Contemporary Perspective

The Portland Museum of Art’s new chief curator Shalini Le Gall on how museums can be more inclusive to a diverse community

Before Shalini Le Gall moved to Maine in 2014, she lived in Paris for eight years, where she says she was “literally bathed in French art and in European modernism.” Initially there to finish her dissertation, Le Gall later taught art history for New York University in Paris, including at the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. After working as curator of academic programs at the Colby College Museum of Art for five years, she joined the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) earlier this year as the curator of European art and director of academic engagement. In June the PMA announced Le Gall would become the museum’s chief curator. She says the move to the PMA has allowed her to expand her exposure to European art in Maine, which has its own rich history of American art also represented at the museum, from Winslow Homer to Alex Katz to a range of contemporary artists working on a global scale. “It was just stunning to be able to walk through the galleries and see works by Courbet and Renoir and Monet. It was not what I was expecting,” Le Gall says. “I was really moved and still am moved to see those objects, because any encounter you have with a work of art that impacts you in a personal way—it’s like seeing an old friend. For people who spend decades studying them, there’s still an emotional impact. And that’s really powerful.”

What was the last piece of art that really made an emotional impact on you?

Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times was up this summer—that entire installation moves me still because it’s really conceived as a space for community and as a space for conversation, and the way in which we now understand that so differently than we did four or five months ago is very moving. From the perspective of European art—there are so many paintings—there’s Gustave Courbet’s painting Stormy Weather at Étretat (1869), from his time on the northern coast of France. It’s one of these iconic pictures of the European collection. For anyone that spends time on the Maine coast and has had that feeling of when the wind is blowing so hard that it’s not just the waves are crashing, but the sand is coming up and kind of just speckling into your skin, into your pores, in this really powerful way, you can feel and see the texture of the beach in that painting. Living in Maine has given me a newfound perspective on works of European art like this.

Has the coronavirus pandemic affected how you view the role of art in people’s lives?

As many of us have been back in the museum in the past couple of weeks, it’s been really interesting to see the shift from what was previously exclusively a digital online presence for the museum. You forget when you’re not in the space just what a bodily experience interacting with works of art can be. I think the exciting thing for me is museums will certainly continue to have that as a physical space. And as we navigate this pandemic and figure out how to do that in a safe manner, that will shift a little bit. But I think the potential for digital accessibility has been so inspiring because we were able to reach so many people who might otherwise have not even come into the museum. Understanding how we can really utilize the digital vehicle for a more inclusive message, that expands what we’re able to do within the physical space, is really exciting.

A lot of organizations and companies are becoming more aware of the importance of having clear values on racial diversity and justice and providing an inclusive and welcoming space. How does a museum fit into that conversation and serve a broad and diverse audience?

It’s a great question, and it is one that all museums should be thinking about. If they weren’t before, they certainly are now. I think for a lot of museums, this was already on their radar in some way prior to this moment. But I think this particular moment has focused it because of the way that language has really shaped how we’re describing what’s happening, with phrases like systemic racism, with phrases like institutionalized racism, with phrases like white privilege. All of those phrases becoming part of the lexicon to describe what is happening now has shed light on not just the collections in museums, but actually the entire structure of a museum—the museum’s way of operating, the museum’s role as a representation of a community. Well, whose community, is the question. I think in the coming years you will see a lot of conversation and shift and action to thinking about the ways that museums can actively address this. For those of us who are in the field, who have been committed to this for a very long time, this is a really exciting time to be doing this work. Museums of course represent a certain symbol of privilege. For any of us who work in museums, that is not lost on us. We are aware of that every day. And we are working to expand our audiences.

Speaking personally, I did not come to this field easily. I am an unlikely candidate, and there are not a lot of people who look like me in museums. And at the same time, I reflect often on not just my background, but my historical, my ancestral background, and think about the fact that my immigrant parents who came to this country in the 1970s from India came here because they were able to speak English. They were only able to speak English because Britain had colonized India for hundreds of years. The way in which such oppressive histories are entangled in the narratives of a lot of people today is complicated, and can be devastating. For Black Americans, it’s the legacy of slavery, deep-rooted racism, and police brutality. What can you do from a contemporary perspective to not just shine light on those histories that often remain invisible, but to actively work in a very pronounced way to move against them? I think, for a lot of us, we’re in the “shining light” phase. We are in the “let’s look and let’s see and let’s learn” phase, and the clock is ticking on seeing what action looks like.

Another thing that’s happening now in culture is the examination of historical figures through a modern lens. What can museums do to provide context to the work of artists, like Pablo Picasso, who would be considered problematic figures in a modern-day world?

As someone who’s spent almost 20 years researching nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artists, a lot of artists from that time period would be considered problematic by today’s standards. The artist that I wrote my dissertation on was a nineteenth-century Orientalist traveler. I spent months in London and in Manchester, reading some really amazing texts describing his approaches to artmaking, his understandings of color, his appreciation for Islamic ceramics, and some really racist musings as well. So, making sense of that and trying to under-stand how these things coexist, and how you as a person of this time make sense of that—that is one of the exciting challenges, frankly, for me, just because it was part of the reason why I came into this work. When we mount an exhibition, there are multiple things happening simultaneously. One of them is trying to develop a better understanding of this artist in their time and especially of the works of art. When you look, especially at historical artists, you’re certainly interested in the individuals behind the works of art, but you’re also interested in the histories of those objects. Where did those objects go? Who saw them? Who wrote about them? How were they seen and understood in their own time? Then the other part of the conversation is exactly as you described. How do we make sense of that now? So, we’re looking back now not just at those objects; we’re looking back at the way that those objects were understood and written about and described and appreciated in their own time. I often describe it to students as a glance back over both shoulders, because we still have the object in front of us. We don’t necessarily have all those people whose opinions have lasted. From a museum’s perspective, and certainly thinking about the impact of an exhibition, we have historically privileged one over the other. I think that will increasingly shift in the coming years on a national scale, where we are seeing an increased need and an urgency to recognize that works of art and exhibitions cannot be mounted and displayed in apolitical ways.

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