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Belonging according to Theaster Gates

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In this section we will explore how ‘belonging’ is understood in this course and why thinking about and creating a sense of ‘belonging’ between museums and individuals, groups and communities is important.

We suggest that thinking about ‘belonging’ and not simply ‘creating access’, which has dominated the museum world language for inclusivity, has a far more aspirational quality. ‘Belonging’ reaches beyond governance and policies, to actively building and sustaining relationships over time, where shared responsibility and ownership is promoted and cultivated. It suggests institutional cultural change.

In this conversation [1] Carol Coletta (Kresge Foundation) and Theaster Gates (artist, urban planner, professor) explore the concept of ‘landscapes of belonging.’ Gates interprets this concept into the transformatory work he does in both spatial design and art practice. Gates proposes that thinking about landscapes expands or extends notions of belonging beyond a singular building or space, and that it is the interaction, or ways of engaging or not engaging with a place. Gates asks a pertinent question which has relevance for museums:

”do we have the capacity to make more and more places where people want to be? And stay longer?”

He complicates the notion of belonging as a state of “longing” and, therefore, of aspiration. There is a longing, on the part of human beings, for a sense of belonging to a place, to a space or to a community… Furthermore, he also suggests that this internal human desire for “belonging” is accompanied by the ways in which the union or sense of community is created, experienced and maintained. The creation of such an experience is especially relevant when we explore the relationships between museums and individuals, groups or communities over time.

He addresses the perceived dichotomy between newness/change and continuity, and proposes a careful examination of how agency and belonging can bring about the co-existence of what may appear to be binary, mutually-exclusive opposites. This is a challenge in a context where there is contestation about ownership, historical injustices and privileged power. In his argument, placing human agency and belonging at the centre of a consultative culture and practice helps to address some of these concerns.

Gates also speaks about the challenges of ensuring that spaces are accessible while remaining financially afloat. This is familiar territory for most museums and public institutions. A lesson perhaps for thinking carefully about financial and budgetary planning which supports the efforts of nurturing a culture of ‘belonging’. There will be more on that later in the course.

The interview closes with an exciting proposition from Gates on the ways in which artistic practice, and not the discipline of urban or town planning, has generated ideas for building inclusive spaces. If you would like to read the whole interview, you can find the link to it in the ‘Reference’ section.

Over to you

Using the summary of key points above, and your own ideas, take some time to think through the following questions and share your thoughts in the comments section:

  • How is Gates shifting discussions about inclusion beyond access when speaking about ‘belonging’?
  • How may this argument serve your museum/context?
  • Considering his argument for ‘artistic’ practice to inform inclusion, what challenges does this pose in terms of designing museum and community teams?

References

1. Lessons from Chicago Civic Commons: A conversation on belonging with Theaster Gates. medium.com 2019. [updated 25 July 2019; cited 21 May 2021]. Available from: https://medium.com/reimagining-the-civic-commons

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