Taylor Renee Aldridge on Shifting Narratives in the Arts and Detroit
How can the canon of contemporary art be expanded to be more inclusive and equitable? Taylor Renee Aldridge is in pursuit of such an inquiry. Aldridge is a storyteller, but not just for the sake of putting words to paper. Instead, she is interested in the stories that are untold, those that transform landscapes and shift the dynamics of power structures – especially within the arts. She has written for countless arts media outlets and in 2015 founded Arts. Black – a platform committed to ensuring that black art critics are seen, read and heard. Already, her work toward equity in the arts has been commended. In 2016, The Andy Warhol Foundation awarded her the Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant for Short Form Writing. She has also served as a Goldman Sachs Fellow at the National Museum of American History. In part, Aldridge’s work is focused on looking beyond institutional frameworks within the arts and unpacking the narratives that exist on the periphery. Her commitment to her hometown of Detroit is a part of this work. Since returning home after finishing her graduate coursework at Harvard University, she brought her advocacy to a city whose narrative has been contorted by those who don’t know the Detroit that she knows. Her work is focused on countering this.
Below, Aldridge gives us a glimpse of her Detroit, discusses how art can sometimes be both transformational and a detriment to cities, and her commitment, through it all, to create space for those within the arts who are often pushed to the margins.
You relocated to your hometown of Detroit in 2014, can you tell me about what you were doing before your move and what brought you back home?
I left Detroit after graduating high school and went to Howard University for undergrad and and then went to Harvard University for a Masters in Museum Studies, where I was really just doing a lot of case studies on how cultural institutions work and writing my thesis on the underrepresentation of certain audiences and arts cultural institutions and what the implications of that are. I was really looking at how 21st century museum models are trying to accommodate nontraditional audiences. What strategies are they taking to diversify their audiences because they’ve been traditionally white since their founding. After I finished all my coursework, I was really interested in coming back home because there had been so much change. I had visited Detroit over breaks and witnessed a little bit of that contention of the old Detroit working to accommodate this new Detroit that was sort of embarking on the city. I was interested in how institutions and organizations were responding to this element of flux.
There are a limited amount of things that people note about Detroit. They mention Motown, they mention Ford, they mention bankruptcy. But you have this experience of growing up there and coming back. It seems, too, as a native, you seem to be doing this work of remembering the city’s past as a way to imagine its future. Can you tell me about the Detroit that you know?
My experience–I didn’t learn until later–was very unique in terms of being African American growing up in America. I grew up in a city that was predominately black, not just predominately black, but 80 percent African-American. I went to Detroit Public Schools, I went to a few charter schools. All of which had a really heavy focus in Afrocentric consciousness in their curriculum. That was my default. Instead of having a Eurocentric, westernized approach to educating, I was learning about Yoruba cultures and all of these types of spiritualities and beliefs and ways of learning from a Diasporan perspective rather than a Eurocentric one. You really don’t understand that that experience is different until you go live in cities and are close to other ways of learning. I went to predominately African American schools and just learned about all of the contributions – creative, educational, literary – that Detroiters and specifically African Americans made to a larger canon.
Was it at Howard or Harvard that you started to establish the importance for advocating for equity in the arts?
I would say at Harvard when I was actually doing extensive research on the history of institutions. I think we think of institutions as places that are arbiters of culture, they preserve, they teach us about culture. But in my research at Harvard, and specifically learning [about] American art museums, you realize that these places were founded out of Eurocentric elitism to preserve ideals of Enlightenment and a certain political agenda. I was really interested in seeing culture that was being preserved outside of the institution and on the periphery. I started looking particularly at alternative organizations and critics of color who were practicing throughout history in the modern era, and I was really disappointed. I know bell hooks and Hilton Als. There are black critics, but they haven’t been preserved in a way that I think they should have been. The research really prompted a dialogue between me and Jessica Lynne – who’s an art critic, [and] writer. What would it look like to create space to preserve the work of black art critics that were operating on the periphery that are so essential to how narratives are built within the contemporary art canon?
