White Wall

A call to action

by Vuthy Lay, Makoto Kumasaka & Cameron Kucera

published March 24, 2017


On the corner of Benefit and College Streets, it would be easy to glance over the Radeke Façade, which looks like just another stretch of New England brick and mortar. To a passerby, the façade seems to be a nondescript length of building adjacent to the upper entrance of the RISD Museum. The handleless pair of doors are the only reminder of the abandoned function of the original entrance.

Founded in 1888, the doors of the Radeke Gallery were once only opened to those living on College Hill. Students and visitors alike would study the museum’s earliest collections of mechanical and industrial artifacts. Looking out towards the East Side of Providence, it is easy to imagine the trustees of the University Club, plump from an afternoon lunch, waddling across the street and onto the museum's doorstep.

In many respects, the museum has not changed. Aside from tourists and school groups, museum-goers are still predominantly white and upper-middle class. What bars other demographics from engaging with the museum? David Osa Amadasun interrogates this issue in his article, “Black People Don’t Go To Galleries,” in which he asks, “Could the rejection of particular cultural tastes and activities impede...the realization of hopes and dreams such as going to university or getting into a certain career?”  A similar dynamic in the museum space begins to call into question the RISD Museum’s metrics in defining a valuable cultural artifact.

Underrepresented folks often feel uncomfortable in institutions like the RISD Museum because such institutions fail to fully acknowledge their presence. When these institutions do not fully engage in the nuanced histories and interests of the Providence community as a whole, a sense of unease inhibits them from the work within the museum's walls. We acknowledge this project does not capture the full scope of the issues that arise when critiquing our cultural institutions, but hopes to scratch the surface.

White Wall is a pop-up gallery and performance space on Benefit Street that resembles a white bamboo screen and arch. This piece began as a manifestation of the invisible socioeconomic barriers that limit many in the greater Providence community from fully accessing the museum’s resources and content. We seized upon the cast iron fence which bounds the Radeke façade as a starting point for discussing larger cultural issues of museum inaccessibility. By extending this fence with white bamboo poles, we seek to position the existing architectural barrier as representing the broader social barriers that inhibit people of color from engaging with the museum.

The zip-ties that lash the bamboo together reflect the piece’s rapid assembly and  temporary existence. However, the scaffolding that makes up the structure also allows artists to attach work in a low cost, low-tech way (zip-ties, string). The varying heights of the horizontal bracing allows for a range of different sized works to be displayed. The focal point of the project is the arch, which soars above the roofline of the gallery and concentrates attention on the inaccessible door. This arch reacts to the stepped paths and platforms across the street and transforms the doorway into a performance space.

We not only demand more from our institutions, but strive to individually break down the subtle barriers that prevent our struggling communities from equally and meaningfully connecting to the resources around them. How do we dismantle the personal strategies—coping mechanisms of self policing and intellectual rejection—that somebody builds for themselves to avoid painful situations of feeling out of place or inferior? How do we increase the value of art institutions for these folks? 

We were unsatisfied with this passive critique of museum practice, and we see this wall as an object that can begin to propose a regionally responsive model for museum curation and civic engagement. This model seeks to position the museum as an inclusive cultural beacon by giving voice to local artists and reflecting, through content, the diversity of cultures that makes Providence a successful and progressive city. White Wall is a laboratory for experimentation with new methods of outreach and engagement with the arts. However, our project only has the power to initiate actions that the museum must itself continue in order to fulfill its mission statement to “educate and inspire artists…and the general public through exhibitions, programs, and publications.” 

Our project was inspired by the late museum director, Alexander Dorner, under whose name the prize is dedicated. Prior to his time at RISD, Dorner was known for proggressive art policies that put him in direct opposition with the Nazi Party, eventually leading to his escape from Germany in 1938. As the museum director at RISD, he reorganized traditionally displayed works into dramatic installations which appealed to the Providence public in new and exciting ways. Highly concerned with community engagement, he worked for installations that appealed to a greater variety of people. In 1941, a false accusation by the FBI connected Dorner to the Luftwaffe and he was forced to resign. 

Building upon Dorner's vision, we imagine a public space for sustained engagement. We want folks from the Providence community to use words and forms that push against the moral fabric of these institutions that stand as barriers for entry. White Wall should be swarming in bodies—graphic pastes, smears of color, and loud voices drowning out every inch of white. Bodies of medium physically climbing the walls of the RISD Museum. We want only the slightest hint of an opening, overflowing with ambitious quantities of textile, plaster, and found objects. We want the museum to flex its atrophied muscles under the pressure of a collective Providence expression.

We want to see something else, something new, something different. We want to confront the gentry with the frustrations of those who don’t fit into the white cube of the art world. These collaborations could be anything from poetry slams to street art, video screenings to paintings and sculptures that conflict with or build upon the wall. This installation is meant to stand out. Hopefully, the work on display will engage passersby with earnest content from Providence artists—all of them.  Ideally, this project will force the museum to re-evaluate their distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and allocate more resources to support and exhibit local artists.

These moves toward a more regional patronage could enable the museum to take a bold stance in response to the repugnant actions taken by the Donald Trump administration to cut the National Endowment of the Arts. We are particularly inspired by the incredible work being carried out by local NGOs—organizations like New Urban Arts that have successfully created a safe and supportive space for youth to develop their own individual creative practices. We are currently in the process of promoting White Wall as platform for members of these institutions to display their work to a broader audience of museum-goers and students. Hopefully, these connections will build relationships between members of these communities.

We want to introduce a new participatory model of engagement that hasn’t been attempted at museums in the past. We want to try and fail until we get closer to creating a refuge out of this museum. We want folks to have a new relationship and understanding of it as a public service. We want folks to understand why accessibility and relatability are important for how we function in our day-to-day lives.



VUTHY LAY, MAKOTO KUMASAKA, & CAMERON KUCERA RISD '18 encourage you to contribute to this project. Here are a few opportunities to engage with the RISD Museum:

– Rhode Island residents who identify as an artist or designer can receive a free museum membership

– Free museum admission every Sunday from 10 to 5

– Extended evening hours every third Thursday of each month until 9pm

– Art + Design Lab ( Friday 3 to 5)

– RISD Art Circle (Saturday 11 to 2)

– Summer Teen Intensives

– The Museum Guild also invites undergraduate students from local colleges and universities to become ambassadors for the RISD Museum

Contact us by e-mail at [email protected]