13 July 2020
Public Letter and Demands to Raleigh Fine Arts Society at CAM Raleigh
On June 6th, the Chair of the Raleigh Fine Arts Society Arts Exhibition, Jan Woodard, wrote an email to the artists of the 2020 RFAS exhibition at CAM Raleigh.2 This email reminded many artists of the systemic racism that permeates the art world, prompting us to look closely and critically at these art institutions.1 In the email, Woodard quoted the statement of guest exhibition juror, Nat Trotman, which was written prior to the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprising, and appends his statement with Woodard's own assertion (in bold):
“‘Many would say these are difficult times. It should come as no surprise that we find a sense of urgency among the works gathered here. These works are provocative, powerful, and profound. Many of them ponder issues of mortality or speak to the daily struggle to simply and sustainably exist: what we might call the matter of life and death.’ Wow! Is that not the truth with the National Guard protecting our Capital city from destructive riots?”
Through this assertion, the Chair of this exhibition effectively dismisses the Raleigh protests against racism and police violence by referring to them as “destructive riots,” and instead supports the forms of militarized violence being used against the protesters. Woodard’s statement demonstrates that the RFAS values the protection of property over Black lives. By twisting the words of the juror and, by extension, the artworks in the show, to support this view, the RFAS has co-opted the work of artists, in particular BIPOC artists, to suit their own ends. This act should be understood as one in a long lineage of practices by institutions that exploit the work of BIPOC artists for their own institutional position and power.
Many artists responded to Woodard’s statement expressing views of opposition, asserting their alignment with Black Lives Matter protests, and directly asking for a response from RFAS. Artists received only an inadequate apology.3,4
To be clear, while RFAS and CAM are separate institutions, the words and actions of the RFAS Chair of the exhibition at CAM underscore the structures of white supremacy that underlie all of our art institutions. We take this event, in the context of the BLM uprising and the international call for institutional reckoning, as an opportunity to support meaningful institutional change. Thus, as artists who have partnered with these institutions, we are holding RFAS and CAM accountable. Through transparent actions, CAM Raleigh must address their overwhelmingly white board and staff, history of co-opting Black experiences, passive stance on equity,5 and relationship with RFAS. RFAS is an organization whose history of leadership is entirely white,6 and whose endowment was created by the founding members of the Pope Foundation. The Pope Foundation is an organization that has spent decades and millions of dollars to put into power state leadership whose values and policies actively harm and do violence upon marginalized communities—including cutting unemployment benefits and funding to public education, blocking the expansion of Medicaid, restricting access to abortions, and establishing new restrictions on voting. RFAS’ relationship to the Pope Foundation is in blunt contradiction to the goal of supporting artists that it seeks to achieve, a hypocrisy that is impossible to reconcile. RFAS must address their funding relationships, their lack of resource allocation to BIPOC communities, and the ways that their organization upholds white supremacist values through their organizational structure and programming.
It is beyond time for artists and art institutions to reckon with the anti-Blackness that is endemic within our field. As we demand, imagine, and build alternatives to the racist and violent police state and prison industrial complex, we must extend this abolitionist vision to the art world, examining how anti-Blackness and white supremacy are concurrent and interconnected, existing within our relationships to museums, galleries, nonprofits, funding opportunities, and ourselves.
As a group of multiracial local artists, many of whom participated in the RFAS exhibition at CAM Raleigh, we demand the Raleigh Fine Arts Society and CAM Raleigh make a public commitment to address institutional racism in their organizations, and most importantly, provide action plans that outline their strategy to:
This list of action steps is by no means exhaustive or complete. Transparency and collaboration with the local community of BIPOC artists and their allies is essential to creating a multi-ethnic, inclusive, and anti-racist institution. Anything less is complicit in upholding the powers of white supremacy that oppress us all.
NC Artists Exhibition Participants
Sarah Elizabeth Cornejo
Joy Drury Cox
José Manuel Cruz
Kelly R Johnston
Ann Corley Silverman
Stephanie J. Woods
Michael A. Betts II
Hugh Condrey Bryant
Katy G Collier
Jameela F. Dallis
Angel Mia Feimster
André Leon Gray
Michelle Gonzalez Green
Jane Wells Harrison
Austen E High
Brenda Miller Holmes
Julie Dyer Holmes
Nicole C. Jones
Jeremy M. Lange
Margaret Raines Larson
Amanda N Lazarus
Ant M. Lobo
Jennifer Helen Meanley
Kelly Sheppard Murray
Courtney Melvin Napier
Jaclyn Konczal Nesbitt
Sophia Tram Nguyen
Joie Lou Shakur
Elisa Kai Smith
Rachel Storer aka Gemynii
Emily Hobgood Thomas
William Paul Thomas
William Peele Wimberley Jr.
1There are alternatives to white-led and white centered institutions. Here is a partial list of Local Black-led Arts and Abolitionist Organizations to support:
NC Black Artists for Liberation: http://ncblackliberation.com
Black on Black Project: http://www.blackonblackproject.com
House of Pentacles: http://www.houseofpentacles.org
MOJOAA Performing Arts Company : http://www.mojoaa.org
Young, Gifted & Broke : http://www.younggiftedandbroke.art
Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind: http://blackfeministmind.wordpress.com
Southern Fried Queer Pride: http://www.southernfriedqueerpride.com
Hayti Heritage Center: http://www.hayti.org
Raleigh PACT: http://www.raleighpact.org
Southerners on New Ground: http://www.southernersonnewground.org
North Carolina Community Bail Fund: http://www.nccbailfund.org
2Email from Jan Woodard to artists in NC Artist’s Exhibition. June 6, 2020
“I trust you are safe and healthy during these uncertain times.
