‘A boiling point’: UC Berkeley art community calls for institutional change

Kroeber Hall
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In a letter sent to the faculty and administrators of UC Berkeley's Department of Art Practice, alumni and students demanded acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement and a commitment to remove white supremacy from art institutions.

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Amid ongoing national unrest, college communities continue to call for change by challenging institutional practices, racism and social justice issues.

Over the past few months, the UC Berkeley art community has questioned the responses and actions of campus administration. In a letter sent to the faculty and administrators of UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice in June, alumni and students demanded acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement and a commitment to remove white supremacy from art institutions, among other demands.

“There is a heavy hypocrisy in the silence and inaction of institutions that pride themselves on values of inclusivity and diversity, claim to prioritize marginalized voices, and borrow from radical decolonial practices of BIPOC,” the letter states.

During the same month, senior faculty from the department responded with a letter stating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their commitment to reparative work with students, faculty and alumni.

The letter also states the department will evaluate “power and privilege” within itself.

Current students and alumni, however, expressed further frustration after the department’s Worth Ryder Art Gallery announced in an Instagram post in late June that it was soliciting student artwork submissions for an exhibit themed around the Black Lives Matter movement and student identity.

This post circulated around the campus art community, with commenters calling attention to how the individuals involved in the curation of the exhibition were not people of color. Gallery director Farley Gwazda responded to the comments and acknowledged concerns, but some still felt a lack of awareness and a disconnect in the call for content for the exhibition.

“The semantics of everything, the sentiments kind of, in my opinion, foolishly upheld a lot of the power dynamics they were aiming to subvert,” said campus alumna Angela Buencamino. “It felt really jarring.”

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, the exhibition was canceled when the fall 2020 semester became fully remote. Gilmore added that Gwazda is currently working with student interns to develop a re-thought exhibition in a remote setting and is working to bring more BIPOC students into the program.

Campus senior Maya Chan called the Instagram post “a boiling point” for the art community, adding that it showed the state of the department and the tension within it.

According to Buencamino, since fall 2019, students of the department have organized in various ways by demanding that student voices be heard and injustices be addressed. However, Buencamino said, they have since found themselves “stuck in the diversity committee trap to the point where it almost feels divisive and still kind of perpetuates a lot of traditions of complicity.”

Both Buencamino and Chan alleged repeated instances of harm within the department’s culture, including incidents of tokenization and exploitation of diversity.

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle

According to Gilmore, campus continues to work on addressing undergraduate and graduate student concerns, including in areas of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ representation and support, transparency in faculty communication and development of structures to “better empower student voices.”

In early September, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, an assistant professor in the art practice department, announced her resignation in a letter.

In the letter, Hinkle said she was resigning in order to honor her experiences and the experiences of those who are LGBTQ+, Black and have various intersections of being, adding that the department is not aligned with her personal values.

Gilmore said while UC Berkeley cannot address individual situations, the campus wishes to remain transparent in working to provide a supportive environment for everyone in the community.

Hinkle also addressed her disagreement with the leadership and politics of the core faculty within the department in her letter.

“I refuse to allow my presence here to be a sign of tokenism or as a lure for prospective/current Black students, faculty, and future staff to see it as a sign of safety for them,” Hinkle said in the letter. “I realized that if this place has not been a safe and healthy environment for me to thrive and grow in for the past two years how can I within reason continue to assure others that those opportunities will be afforded to them?”

Contact Thao Nguyen at [email protected]ilycal.org and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.

A previous version of this article may have implied an art exhibition had occurred. In fact, there were only calls for content submissions before the exhibition was canceled.