I called “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” the most important art exhibition of 2020. Hank Willis Thomas “All Things Being Equal…” was a close second. With the world famous Amy Sherald Breonna Taylor portrait debuting to the public at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville as part of “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” that show shapes up as the most important of 2021. “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mouring in America” at the New Museum could be second.
The Amy Sherald Breonna Taylor portrait 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 the Amy Sherald Breonna Taylor portrait, the exhibition includes Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Nari Ward and Hank Willis Thomas.
The speed also engaged with its community on the front end of the exhibition in a depth it had never approached previously. The museum’sCommunity 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.
Louisville Black Heritage Tour Collection
“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” arrives in Louisville during a period of awakening for the city in recalling its rich Black history. In development since 2019 andlaunched in February of 2021, the new Black Heritage Tour Collection celebrates the African American contribution to Louisville’s history, heritage and culture.
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.
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.