The mission of Raleigh Fine Arts Society (RFAS) is to cultivate, promote and engage in the arts. On March 8, we celebrated our Opening Reception and Art Sale of the 2020 North Carolina Artists Exhibition. The exhibit features 57 artists and 61 works from across the state. As you are aware, RFAS and CAM Raleigh have extended the exhibit through Sunday, August 23. Throughout the opening weekend, CAM Raleigh hosted over 2200 patrons who visited the show during its First Friday, Family Fun Day, RFAS Opening & Reception, plus the community reception, all preceding its mandatory closing by Governor Cooper due to the COVID-19 pandemic [. . .]
Is it not interesting how this show focuses on so many of the issues we are facing in these troubling times? The chosen words of Mr. Trotman about selected works are very insightful. It is ironic that the show closed after only 5 days due to the pandemic!
Mr. Trotman observed, the North Carolina Artists Exhibition brings together a diverse, multigenerational group of nearly sixty North Carolina artists, each of whom is committed to speaking truth to the era in which we live. Many would say these are difficult times. It should come as no surprise that we find a sense of urgency among the works gathered here. These works are provocative, powerful and profound. Many of them ponder issues of mortality or speak to the daily struggle to simply and sustainably exist: what we might call the matter of life and death." Wow! Is that not the truth with the National Guard protecting our Capital city from destructive riots?
Nat described the artists as "... unified in their desire to offer moments of grace, beauty and critique in the face of these difficult times." He continues, "I look for conceptually interesting art. A richness behind the work. How the minds of artists are working. How their art connects society to the political realities of the world we are living in. There are many different ways of making art. The conceptual side of art making plays a definitive role in the jurying process and the show. I am interested in the ideas behind the work, the complementary relationship between the art and the concept, not just the images on their own terms, but the conceptual depth to and ideas behind it." [. . .]
We all agree that art connects people in a way few things can. Thank you for being part of the 2020 North Carolina Artists Exhibition.
Jan Woodard, Chair
3Apology from Jan Woodard to artists in NC Artist’s Exhibition. June 9, 2020.
Thank you for your responses related to my email dated June 6. Please accept my heartfelt apology for offending any one of you. I was trying to express how powerful your individual and collective voices are during this time of anguish.
RFAS is so proud of this exhibition. We are enlightened with how every piece in the show speaks volumes. Please know we support you!
Regrettably, I failed in my attempt to communicate how we support you during these disturbing times. Each of you has helped to open the door for change through your talents as artists with your commitment to strive for a better, fair, decent and just society.
I hope you will accept my apology. There is no way to express to you the full impact of what I have learned through this experience. We are committed to listening and learning. Our hearts are open to educating ourselves. We stand with you! We stand with our community!
4Email from Gab Smith from CAMRaleigh to artists in NC Artist’s Exhibition. June 8, 2020.
“Dear NCAE Artists,
Thank you for the powerful work in the RFAS 2020 North Carolina Artists Exhibition. CAM is fully committed to justice and stands in solidarity and support of Black Lives Matter. CAM never has and never will condone militarized violence. CAM is also fully committed to and stands in solidarity with all artists who show their work here.
I, and we, care about you and our community. Please continue to share your ideas on how your artwork, the exhibition, and CAM can galvanize and support our community immediately and going forward. My cell is [redacted] if you would like to talk or meet. I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you again when we can gather.
With gratitude and love,
5CAM Raleigh publicly acknowledged the glaring lack of diversity of their Board and staff in 2018 after facing community-wide scrutiny for their exhibit featuring work by Margaret Bowland, naming that their Board of Directors included only one Black member out of thirty. Since then, there has been no observable change in the diversity of their leadership and staff. Though there have been repeated assertions of “openness” to conversation with community members, this orientation ultimately defaults responsibility onto the patrons they are failing to serve and represent. CAM Raleigh can demonstrate a commitment to racial justice not by passively waiting for guidance, but by actively seeking and putting resources towards equity efforts.
6RFAS past and current presidents: A photograph (pg. 7), included in a Fall 2018 newsletter, displays an overwhelming lack of diversity within the organization’s leadership roles.
7 Joyce Wilkins Pope, former President of the John William Pope Foundation and mother of Art Pope, was a Charter Member of RFAS. “RFAS is the beneficiary of the Joyce Wilkins Pope Endowment,” one of their primary sources of funding. Kathy Pope, Art Pope’s wife, is a current member. So is Jane Pope, Art Pope’s widowed step-mother, who Art Pope battled in court for a $50 million inheritance in 2005. All of RFAS’, “projects are sponsored in part by the Raleigh Fine Arts Endowment, the Joyce Wilkins Pope Endowment, and the John William Pope Foundation,” (pg. 71) including their annual NC Artists Exhibition (pg. 72). Additionally, RFAS continues to accept funding from the John William Pope Foundation, such as the $20,000 grant they received in 2019 (pg. 74). Information from Raleigh Fine Art Society, Inc. 2019-2020
A recent article put out by INDY Week summarized the career of Art Pope, who was just appointed to the NC Board of Governors:
“Pope, a multimillionaire and heir to a family discount-store conglomerate, has had a hand in every major political pot in North Carolina, with special attention paid to bankrolling both the 2010 Republican takeover of the North Carolina state legislature and 2016's HB2 "bathroom bill," as well as funding climate change denial campaigns. In addition, Pope had a strong hand in Republican redistricting efforts and was in the room when the map was being redrawn.”
As the current head of the Pope fortune and the Chairman of the John William Pope Foundation, Art Pope has launched these many attacks on progressive reform, including being one of the national directors, and largest backers, of Americans for Prosperity, an influential American conservative organization founded by the Koch Brothers.