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Back to Blog March 11, 2022

Dean Cahan Shares Expertise on Inclusivity in Art World

Author: Emily Herbein

Tyler Dean Susan E. Cahan has made her life’s work advocating for greater inclusivity in the art world, particularly in the field of education and in museums. Her expertise, developed over 30 years as an arts educator, art historian, and curator has influenced public understanding of art, politics, and institutional practices. This spring, Cahan will bring her vision to three public conversations.  

This Saturday, March 12, Cahan will moderate a panel discussion on the influence of artist Faith Ringgold entitled On Faith: Matrilineal Art Histories in conjunction with a current exhibition of Ringgold’s work at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. On Wednesday, April 13 at New York University she will discuss the legacy of curator William Olander for the launch of the new book DUETS: Julie Ault & David Deitcher in Conversation on William Olander, published by Visual AIDS; and on April 26 she will discuss Howardena Pindell's statistical research into art world representation in conjunction with the artist’s solo exhibition at Fruitmarket in Edinburgh. 

In this interview, Cahan discusses her scholarly work and what she hopes to inspire in her upcoming public engagements. 

How would you describe your work? 

“My areas of study are contemporary art and the history of museums. I’m interested in the ways in which artwork circulates within different cultural contexts and the forces that come into play in shaping how we come to understand the meaning and function of work of art.  

I’m interested in how culture changes, how artworks have impact. And my methodology is a combination of theory and practice — deep research combined with my experience working as an arts professional for the last 30 or so years.” 

What perspective do you bring to the table? 

“I’m interested in democratizing the arts, and I have worked on that in a number of different ways. When I was a museum educator, I developed a series of projects that involved viewer participation and adding the viewer’s voice to the chorus of voices that are given legitimacy in the interpretation of art, such as curators and art critics. That was while I was at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Our first pilot project was a video tape on the work of Nancy Spero featuring interviews with viewers at a one-person exhibition of her work. The footage was compiled into an introductory video tape that was shown at the entrance to the galleries. Rather than have a traditional didactic introduction in which an expert would tell visitors what to look for in the show, we had multiple voices creating what one could call a variety of “subject positions” from which one could approach the art. Another project that I’m very proud of is Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education, a curriculum guide for high school students and teachers that demonstrates how art can be used in interdisciplinary contexts to teach about social themes.”  

What initially sparked your interest in this pursuit of greater inclusivity within the arts? 

"When I was in high school, I was an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I was placed in the Community Programs Department, which had been created in the early 1970s to reach constituencies that had not previously been part of the museum. During my internship, there was a change in leadership at the museum, and the new director decided to eliminate that department. Witnessing this and listening to the reactions of the staff members sparked my awareness of what it meant to be an “insider” and “outsider” to the mainstream artworld. It was during this period that so many culturally grounded arts organizations were created that transformed public understanding of art, and we’re still experiencing the benefits of those institutions today.” 

What sort of conversations do you hope to generate as you moderate the panel, “On Faith: Matrilineal Art Histories”  and Faith Ringgold’s current exhibition  at The New Museum? 

“Faith Ringgold is an influential activist artist. She was a leader in the protest movements of the 1960s and 70s, and in her wide-ranging body of work over the span of sixty years she has critiqued systems of racial and gender oppression in her choices regarding subject matter, materials, and form.   

What about Faith Ringgold’s work is of specific interest to you? 

“I’ve always found Faith to be a truth-teller and to be fearless. So not only do I appreciate her work as an artist, but I see her as a role model.” 

What do you plan to discuss during the launch event and Visual AIDS panel for DUETS: Julie Ault & David Deitcher in Conversation on William Olander? 

“The curator Bill Olander was a visionary.  His exhibitions reached into content areas that had not previously been explored by museums, such as the exhibition HOMO VIDEO: Where Are We Now that investigated the social and political conditions of lesbians and gays. He instigated the very important installation Let the Record Show by ACT UP presented at The New Museum of Contemporary Artin 1987. The installation indicted public leaders for negligence regarding the AIDS crisis. So, these two shows exemplify Bill’s concept of the museum as a site for critical reframing of social, cultural, and political issues. His work of nearly forty years ago redefined the museum as a center for radical thought and practice during a period of rising conservatism.  

I worked with Bill [who died of AIDS in 1989] at the New Museum. Because he died when he was only 39 years old and most of his writing was published in ephemeral form, such as in exhibition brochures, he’s not well-known to younger artists and curators. But those of us who lived through that era understand the tremendous impact he had on how museums function to elevate or suppress certain kinds of conversations. This is what I plan to talk about.” 

What topics will you explore about Howardena Pindell’s work for the Fruitmarket panel? 

“I’ve been asked to talk about Howardena Pindell’s tracking of diversity in the art world in New York since the 1970s. My presentation will be grounded in archival research that I did for my book, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (2016) and Pindell’s own writings. Pindell used data to expose bias and prejudice in the art world. This later became a more widely used strategy in the work of activist groups like the Guerilla Girls, but Howardena really staked out that territory in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Back then she was a kind of one-woman artworld watchdog.” 

As a woman in art and higher education who holds a position of authority, have you ever faced any inequities or judgments during your career? 

“Well, I don’t think that it’s possible to equate different forms of discrimination or bias, but yes, I have been subjected to marginalizing acts and prejudicial thinking across a range of dimensions. People have asked me, as a white woman, “Why are you interested in the topic of equity, especially racial equity? What does that have to do with you?” I say, I’m interested in the world, and I’m committed to improving the professional worlds that I’m a part of. I’m interested in truth and honest understanding of our fields—of education, art and arts institutions—and making them better.”