by Jonathan Griffin
On a cold day last December, sitting outside her studio in Santa Monica, Calif., the artist Suzanne Lacy talked excitedly about the coming year. In Manchester, England, exhibitions of her work were already open at the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery. She looked forward to a prestigious fellowship at the University of Manchester in the spring.
Lacy, 76, was also preparing for ‘‘The Medium Is Not the Only Message,” a survey of her art at the Queens Museum, in New York, opening March 13. The exhibition features work made since the 1970s in what Lacy once termed “new genre public art” — politically engaged projects in which she involves communities in discursive, collaborative workshops and events on ageism, sexual violence, incarceration, immigration and other issues that might result in documentary photographs, video, performance, text, sound recordings, sculptures or — often — all of the above. Progressive institutions like the Queens Museum and the Whitworth are now centering their programs on the kinds of activities she has been doing for years, sometimes as art, sometimes as activism, sometimes as community engagement.
“Especially since Covid, the world seems to be focused on ‘care’,” Lacy told me in February when I returned to her studio — occupied mainly by wooden crates and plan chests that store her art. “Even museums are talking about becoming caring institutions.”
Throughout our conversation, she plied me with chocolate bars from Trader Joe’s. Beneath her kindly demeanor, however, lies a steeliness that comes from years of working at the front lines of political activism. She was born in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley to working-class parents whom she describes as “ethical rather than political.” She is as comfortable talking to politicians or police officers as she is with teenagers, construction workers or the elderly, but she has the forthright air of someone impatient to get things done.
Then, on Feb. 22, the future of Lacy’s projects — indeed, the future of one of these “caring institutions” — were thrown into question. The Guardian reported that Alistair Hudson, director of the Whitworth and curator of Lacy’s exhibition there, had been “asked to leave his post” in response to an exhibition by the research group Forensic Architecture that Hudson had commissioned with the Manchester International Festival and the University of Manchester.
That exhibition, held last year, included a statement by Forensic Architecture expressing solidarity with Palestine and citing “ethnic cleansing” by Israeli police and settlers. The Whitworth is part of the University of Manchester; the advocacy group UK Lawyers for Israel criticized the public sector university for failing to remain neutral. As of this writing, Hudson denied that he had been asked by the university to resign, but declined to comment further on the ongoing dispute.
“It’s outrageous for a university to so flagrantly disregard freedom of speech,” Lacy said of the situation. She remains firmly in support of Hudson. Two associations of international museum leaders signed open letters to the University of Manchester opposing the attempt to force the director out.
Lacy’s exhibition at the Whitworth is scheduled to run until April 10, but it sits within an ongoing program of community-engaged projects that she views as a collaboration with Hudson. As long as Hudson remains in the post, she intends to continue to fulfill her commitments in Manchester.
In England, artists pledged to boycott the Whitworth if Hudson was removed. When I asked if she would also consider joining the boycott, she pointed out that this would not be so simple as declining to ship a painting. Almost every project of Lacy’s involves a network of collaborators, co-authors, institutional and organizational partners.
“I’m working with human beings whose lives are impacted by my actions, and who have investments equal to my investment,” she said. “So any decision I made would be based on thoughtful conversations with my collaborators.”
For decades, Lacy’s work was little known outside California, where she has long been an influential educator, currently at the University of Southern California where she is a professor at the Rossi School of Art and Design. In recent years, however, she has become recognized as a pioneer of “social practice” — a genre of art that, some argue, is so widespread that it almost ceases to be a meaningful category.
Catharine Wood, senior curator of international art at Tate Modern, London, says that as a result of the social and political shifts of the past few years, “we are coming to a new understanding of all art as social.” She believes the term “social practice” will become less relevant, the way “video art” or “performance art” have been absorbed by the mainstream.
“I just call it art,” says Sally Tallant, executive director of the Queens Museum, which has an unusually long history of community engagement. Tallant has wanted to mount an exhibition by Lacy since she joined the museum in 2019. “I don’t believe her influence is recognized on the East Coast,” she says. “There’s such a passion for social practice now, but she’s been doing it for decades.”
While political activism forms the core of her work, Lacy’s methods are less confrontational and antagonistic than one might assume for an artist whose roots lie in the radical feminist performance of the 1970s. (In one 1973 performance, she nailed lamb viscera to a saw horse.)
