Q&A: Deitsch describes anti-racism work of Public Art Workstream and Committee

Dina Deitsch, Director and Chief Curator of the Tufts Art Galleries, is pictured. Courtesy Dina Deitsch

As Director and Chief Curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries, Dina Deitsch has been committed to shifting the art on campus to better reflect diversity and inclusion in the community. Part of her plans under the Public Arts Committee are showcasing more artists and subjects who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Her insights and plans seek to creatively pursue the question: How does our art influence the culture we create on campus?

Tufts Daily (TD): What does your job entail?

Dina Deitsch (DD): My title is director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries … I was brought in during the summer of 2017, and with my appointment, the gallery structure changed from being just the galleries that are in the Aidekman Arts Center on the Medford/Somerville campus to also include the art gallery and exhibition spaces at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at 230 Fenway in Boston. I oversee both physical locations of the program.

As the gallery director, I’m also chair of the Public Art Committee .. .which we formed in fall of 2019 after two specific issues that came up. One was a physical maintenance issue with the Jumbo sculpture in front of Barnum Hall, and that was commissioned five years ago…the condition was suffering because it hadn’t been properly maintained, cleaned and waxed. The group was developed to make sure that the art we do have is properly maintained and cared for. The more urgent issue was the murals in the Alumnae Lounge that were taken down and put into storage summer of 2019 after a year and a half of public conversation and committee work that decided they would come down because of their lack of inclusion in depicting university history. 

That launched a lot of concerns about what does representation on campus look like?’ And so the committee’s big task is to think about not only how do we care for what we have, but as we bring in new things, are we thinking holistically, are we thinking equitably about artwork on campus? How does that artwork express our values? Art at its very basic level is an expression of values informed. And the question is, as a university, what is our responsibility? What is the role that we play within developing the culture of our spaces, having spaces socialize us, as well as what stories are we telling? So it became a larger question that the Public Art Committee thinks about.

TD: Can you tell us more about the Public Art Committee’s anti-racist public art efforts?

DD: We developed the Public Art Committee, we have the gallery committee and we have faculty that advises us on the art that we bring into the collection … In the summer of 2020, there was a global awakening after George Floyd’s death and the reckoning of racial injustice in this country. President Monaco very wisely set out active plans about how we are going to change things here. We all have to internalize change. What are we doing that’s enforcing a white supremacist culture? Where do we need to change? 

[University President Anthony Monaco] developed five key themes, three of them — as you know from the workstream reports — were more an analysis and looking at the university holistically … and two were more immediate. Policing had become an incredibly urgent issue for years, in recent years especially, so that was one committee that was developed out of incredible need. Then public art became a committee as well because of the work we had done with the murals [in the Alumnae Lounge]. 

We knew that after the lounge, that’s not the only space that needs to be re-thought, and President Monaco was very clear about his lack of interest in having the Coolidge Room — where the trustees and faculty usually meet — be surrounded by these portraits of older white men. The messaging of that is completely noninclusive and reminds people of where they may or may not fit in … so the Standing Committee shifted our work and intensity to join the workstreams and to really focus very specifically on public art on campus. Our task was to address the Coolidge Room right away … but then the question is, what happens next and what is our overarching plan? 

The [Public Art] committee took the tack, and I co-chair the committee with Marty Ray, who is the chief of staff in the Office of the President … We expanded the committee to really capture more of the whole of the university, so [we have] representatives from Tufts Medical School and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine joined as well … and more graduate students and students, and different representatives from all over, including a lot of our working artists who are at the SMFA. 

The committee started off and decided we first needed to know where we were … so we were able to do a very robust audit of the Medford/Somerville campus just to see what we had on view. [We began to] analyze it based on demographics about the artists and sitters. 

So we have little under 200 pieces of artwork on view on the Medford/Somerville campus. A little under 40 of those depicted people, and … all of those people were white, and all of them except for one were men. That really laid the stage very clearly for us. I can’t say it was a surprise. Every time a president retires, it’s just tradition, a portrait is commissioned, and then all the other images that we found were deans. It was not overly surprising, but it did clarify the necessity of our work … The audit is only partially done even though our workstream report came in. Our thinking is that this audit work is something that will continue with the Public Art Committee. Our next steps are to do a more robust audit of our other campuses.

More importantly, though: Art is not just the thing you see. There’s always a story behind it. There’s a story behind all the sitters. There’s a story behind the artists … If you look at all the 200 artworks on view, our breakdown in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, we’re not that much better. It was maybe 85% white male overall, and then 15% women or [artists of color] — again not representative of our community. 

The next level, which we’ve been working on with a number of classes, is to analyze and research artists and subjects depicted — who were they? What was their story? What was their narrative?… It’s been a wonderful, ongoing project. We have research, conversation [and] reaching out to people about spaces they’re in. Different schools and spaces have different functions and the art has to function accordingly. 

So after all this, you know, what’s next? It’s very easy to take [portraits] down, so the Alumnae Lounge is just an empty room. We don’t really need anything, but we want to think about what we’re adding. Now the committee is really working on developing processes and proposals on two fronts. One is repairing our historical visual records. Even if you take everything down, in our storage and in our collection, you still have a lot of portraits that are a completely homogeneous set of people being depicted. The question is, how to add? The straightforward answer is to commission new work. So who do we commission?  Who’s being featured? … My goal is to bring five new figurative images that depict key members of the university from our history — [Black, Indigenous and people of color] are important of course.

It’ll be a multi-year process, because it takes time to make a good painting. So that’s on one side, but then on the other side we want to think of what we will look like. [We want to show] who we are now. Strategies on that include bringing in artists in residence; we have a lot of capacity to do temporary murals to give energy to places on campus. The overarching thing is to look back on our history more correctly and to reflect a lot of the work that’s being done on campus already … The proposal we had for the [Coolidge Room], for instance, is that our next phase there is that the room is being renovated and [we’re] thinking about creating a series of exhibitions that look at our historical [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities on campus.

TD: With campus opening up a little bit more this fall, do you expect more installments of art around campus?

DD: We’re working on it. Capacity for [COVID-19] is still limited. At the galleries we’ll be doing a group exhibition called “Staying with the Trouble,” which is based on Donna Haraway’s book and essay, which features female-identifying artists that look at worldmaking and ecofeminism … Both the galleries and university are focused on land acknowledgment of the indigenous history of our landscapes, so we have a project coming to the Aidekman Center that uses our archives as well. We’re thinking about a possible temporary public project around that. Public art is slower than gallery art because for things to be outside, they have to be able to weather [being] outside. So hopefully we’ll get something up at the Medford/Somerville campus. 

At 230 Fenway, we’ve been doing a billboard project for the last two or three years, and so we do these billboards about 20 feet high at the entry above Bessie the Rhino at the SMFA … There are still some limitations in how much we can produce for the fall, but we’re working on it.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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