by Katie Knight
(adapted from the longer curatorial essay in the exhibition catalogue)
Cruelty often reflects underlying fear and unmet needs. Might hate be disarmed by meeting needs and relieving fears? The world as we know it would be transformed if we had the insight, skills, and motivation to turn negative expressions into positive influences.
The artists participating in Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate embraced this challenge in multidimensional forms when they converted white supremacist propaganda into art. The books in their original form represent the most extreme forms of racist, anti-
Semitic, anti-Christian, and homophobic thought: yet we are all vulnerable to beliefs that diminish people who seem different. Most of us have been socialized to both subtle and overt forms of prejudice, which restrict our capacity to understand the world and contribute to attitudes of fear and distrust. By responding creatively to hate, injustice, and violence, the artists in this exhibition encourage empathy for others and respect for social justice. As curator of the exhibition, it is an honor and inspiration to work with them as they share their perspectives, ranging from grief to celebration.
Not all of the artists reshaped the physical material and content of the books. Some chose not to handle the books directly but contributed relevant selections from large bodies of work developed throughout their careers. Many of these artists are pioneers in the use of art as civic dialogue; they have focused on issues of social justice for decades. It is a joy to include their work, which has shaped the collective understanding of the power of art. The work of these individuals has deepened our sensitivity to subtlety and irony while exploring the complexities of equality, race, gender, and beauty.
In 2005, collaboration on this project began in Helena, Montana. Christine Kaufmann and Ken Toole, the former co-directors of the Montana Human Rights Network, were motivated by the curious problem of how to dispose of books acquired from a defecting leader of the group that now calls themselves “the Creativity Movement,” a white supremacist organization whose activities the Network had been monitoring. By removing the books from circulation, the Network intended to prevent them from being used to promote violence and to interrupt an income source for one of the most virulent hate groups in the country. They researched the books and sent copies of all thirteen titles to research libraries around the country. The remaining 3,500 books congested the Network’s offices, but getting rid of them was a sticky problem—destroying books seemed inconsistent with the Network’s democratic values.
When Kaufmann and Toole asked me to curate an exhibition of artwork that would incorporate the books, I embraced the concept and opportunity. As an artist, my own practice is dedicated to raising awareness, stimulating dialogue, working toward social justice, and celebrating solutions. Envisioning an integrated exhibition and educational program, I approached my colleagues at the Holter Museum of Art, where I was the Curator of Education. I am grateful to them for having the interest and courage to host this exhibition. Combining the invitational and juried approaches, we invited artists known for their dedication to relevant issues, and published a national call for submissions.
In the spirit of collaboration and inquiry, we convened a steering committee of community members representing the Montana Human Rights Network, the Lewis and Clark County Library, the Helena Public schools, religious organizations, and artists. Members of the
“Speaking Volumes” steering committee began meeting more than two years before the exhibition was scheduled to open to make plans for community involvement and education programs. At our gatherings, we often examined and discussed the seeds of our own prejudice and the nature of hate, thus laying the foundation for civic dialogue. The collaborative strength of the project grew tremendously when the Museum and Art Gallery Directors Association of Montana (MAGDA) agreed to sponsor a statewide tour of the exhibition. Ten Montana museums and galleries signed on to the project, hosted the exhibition, and provided education programs. Encouraged by the powerful response it generated in Montana, we are preparing it to travel nationally.
Historically, visual art, literature, music, theater, and dance have all challenged audiences with interpretations of social issues as artists reflect upon their times, comment upon contemporary problems, or envision solutions. The power of art in public dialogue lies in its capacity to arouse our passions, make us more conscious of emotional experiences, stimulate thoughtful analysis, and draw us into communication about ideas. Encountering works of art gives us shared experiences as a foundation for discussion. Even with all the communication media that surrounds us, all the chatter of daily life, it is not every day that we are invited to engage in deeper conversations about how we live together as human beings.