Lacy is a bridge-builder and a mediator. She rarely puts her own deeply held beliefs at the forefront of her projects, but rather creates safe spaces where others’ voices can be raised. “In the current cultural and political context, protest tends to be the go-to strategy for artists,” Lacy said. “Protest is an important strategy, but there are other ways to make change as well.”
A growing trend in social practice, Lacy said, has been the shift toward art projects aiming to influence public policy — a strategy little discussed in previous years. In Manchester, for example, Lacy’s two exhibitions are part of a longer program titled “What Kind of City? A Manual for Social Change.” The initiative, spearheaded by Hudson and Lacy, aims to address their question: “After Covid, what kind of city can we make together?” Planned workshops around four themes — youth agency, borders, social cohesion, and work prospects for older women — correlate to themes in Lacy’s exhibitions. Manchester residents will use Lacy’s projects as both inspiration and informational resources for talking about how social conditions can be improved in their communities.
For one such project, “Uncertain Futures,” currently on view at the Manchester Art Gallery, Lacy and a team of university researchers interviewed 115 local women over the age of 50 — a demographic that often struggles to be heard. Among the concerns they raised were their working prospects after Covid, public policy around retirement and pensions, migration, housing, disability and isolation.
“These older women are often in the position of providing care, while they themselves need care,” Lacy said. At a summit meeting from March 23 to 26, Lacy’s team plans to present its findings to local politicians and policymakers.
When Lacy visited Queens Museum, in 2020, she witnessed the Cultural Food Pantry, which gives out food packages to 500 families a week. (The initiative began in the early months of the pandemic.) She immediately wanted to be involved. “Giving out food is so satisfying,” she said. “Direct service is very important to me. It comes from my working-class background.”
In her 1982 performance “Freeze Frame: Room for Living Room,” a participatory performance staged in an upscale furniture showroom, different groups of women, from sex workers to disabled women to ex-psychiatric patients and pregnant women, discussed their lives and the topic of survival as it related to their often-intersectional identities. (Intersectionality was not named, still less discussed, at that time.)
The artist will “reactivate” that project by installing furniture in the “sunken living room,” a public space in the atrium of the Queens Museum. Female volunteers from the Cultural Food Pantry — all leaders in their ethnically diverse communities — will take part in the project. Instead of inviting them to talk among themselves as participants did in 1982, Lacy is asking them what they want to learn. Leadership training and English language lessons have been raised so far, but the project is still in development.
Since Lacy’s first major retrospective in 2019 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, she has found herself working inside museums as never before. In the 1970s and ’80s, she recalled, museums were simply not interested in supporting the kind of work she did. “In the mid parts of my career, I took to the streets,” she said.
Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, commissioned Lacy in 2013 for one of those projects, “Between the Door and the Street,” when Pasternak was president and creative director of the public-art nonprofit Creative Time. The project had hundreds of women gather on stoops to talk about immigration, labor and poverty and the impact these issues had on women’s lives.
Pasternak said that museums are now not only commissioning such projects by “trailblazing” social practice artists like Lacy, Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles; they have begun to collect and archive them too.
Lacy welcomes this new context for her work. “I need museums to the extent that I want my work embedded in art history,” she said. “I used to think, if my work was written about, if it’s documented, even if I just put it in my archives, it would survive. And I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.” The capacity of museums not just to exhibit but to store, conserve and contextualize her work has become increasingly important.
For her project “Prostitution Notes” (1974-75), Lacy moved through city streets, restaurants and bars “tracking” the lives of sex workers. The annotated drawings that were the project’s main physical outcome sat rolled up in Lacy’s garage for three decades before she framed them for the landmark feminist art survey “WACK!” in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The piece then entered the museum’s collection, and will be lent for her Queens Museum exhibition.
Today, museums are under great internal and external pressure to reform. “The neutrality of the museum is a myth,” Hudson asserts, a view that is widely becoming accepted.
Through decades of tireless work — work that was once thought unsuitable for museum exhibition — artists like Lacy are pointing a way forward for arts institutions to be more engaged, more useful, and to abandon the facade of neutrality. Museums, like Lacy’s art, can be vessels for diverse and sometimes conflicting stories.
First published: New York Times, March 10 2022