You and Jessica founded Arts.Black in 2015 to provide a platform for preservation of black art critics. How has it evolved? What are some of your goals and intentions going forward?
I think we’re both really committed to building this site and platform as an institution. We want to think about ways to sustain it, to pay our writers more, to publish in multiple languages. We had our first translated piece published a few months ago from Creole to English. We’re looking to create a more outward facing identity, one that is offering programs and sites in real life as well as URL. Extending beyond the Internet, what kind of offerings can we make to create space amongst black art critics because that sense of community feels very important. Recently, we’ve both had to make a decision between our 9 to 5 jobs and choosing other institutions over our own. Ultimately, we both decided that we’re interested in dedicating all of our resources to Arts.Black. That’s what it deserves. It’s truly a labor of love that’s becoming super integral and important to the development of the contemporary canon. We’re going to dedicate ourselves to it full-time.
A lot of cities like Detroit are trying to figure out how they can make themselves more equitable through the arts. That’s a struggle. How are the arts important to evolving these cities whether they’re going through racial tensions, economic tensions, etcetera? How do you hold the art industry accountable when they’re attempting to do this? How do cities grapple with the fact that they need the arts but also understand that the arts are institutions, too, which appear to be good ideas, but are often implicated in shifting the dynamics of how residents move around these places?
These are questions that I ask myself everyday. I’m not sure that I have the answer. I think being in Detroit has helped me get a hyperlocal, but also macro perspective as to how the arts are utilized and coopted and exploited to advance agendas for governments and corporations. It’s happening at such an alarming rate here. I’ve seen literally artists being employed for pennies or not being paid at all to maybe install a mural on a building that a certain corporation or developer might want to raise awareness around so they can turn it into condos. I’ve really just been able to witness just how much of a tool art is and how many politicians and developers are following artists because they know that they’re able to make a certain urban center very attractive, and they use that cultural capital and leverage it into unaffordable housing. One thing about Detroit is that we have a lacking infrastructure within the arts community. There’s no arts commission like they have in Chicago. I really think governments and developers just don’t understand what they’re doing and the ramifications even when they’re just using the arts to develop a site. They still don’t understand how that compromises a resident’s access to land. It starts by having conversations and building policy that centers the needs of an artist as opposed to just a corporate developer.
The final question I have for you refers to an essay you wrote titled “Transplant Exploits.” There’s a line where you write: “Narratives can be held captive by people who don’t narrate justly.” You go on to evidence this by mentioning how Detroit has been written about recently through these poverty porn narratives. How do you seek to dismantle these narratives and rewrite them so it depicts the city in a way that residents not only see it, but rather the residents themselves can be active participants and actually benefit?
It starts by me writing what I see and identifying the issues with what I see, being a documentarian and sharing with the world what’s happening on a hyperlocal level. I think it’s necessary to have a middle and macro approach to supporting and sustaining and providing counter narratives to these really Eurocentric narratives that are being prioritized. In doing that, I’ve worked as an advisory for this grant-making initiative called Detroit Narrative Agency, which is a grant-funding initiative that was spearheaded by Allied Media. We created this grant-making process that was super transparent where we talked about the needs to shift narratives about Detroit. We sought out artists, storytellers who were interested in making moving-image projects about the city to change the narrative that had been platformed about the city. We chose about 10-12 storytellers and gave them funding to begin this projects. They’re all Detroiters. We were very keen on prioritizing Detroiters in this grant-making process and helping them figure out ways to best tell their story. These are particularly stories that aren’t often shared in the mainstream. That really gave us an opportunity to create an infrastructure around storytelling in a really intentional and community-driven way. I think doing things like that and being an individual writer and doing the work with Arts.Black, it needs to happen on both individual, community and then institutional levels.
Photo of Taylor Renee Aldridge courtesy of E. Wolf.