Talking about Race at the Residence

Manon Gaudet

            The first time Cayllan and I discussed the three salons we would be hosting over the next few months, we agreed that race was a prominent theme in the exhibition. Race is a delicate subject in any context; talking about race at the residence of the American Ambassador instantly renders it a political subject. Our anxiety aside, we agreed that to ignore the responses to racial injustices present in the exhibition would be a disservice to the socially conscious and courageous curation of Contemporary Conversations.

            We decided to go big or go home for our first conversation and titled it: “Art as a Catalyst for Social Change.” We planned the conversation around two works. The first was a series of photographs by Ernest Withers, a civil rights photographer from the 1960s. Ernest Withers’ photographs document many of the most prominent figures and events of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The Heymans have three photographs, one of which is the famous “I am a Man” photo from the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. The second work was contemporary artist Theaster Gates’ Ole Spangled Banner (undated), a reimagined American flag composed of decommissioned fire hoses and wood. The hoses are iconic to the African-American Civil Rights Movement and reference a moment when peaceful protestors in Birmingham, Alabama were hosed down in 1963.[1]

The sensitive nature of the topics addressed by our selected works taught me much about what it means to be diplomatic. Cayllan and I had to think about the impact of being two privileged, white women leading a conversation about racial injustices that we have personally never suffered. Vicki Heyman’s assistant, Gillian Frackelton, shared with us her own experiences teaching black history to a group of African American students in Chicago. She encouraged us to embrace the discomfort and to be forthcoming about our positions in the conversation. We settled on the following disclaimer before our discussion: “Before we begin, we want to take the time to recognize that some here today, including the two of us, approach this topic from a position of undeniable privilege. We think it is valuable to engage in this discussion, but we do not presume to know what it is like to face the systemic social injustices at hand.”

Our discomfort did not end with race. It is also uncomfortable to be two Canadians leading a discussion in the residence of the American Ambassador about a flawed American history. As an antidote to this discomfort, we felt the need to implicate Canada in our discussion. We showed a portion of the 1991 NFB documentary Remember Africville directed by Shelagh Mackenzie as a Canadian counterpoint to the 1960s-era we were considering. Africville was a small black community on the southern shore of Bedford Basin in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The townspeople were forcibly removed between 1964 and 1967 by city planners who deemed the settlement unfit for habitation.[2] The lack of community consultation in the Africville relocation project finds its own antithesis in the work of Theaster Gates, who has been described as an “opportunity artist.”[3] Gates takes his art into the community, revitalizing buildings on Chicago’s South Dorchester Avenue—an under-privileged area where many buildings are boarded-up, abandoned and dilapidated. Through the Dorchester Project, he has rejuvenated the neighborhood, which now includes a library, slide archive, vinyl library and several other spaces for artists to create and reside in.[4]

From the beginning, we feared that people would respond negatively to the topic or to us. Our fears were realized during the conversation portion of the event when a woman in the front row looked at us and asked, quite aggressively, “what are you doing here?” We began to re-explain the concept of the salons and she interrupted: “no, why are we here? Why am I sitting in the residence of the American Ambassador, talking about race?” As it turns out, what had come off as aggression was actually praise for Ambassador and Vicki Heyman. Cayllan and I shared this praise in the process of curating the conversation. We were consistently surprised and impressed by the provocative nature of the exhibition. From this initial provocation, the conversation took off. Voices were raised (in enthusiasm), challenges were posed, and personal stories were shared. The discussion ranged from gender and sexuality in the African-American Civil Rights Movement to the contemporary situation in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the process of curating our first conversation at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, I learned about the diplomacy of art and the art of diplomacy. I learned that art really can be a form of diplomacy—a way of opening people up to new ideas—and that approaching sensitive subjects in a diplomatic way is an art form in itself. Above all, I was reminded that there is something powerful in sitting down and talking about art.

[1] Contemporary Conversations, edited by Art in Embassies, 2015, exhibition catalogue, 16.

[2] Remember Africville, directed by Shelagh Mackenzie, Montreal, QC: The National Film Board of Canada, 1991.

[3] Ben Austen, “Chicago’s Opportunity Artist,” The New York Times Magazine, December 20, 2013, accessed April 25, 2015,

[4] Ibid.