Monumental Tour is a project that displays art installations in public spaces across the United States with a focus on the African American experience. The latest iteration of the project is currently on display in Philadelphia and will run until January 2022. This location is particularly pertinent as it was just last year that the city finally removed a statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo, a pro-segregationist who infamously told his citizens to ‘vote white’. We caught up with Marsha Reid, the curator of Monumental Tour, to discuss the inspiration and principles behind the project, a well as America’s difficult relationship with its own history.
In a few words, could you please introduce yourself and Monumental Tour to our readers?
Hallo – I am Marsha Reid, Executive Director of Kindred Arts. I am an interdisciplinary arts presenter and producer, cultural organiser and arts activist based in Harlem, New York. My nonprofit work and collaborative projects address cultural equity, public space, community and Communitas.
Currently, I am curating public programs for Monumental Tour, a public art exhibit traveling across the United States, empowering social change through the arts. My previous curatorial and production credits include artistic planning for The Metropolitan Museum of Art; as well as Lincoln Center outdoor festivals, programming and presenting concerts, lectures, festivals and large-scale performance.
Monumental Tour visited Oakland, California earlier in the year, now it has made its way to Philadelphia. How does the Kindred Arts initiative go about selecting which cities to display work in?
It’s a mixed bag of aspiration and invitation! Kindred Arts conceives and produces interventions in public spaces that speak to community and that celebrate our unique cultural traditions. We are guided by a passionate belief in the power of art and community to create inspiring personal experiences and foster social progress. For example, while I dreamed about activating the city of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, and found a way to make that happen, I also responded to invitations from organisations in Chicago, who were willing to work with me to make it happen.
What was the selection process like for the works in the project? Did you approach the artists personally?
Each work has a different origin and arrival story. Yes, artists are engaged individually.
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Hank Willis Thomas, All Power to All People, 2020. Photograph by Albert Yee. Courtesy of the artist and Kindred Arts.
Arthur Jafa’s Big Wheel IV borrows imagery from Buddhism to make a piece of art that comments on deindustrialisation in America. Whilst the other sculptures tackle themes such as colonialism, mass incarceration, and the legacy of the Black Panthers, this seems to focus to a lesser extent on African American issues. What inspired you to include it in the collection?
Deindustrialisation in America is an American issue, which in turn makes it an African American issue. This work speaks to the effects of deindustrialisation on the African American Middle Class. My disclaimer: of course, art is subjective and subjectivity is based on personal opinions and feelings rather than on agreed upon facts.
One of the core principles of the Monumental Tour project is displaying all the works in public spaces. Do you think a lack of accessibility is a problem in the United States art world?
I think that exclusion is a bigger problem than lack of accessibility. Much of my work is negotiating the right to be in public space. To hold space is a powerful thing, which makes space inherently political, and as such it is tied up with a host of agencies – who all have to be navigated, in order for us to exhibit, and when I say us – I am speaking about our culture, as well as the objects.
As municipalities and cultural institutions re-imagine community engagement in a post-uprising and post-Covid society, there exists an opportunity to roll back some of those exclusions and to fundamentally rethink how we program outdoor public space to reflect and honor all human identities and experiences.
The tour is honouring Philadelphia-born architect Julian Francis Abele. As an African American, how significant was his elevated status within the early 20th century’s architectural community?
During his lifetime, despite his many significant contributions, he remained virtually unknown outside Philadelphia's architectural community until the 1970s and 1980s. We now appreciate Abele as one of the early twentieth century’s most adept designers of revival buildings, who rejuvenated many long-dormant styles as vital, modern forms of architectural expression.
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Christopher Myers, Caliban’s Hands, 2020. Photograph by Albert Yee. Courtesy of the artist and Kindred Arts.
Coby Kennedy’s installation, The Box, acts as a protest against the abominable conditions faced by Kalief Browder and millions of others in the US prison system. With corporations ranging from McDonalds to the Bank of America lobbying against reform whilst benefitting from prison labour, how do we even begin to address this monumental problem?
We think a good way to start is by acknowledging it. Many of the histories that we cover and talk about aren't pleasant, and we––society–– have a way of turning away from stories that don’t offer some form of escapism.
We must repeat these stories until the atrocities are scorched into our consciousness and we do something about them. It’s the only way to affect any significant change.
You’ve worked at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Lincoln Centre, two of New York’s most important cultural hubs. Do you think that leading institutions such as these are doing enough to address social inequality in the creative sphere?
If you ask, I believe they’d respond that they are meeting their inclusion quotas. And we certainly see some really fantastic world programming, albeit intermittently. Of course, more can be done, but change comes from the top down. Those two particular arts institutions can only be as liberal as their funders and supporters will allow.
Angela Davis once said that American society depends on “public amnesia.” With this in mind, how important do you think works such as Christopher Myer’s Caliban’s Hands are for keeping colonial history in American social consciousness?
Same answer as before! Imagine having a history so genocidally terrible that you are ashamed to teach it in schools? We have to keep telling these stories until the atrocities are scorched into our consciousness and they are never repeated or omitted.
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Coby Kennedy, Kalief Browder: The Box, 2021. Photograph by Albert Yee. Courtesy of the artist and Kindred Arts.
Who do you think are the most important figures in contemporary American social activism?
The public. As hard as white male patriarchy struggles to hold on, we ultimately hold the power to change the elected and the gate keepers.
Do you have any faith in Joe Biden to enact substantial social change in America? Or is his vision of America the same late-capitalist hellscape as that of Trump, just with a more progressive image?
Ah Politics. My opinion doesn’t matter here. It seems like a tough job though!
What does the future of the Monumental Tour look like? Do you have another city in mind after Philadelphia?
We are currently working on 2022 and growing our cast of featured works. We look forward to meeting and building community in as many states as will have us!
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Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel VI, 2018. Photograph by Albert Yee. Courtesy of the artist and Kindred Arts.