Commitment to Social Justice
A Letter from Jenie Gao Studio
12 weeks after most states announced their Safer At Home orders, many things came to a head. COVID-19. Record-breaking unemployment. Violence towards Black people and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. But it didn't end there--hate crimes towards Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans (APIDA) have also skyrocketed by 150% nationwide and as high as 1900% in metropolitan areas. In March 2021, a white domestic terrorist murdered eight people including six Asian women: Daoyou Feng, Xiaojie Tan, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim, Soon Jung Park, and Hyun Jung Grant. Meanwhile, police have continued to murder Black and Brown people--Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma'Khia Bryant--without accountability.
In solidarity with the #GeorgeFloyd protests and Black Lives Matter, from June 1-4, 2020, I ran a fundraiser through this online shop, and donated 100% of art sale profits to Freedom Inc. and Free the 350 Bail Fund. In three days, you helped raise $3,000.
From April 1 - April 30, 2021, I ran the BOTH / AND campaign, donating 20% of online art sales to APIDA-led and APIDA-serving causes in Wisconsin: Freedom Inc. ($1,000), Cook It Forward ($500), and Bayview Foundation.
These fundraisers served the following purposes:
- To use this platform to redirect resources quickly to Black-led and APIDA-led causes.
- To demonstrate that non-Black POC must also stand with the Black community and commit to the work of dismantling systemic racism.
- To signal the need for intersectional justice, to drive a nuanced conversation that's missing in the US, and to expand racial equity fight to acknowledge western imperialism in Asian countries.
- To send a signal from small business during a pandemic recession, that even those of us in the small business community who are hurting have a level of privilege and duty to those most impacted by COVID-19.
- To send a signal to larger entities. If individuals and smaller entities can recognize our privilege and prioritize justice on a powerful, grassroots level, what are our larger institutions doing to dismantle white supremacy and create a more equitable and just society?
This is just the beginning of what must be our longer commitment to real, sustaining change.
I continue to be committed to the following:
- To periodically donate a percentage of art sale profits to BIPOC-led causes. Since summer 2020, I have donated $5,000 to different causes.
- In 2020, I donated to Freedom Inc ($1,500), Free the 350 Bail Fund ($1,500), and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute ($100).
- In 2021, I donated to Freedom Inc ($1,000), Cook It Forward ($500), Bayview Foundation ($202), and YWCA Madison ($200).
- To continue building Jenie Gao Studio as an anti-racist organization, such as through the JGS internship / apprenticeship program that is committed to fair pay and diverse hiring as a way to dismantle systemic barriers within the arts.
- To continue building Jenie Gao Studio as an anti-gentrification business, one that prioritizes fair pay for labor and that currently rents from a commercial space that subsidizes affordable housing.
- To continue using my platforms and arts advocacy writing to bring attention to inequity and challenges faced especially by APIDA artists, Black artists, Indigenous artists, artists of color, women, LGBTQ+, the working class, and historically excluded voices, and what needs to change in this field.
What does it mean to do the work of anti-racism in the arts?
As artists and arts professionals, we need to be critical of the ways in which our work can help or hurt the causes of diversity and equity. I put forth the following as challenges for myself and to my colleagues and the arts industry at large.
- Representation Matters, and It’s Inequity All the Way Down: US art museum collections are mostly white and mostly male. Women of color collectively make up less than half of one percent of museum collections. Black men make up 1%. Hispanic/Latinx men make up 2.6%. Asian men make up 7.5%. There are no reported statistics on what percentage of POC representation is international artists versus American-born POC. Collectively, artists of color make up 11.5% of US art museum collections. The racial and gender disparities within that 11.5% tell an even more important story. For too long, Diversity & Inclusion has been a token project, with the goal of checking the easiest box. We need to stop promoting the simple narrative of diversity and commit to one that is nuanced, intersectional, and truly equitable.
- Volunteerism as a Privilege: The arts require a high level of volunteerism. Most arts internships are unpaid, yet are a key stepping-stone to competitive career opportunities. This is one of the highest barriers of access for who gets to participate in the field. Volunteering is a privilege, and as long as the arts industry relies heavily on the volunteer work of artists and student interns as a prerequisite to paid administrative roles, the biggest voices in the field will be wealthy and white.
- Whose Voice When: It may be tempting for non-Black artists to create their own Black Lives Matter-inspired designs, to insert themselves in a narrative that should really be led by Black voices. Let Black artists lead the movement. Same thing for every marginalized racial group--let people speak for themselves.
- Cultural Appropriation: White artists are the greatest profiteers from the cultures of BIPOC, and BIPOC have also perpetuated the harm of cultural appropriation as well (e.g. non-Black artists appropriating from Black culture, non-Asian appropriating from Asian cultures). White artists and curators must commit to educating themselves about the use of cultural motifs in artwork, and who benefits from it. This includes visiting the work of older, established artists whose art has long been collected by major institutions.
- The Nonprofit Sector: The arts industry is deeply intertwined with the nonprofit sector, and we must evaluate the ways in which nonprofits are complicit with an oppressive system. Nonprofits are designed as societal tax breaks and as a way to outsource the labor of charity. This can render social inequity invisible to the most privileged people and makes it harder to tackle the roots of social issues. We cannot change entire systems overnight, but we need to become better at recognizing the systems that dictate our behaviors and create barriers. We need to ask whose interests we’re truly serving with our initiatives, dismantle problematic policies, and get better at matching our intent with our impact.
- Art as Bandage: We must resist the urge of using art as a bandage for a deep wound. It may be tempting to cover boarded up storefronts with positive messages and create other temporary homages to the moment. This isn’t to say we cannot have positive, visual messages in the aftermath of the protests. But we do need to ask what our motives are. If it takes less than 48 hours for an affluent business district to board up its store windows and find artists to paint positive murals on them, how many communities of color have lived with real blight for generations before their pain finally reached us? If we cannot live with their discomfort for more than a few days, then are we okay with going back to business-as-usual after this?
We are now in a pandemic turned recession turned revolution, and we in the arts work in an industry that defines cultural representation and thought. We cannot look away from this moment. Black Lives Matter. We must commit to educating ourselves, listening, and creating space for black voices, now and beyond the movement. The work we are willing to do today will shape who we become for generations.