On basketball and art museums

Why seeing yourself on the wall matters

By Stuart Deets, Photography and New Media Intern at Mia

•••

I like to play basketball at the school near my house. There’s a soccer field, some baseball diamonds, a playground, and a basketball court. A lot of the time, I’ll go there after working at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

It gives me something to think about besides photographs and art history, since that’s mostly what I do, as a Photography and New Media Intern at Mia and as a soon-to-be PhD student in Art History at the University of Minnesota –Twin Cities.

Richard Avedon’s iconic photo, Lew Alcindor, basketball player, 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York, May 2, 1963, now on view in Mia’s “History of Photography” show in gallery G365.

A little bit ago, some kids came up and asked if they could play with me. I, of course, said yes. There’s something about me that makes kids want to hang out with me. I think it’s the man bun. The two kids were named DJ and Bennett. While Bennett was quiet and new to basketball, DJ was unafraid to talk some trash. Although he was probably only 7 or 8 years old, he had handles like Kyrie Irving and a midrange jumper that would be deadly if he wasn’t two feet shorter than me — for now.

I talked to them a little bit about what I was doing as an intern at Mia, and I asked them if they had ever visited the museum. Bennett said no, but DJ said yes. He said the museum was boring, and he only liked one piece. I asked him what that one was, and he said the one with the skulls.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out which piece he’s talking about. I’m not sure what I was expecting.

Then, I asked DJ what it would take for him to come back to Mia.

He said, “A picture of me.”And then we played basketball until the two kids had to leave.

Oh, and DJ was black.

•••

We know that museums can be a sort of commons, a place and means to negotiate our lives in common. A place to heal, to see maybe a little bit clearer.

We know that representation matters, that coming to a place of cultural authority and seeing someone that looks like me — or something that speaks to who I am — is key to inclusion and community.

So in a very real way, we failed DJ. He came into a museum and was bored. He didn’t see anything that excited him, that connected him with another person in a way that he wasn’t connected before. He didn’t see something so amazingly incredible that he couldn’t stop talking about it. DJ didn’t see himself in the museum, and he didn’t see a picture of DJ the person or DJ the identity.

One of the things I love about Mia is that there is a dedication to meeting people where they are, and valuing and incorporating their perspectives, and to finding even the smallest ways to make a difference.

So we failed DJ. But that doesn’t mean that we are going to fail always, and there is reason to believe that with enough hard work and elbow grease, we can do better in the future. We can show DJ that museums are a place to find yourself. At Mia, we’re trying to find more and different and better ways of making our museum into that kind of place, and we’re trying to share what we find out with as many people as possible.

Angie Renee’s ceramic sculpture “Why,” in Mia’s “Art and Healing: In the Moment” exhibition about the death of Philando Castile.

Sometimes that comes through in exhibitions, like “Art and Healing: In the Moment.” The show was created after the death of Philando Castile, a black man who was killed by a police officer just a few miles from the museum, in a suburb of St. Paul. The exhibition happened because of the community, because of his mother. And it gave a place to heal, yes, but also a place to talk about representation in museums, and the ways that affects real people. A place to find solidarity, if that’s what you need.

But there’s also more, if we learn and teach others to see in a new kind of way. One of my current favorite exhibitions at Mia is “Horse Nation of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ,” a show that “explores how horses shape the history, spirituality, and culture of the Dakhóta, Nakhóta, and Lakȟóta (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota) people, collectively known as the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.” A place to find yourself represented in the museum, if you’re Native American — but also, with enough practice, a place to see something outside ourselves.

Keepers of the Sacred Hunt, a painting by Denton Fast Whirlwind (Thítȟuŋwaŋ) of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in Mia’s “Horse Nation” exhibition.

There have been lots of different cultures over the millennia. Some have been good at handling stress, others might have the words to express and deal with grief. These values are locked away inside the objects they produced, and by studying them we can wonder, we can marvel, we can even gain a bit of insight about how to lead better lives — whatever that means to you. We might start to see that other people have big, complex lives too.

That’s hard to do, but the good news is we can practice a little bit everyday, if we know how. Being more generous. Thinking a little bit more critically about the images we see on the news. Figuring out how to make the world a little bit better for more people. Those are all things that wouldn’t seem to improve our ability to look at art, but they have a lot to do with building a better world to live in, which has a lot to do with seeing art in a new way.

Maybe the answers we’re looking for are hidden in an old book, or a painting, or some pottery. With better art education, we can gain new insight that might help us find the words to explain what we’re experiencing, to show us different solutions to the problems we face, and show us that learning a little bit about art and other cultures can be fun and engaging. We don’t know what kinds of questions DJ was searching for the answers to, but they were probably not the dates that a painting was made. Museums are only the way they are if they’re designed that way — we can change that.

If museums listen to the communities around them — if we listen to what the DJs in our life are really saying — then maybe museums can start living up to what they could be for everyone. Maybe for the next DJ, we’ll do a little bit better. We can move closer to creating a space for people who want to look at cool things, and a place to learn about yourself and other people.

DJ, if you ever want to visit me at the museum, come find me. We can visit the art piece with the skulls and you can tell me all about it.