that day, coupling abstractions of varying tones and palettes of black with captions that added humanity and individuality to a trend that was otherwise populated with flatness and sameness. The artist translated her posts into the small, intimate paintings seen here. And, with the addition of handwritten inscriptions, such as “I cain’t go swimming today, I just got my hair done black”; “Obama break from blackness black,” they capture the best aspect of social media — the window into someone else’s everyday — while infusing it with the slow-paced contemplation of abstract painting.
A portion of what Williams so adeptly addresses in this work is in close parallel to what is playing out at the MCA and beyond: jumping on the chance to show public solidarity in theory, while continuing to actively harm individuals and disregard their experiences. There have been other major exhibitions in recent years in which artists have withdrawn work in protest of morality issues at the institution. The 2019 Whitney Biennial is one example. But the hypocrisy of “The Long Dream” is particularly explicit. The museum fails on the precise grounds by which the exhibition was conceived. In bringing together 70 artists with the most concrete of convictions, how could this NOT have happened? In hindsight, it seems inevitable that the museum would try, and fail.
I checked my Twitter feed on my walk back to the El on the Friday afternoon of my MCA visit. The algorithm brought me Kerry Cardoza’s Tweet from several hours prior: a link to the open letter from the artists, with the announcement that 57 of them would be withdrawing their work from the exhibition. This story is not yet complete. But hopefully what started as an exhibition will be remembered as a sea change, with artists and workers serving as the catalyst.