Threatened creative spaces are a haven for underrepresented artists

One of the enduring thoughts  I will take away from this semester is that art is not only a powerful vessel of self-expression, but a tool of representation for a public much larger than an individual.

Costanoan Ohlone historian and activist Ann Marie Sayers highlighted the importance of that representation as a guest speaker at the exhibit, “We’ve Been Here,” hosted by Associated Students, Inc.. Her dream came to life when she looked around the gallery and saw faces of people of color and their stories being documented with photography and other visual stories.

“Let me tell you,” Sayers told the audience in a fiery cry, “I’m seeing my dream come true, because as an Ohlone woman I really feel as though I’m invisible — as though my perspective doesn’t count.”

Sayers stood out to me because of the passion she emanated, and her conviction that all communities must be represented. Seeing her vigor for representation was the culmination of an undercurrent of themes I had seen surface in many exhibitions I attended.

The world of art exhibits and receptions is one I delved into this year when I chose to cover Visual Arts for the Golden Gate Xpress. Before, I had an interest in art but it had remained dormant, pushed aside by more pressing concerns  I thought would have more impact in my life.

Learning about the individuals behind the art displayed in campus galleries, and the push to make art more accessible, has made my regard for art grow and blossom into healthy appreciation. Members of the SF State community are lucky to have a diverse body of students that strives to give a voice to all in outlets like the arts. Many of the exhibitions I attended on campus celebrate people of color and the social movements that have fought for the rights of marginalized and repressed communities. The effort to make art spaces more inclusionary is uniquely progressive and therefore, uniquely SF State.

People of color have long been excluded from art spaces; they’re underrepresented and underrepresented but they are nearly invisible in the curatorial process. According to one study, 28 percent of the staff employed at museums are people of color but the vast majority of them work in janitorial duties. To address this gap, some programs have been created to help minority students in curatorial fields have access to the training they need to succeed.

With low audience participation and community engagement, many museums now face two options: change, or become irrelevant to a shifting demographic. Concerns have been raised over the lack of social inclusion and diversity in museums. According to a survey by the Public Participation in the Arts, museums are overrepresented by White visitors, which make up nearly 80 percent.

In that light, the need for safe spaces where marginalized artists can flourish cannot be understated, and sometimes those spaces aren’t up to code.

Those that call warehouses like the Oakland Ghost Ship home are reluctant to report safety concerns and health violations like those noted prior to the deadly fire. The supportive and encouraging environment is often enough to overlook potential dangers.

Spaces like the one in Oakland are often a haven for underpaid and marginalized artists in the Bay Area and many thrive best inside communities of like-minded people, but these places are being scrutinized now more than ever. More value needs to be given to the creation of inclusionary creative environments, but we also need to follow safety protocols intended to prevent unnecessary loss of life.

I plan to keep developing my interest in art, as an underrepresented person and although it might never develop into a lucrative interest, in the long run, I think the exposure will help me learn more about myself and the community I’m a part of – I think that’s what many who lived in the Ghost Ship wanted and it’s an opportunity many should continue to have.

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