Amy Sherald (b. 1973) Breonna Taylor 2020 Oil on linen 137.2 x 109.2 cm / 54 x 43 inches.
Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor may prove to be the most important painting of the 21st century. A brilliant artist at the top of her game. A beautifully, powerfully, sensitively rendered picture of a tragic figure. Simultaneously traumatic and hopeful. A singular statement managing to condense a world gone mad into one image.
Shared and viewed millions of times after appearing on the cover of the September 2020 issue of “Vanity Fair,” the painting will go on public view for the first time at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY–Taylor’s hometown.
“It may be the best-known work of art that has only been seen by a handful of people,” Speed Art Museum Director Stephen Reily told Forbes.com. “As far as I understand, it has never left Amy Sherald’s studio.”
That changes on April 7 when the Speed debuts “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” an exhibition honoring Black lives lost too soon.
In putting this show together, the museum busted every protocol it had established for staging a exhibition. That started with the time frame.
Presentations of this magnitude–displaying perhaps the most in-demand artwork in the world while taking on the most pressing societal issue of a generation–regularly take two or three years of planning. The Speed didn’t begin pulling this idea together until last fall.
“This wasn’t even an exhibition in my mind originally,” Reily said. “For the past year, we’ve been thinking about what’s the role of the museum in serving a community that’s been going through trauma since the killing of Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed? What is the role of an art museum and how can we find a way for art to help people process what they’ve been going through?”
Without a curator of contemporary art presently on staff, the Speed had to activate its networks to find one. They chose Allison Glenn, a writer and Associate Curator, Contemporary Art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. Glenn knew the artists who had been devoting themselves to these themes for decades.
She’s assembled what amounts to a dream team of contemporary Black artists. In addition to Sherald, the exhibition includes Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Nari Ward and Hank Willis Thomas.
Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), Unarmed , 2018, Sculpture, cast bronze, metal and vintage beaded … [+]
The speed also engaged with its community on the front end of the exhibition in a depth it had never approached previously. The museum’s Community Engagement Strategist Toya Northington led that project.
“My job was really to make sure that not only was the Black community engaged, but that the voice and perspectives are heard not only in the exhibition, but with what’s going on in the programming and engagement,” she said
A national advisory panel guided the early stages of exhibition development. A steering committee of Louisville artists, activists, mental health professionals, researchers and community members was convened to offer additional feedback. A research committee provided more input.
Northington managed it all with a specific purpose in mind.
“A lot of times, what happens when you’re creating exhibitions of this kind, the perspective is the other gaze, it comes from a white gaze and then it’s interpreted in a way that we can package it into a museum,” she said. “With this particular exhibition, we’ve really centered the voices that are closest to the issue.”
That includes the family of Breonna Taylor.
The museum had been talking to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and so did Glenn when she started on the project. “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” takes its name from words sprung during a conversation between Glenn and Palmer.
In this first gallery, artists explore ideologies of the United States through the symbols that uphold them, exploring the nation’s founding, history, and the promises and realities, both implicit and explicit, contained within them.
Here, works such as Ligon’s Aftermath (2020) and Bethany Collins’ The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal (2020) speak to the gulf between those promises and the experiences of those for whom they go unfulfilled.
Lorna Simpson American, born 1960 Same , 1991 16 color Polaroids in four frames with 11 plas tic … [+]
This next section builds upon the gap between what a nation promises and provides through artworks that explore ideas of resistance across time, form and context.
From Louisville native Gilliam pushing the boundaries of painting, Alisha Wormsley’s afro-futurist manifesto for Black lives, and Terry Adkins’ monumental sculpture Muffled Drums (after Darkwater) (2003), to photographs from the protests created by Louisville-based photographers Jon Cherry, Xavier Burrell, T.A. Yaro, Erik Branch, and the late Tyler Gerth, these works reflect a combination of artists’ responses to expectations, ideas, and fears—both current and enduring, aesthetic and political.
The exhibition culminates with artworks addressing gun violence and police brutality, their victims, and their legacies, including Kerry James Marshall’s Lost Boys: AKA BB (1993), Nick Cave’s Unarmed (2018), and Amy Sherald’s portrait, Breonna Taylor (2020).
“Our community is struggling. We’re stuck. There are very specific issues about what laws might be changed, how does policing change, but beyond that, there is a feeling that our identity has been questioned and we’re not quite sure how to be our city going forward,” Reily said. “We haven’t had time to process those feelings, to grieve; we’re more divided than ever, we need an opportunity to come together around something. There’s a lot of things an exhibit of art can’t do, but we do hope that this will allow people, in the way great art can, to help you figure out what you do feel, help process your feelings, do it in the company of other citizens and maybe find the ability to turn the corner and move forward together.”
The Speed promises to commit to this effort long-term.
“(The Black community) wants to make sure that this isn’t a one-time event–there’s this huge build up, this exhibition, and then are we forgotten afterwards?” Northington said. “How can we keep that (momentum) going consistently? Part of my work is to plan for the exhibition, but a lot of the outreach and all of the things that are happening are just starting now.”
Admission to the exhibition, which runs through June 6, will be free and open to the public.
Multiple media outlets have reported that Sherald’s portrait has been jointly acquired by the Speed Art Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reily would not officially confirm those reports to Forbes.com.
“It’s an honor and a deep responsibility for us to be able to share this unbelievably important work of art with the public,” he said. “I think we’re just beginning to appreciate what’s so special about the way (Sherald) depicted Breonna Taylor in this portrait and I look forward to us contemplating its importance in the flesh, in paint, not just in a photograph.”
“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” arrives in Louisville during a period of awakening for the city in recalling its rich Black history. In development since 2019 and launched in February of 2021, the new Black Heritage Tour Collection celebrates the African American contribution to Louisville’s history, heritage and culture.
LOUISVILLE, KY – MAY 30: Partial view of Louisville skyline as photographed from the Big Four … [+]
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience: Guests meet an actor portraying Louisville native and renowned bartender, Tom Bullock–the First Black American to write and publish a cocktail book.
Kentucky Derby Museum: A weekly walking tour focusing on the legacy of African Americans in the Thoroughbred industry and their influence on the Kentucky Derby will soon be joined with actor portrayals of significant Black groomers, trainers and jockeys.
Frazier History Museum: A narrated tour exploring the unheard stories about the significant contributions of African Americans to the history of bourbon making in Louisville.
Kentucky Center for African American Heritage: The story of Kentucky-born Mary Ann Fisher as one of the first African American women to have a career as a national Rhythm and Blues singer.
Locust Grove: Learn first-hand what life was like on the 19th century farm as told by the enslaved who served the Croghan family.
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory: Focuses on the best Black baseball team you’ve never heard of and how they dominated in the face of racism.
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – SEPTEMBER 24: People visit a makeshift memorial for Breonna Taylor on … [+]
Roots 101 African American Museum: The new Roots 101 African American Museum located on historic Main Street in downtown Louisville is striving to open its doors in March/April 2021 to promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions and experiences of African Americans using exhibits, programs and activities to illustrate Black history, culture and art. In November, the Breonna Taylor memorial – the heart of Jefferson Square Park for more than 160 days–was moved to its permanent home here; protestors marched Taylor’s memorial piece-by-piece to the new museum.
I still remember visiting the Prado museum in Madrid. What I knew about art prior to that trip would comfortably fit on the end of a paint brush. My life would be changed