At a time of rising xenophobia and precarity, former Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich on why arts institutions must step up
Within a month of his inauguration in 2017, US President Donald Trump had cancelled all previous priorities for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) federal government agency – instead Trump encouraged ICE officers to arrest as many people as it could. The result was a 30% increase in immigrant arrests over the past year. What has been the human cost for those living in the United States? Consider these three stories from very different news sources published last month: ‘Donald Trump’s ICE is Tearing Families Apart’ (The New Yorker); ‘Dreamers Deadlock: Congress at Impasse as Pressure Mounts to Act’ (The Guardian); and, ‘NY Teamsters Form ‘Sanctuary Union’ to Fight ICE Agents’ (NY Daily News). The headlines alone tell of how immigrants in the US today are living at a time of heightened vulnerability – never mind the stories contained within the articles themselves.
Given the status of immigrants and migrants in the US and indeed, the world over, and the persistent question of how cultural institutions must contend with rising xenophobia, nationalism, anti-black, brown, and LGBTQAI rhetoric, and assaults on many forms of freedom of expression, there has never been a more urgent time to make the case for cultural institutions offering spaces of sanctuary. At this particular moment of precarity, what structures of mutual care and support can the art world offer?
The idea of the ‘sanctuary space’ has a long history, but its recent form is rooted in liberation theology, and the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, to support people fleeing from civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador. During this period, priests and nuns transformed their churches into literal sanctuaries to house and protect vulnerable members of their communities. More recently, the New Sanctuary Movement emerged in 2007 when an interfaith group of US-based organizations began campaigning to build public awareness and legislative action on behalf of the millions of immigrants in the country without permanent status, many with children who are US citizens.
Just over a year ago, as director of the Queens Museum in New York, my colleagues and I were seeing the impact of new federal policies up close. The museum is embedded in the city’s borough of Queens, among the most ethnically and linguistically diverse geographies on the planet, with high concentrations of recent immigrant communities. As a cultural institution, we had a deep and long-term history of engagement with these neighbours through community organizing and educational programming, and our own reality was therefore directly affected by the election of Donald Trump and the enactment of his new policies. Weekend arts workshops geared towards families visiting the museum had always been popular with immigrants living nearby, and immediately following the election we saw a dramatic drop off; many people, whether documented or not, stayed at home out of fear. Amongst the staff of the museum, there was rising trepidation about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy – which offered some protection for those who had entered the US as minors – and a great desire to support those directly and indirectly affiliated with the museum and beyond, who depended on this status.
Simultaneously, a group of active and concerned artists and art workers, including me, began to meet under the moniker Sense of Emergency. A working group emerged to look at the possibility of developing a concept of ‘cultural sanctuary’, drawing inspiration from the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s and the New Sanctuary Movement of recent years. If art could provide alternate imaginaries, could institutions not also offer allyship for those in precarious positions and even imagine a way towards a more caring society together? We also wanted to be practical about what sanctuary might mean for arts organizations in the time of Trump; we were determined that it could never promise things it could not deliver.
Could cultural organizations provide solidarity, connection to resources for up-to-date and trusted information, and a place to feel safe for vulnerable people? We discussed at length how to make it clear that while the term sanctuary might be used, it did not mean that physical shelter would or could be provided. Over many months, the scholar Abou Farman led a group of deeply committed people to develop a call for art and cultural spaces to declare sanctuary. The guidelines were very broad, and could be adapted to the particularities of a variety of organizations. Most importantly, all of the policies recommended were legal in the United States and constitute a form of sanctuary.
The demands set out by the group Art Space Sanctuary confront not only the strangulation of migrant and immigrant rights, but also targeted assaults on populations of Muslim, Latinx, Black, female, and LGBTQAI communities, as well as wider civil society: journalists, scientists, academics, and artists. The broadening of the definition of sanctuary, in my mind, is an effort to bring intersectional thinking into the ways in which we use cultural institutions as a tool to dismantle hegemony and promote greater equity. Furthermore, the conversation has been largely led by immigrants and the precariously documented themselves, as Farman recently told me, and they ‘are extending the opportunity of solidarity to the secure, not vice versa.’ The mutuality of this structure is important.
The following are the four main requirements for cultural spaces to declare sanctuary:
Given that these stipulations are legal and not unduly onerous, why would there be resistance to this idea of cultural spaces offering sanctuary? In the case of those not knowing where to begin, Farman and Art Space Sanctuary offer bespoke trainings to assist with thinking about and implementing sanctuary for specific organizations. Importantly, critics have asked, what would be gained by labelling spaces as ‘sanctuary’ and potentially bringing greater scrutiny to such organizations’s activities. Or, worse, does the ‘sanctuary’ label make it seem to immigrant or other populations that a cultural organization can provide something that it cannot? Resistance to this term, ‘sanctuary,’ is particularly noteworthy when the City of New York does not use the word to describe its policies of non-cooperation with federal ICE agents, as recently articulated by the NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs at a discussion of the subject organized by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School.
Furthermore, and most problematically, the boards of cultural institutions are likewise wary of the term, and there is a fear of being called to answer for such actions as well as fear of retaliation: it is difficult even for willing art administrators to develop protocols to support the idea. I saw this myself in introducing this concept for discussion with the Queens Museum board. They clearly saw it as a step too far, even for an institution that works daily – and has done so for nearly two decades – with the many immigrant communities surrounding the museum through its programmes.
To these concerns, I answer with a series of questions we might ask ourselves as a larger cultural community.
If as cultural workers and artists, we truly want to create spaces that are more equitable and, indeed, spaces for the ‘free and open exchange of ideas’ that so many arts institutions proclaim, how can we refuse to be art space sanctuaries? Aren’t these ideals at the core of so many organizations’s stated values? Would it not benefit our relationships with our audiences to be clear about our space as one that supports those who might feel vulnerable in these turbulent times? Could building solidarity amongst arts and activist organizations shift the larger cultural climate? Could we not create alliances with direct service organizations to provide instruction, direction, and even intervention if and when we are called upon to contend with situations outside of our expertise? Could we not imagine attending to the people who run our organizations, create the art we show, and those who engage with our work? Why is there so much resistance to providing this level of support for our staff, our artists, and audiences directly?
Certainly it would take work to understand the implications of such a structure, but there are eager collaborators and thoughtful people out there who wish to support this conversation. In the end, is it not in all of our best interests to stand up for the vulnerable among us? Art, artists, and arts organizations have a very powerful role to play at this particular moment. Not only can the art we invent and present provide new ways of seeing the world, creating desperately-needed space for imagination as well as new views on the seemingly-intractable challenges of our day, but it can also impact culture beyond what we might conceive of the ‘art world’ to directly influence the culture of our times. Can we not imagine having a larger influence on society by enacting values of care and creativity that might make this world a better place? I think we can and should.
Main image: Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003, monofrequency lights, projection foil, haze machines, mirror foil, aluminium, and scaffolding, 26.7 m x 22.3 m x 155.4 m, installation in Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: the artist, neugerriemschneider (Berlin), and Tanya Bonakdar (New York); photograph: Studio Olafur Eliasson; © Olafur Eliasson 2003
Laura Raicovich is a writer and art worker based in New York City. Until recently she served as Director of the Queens Museum, and is currently co-curating (with Manon Slome, of No Longer Empty) ‘Mel Chin: All Over the Place’ which opens this spring at various sites across New York City. Raicovich’s recent books include, as author, At the Lightning Field (Coffee House Press, 2017) and as co-editor, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017).