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What Curators Don’t Get About Prison Art

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More than 40 years have passed since Arts in Corrections, one of the first prison art programs of its kind began in a California state penitentiary. Since then, wardens across the country have encouraged America’s incarcerated population—now almost 2.3 million—to take up drawing, painting, and collage as an outlet for expression or as a kind of therapy tool. Celebrities have thrown their support behind the movement; recently, Jane Fonda co-authored an opinion piece for The Washington Post in favor of prison arts-education programs.

Educators say art therapy can save lives, and research suggests that incarcerated people have displayed positive behavioral changes and reduced recidivism after participating in artistic-instruction or free-drawing sessions. Prison reform advocates have taken notice and in recent years have partnered with museums and galleries to showcase art from correctional institutions. Organizations hope that these public exhibitions can help raise awareness for incarcerated populations, but unscrupulous curatorial choices—publicizing the artist’s work alongside their sentences, for one—quarter the incarcerated into harmful caricatures.

What curators forget is the long history of commodifying prison art, which originates from the corrections facilities themselves: Art making, in many states, remains one of the few activities that those on death-row are allowed to do as they await execution. San Quentin State Prison, a half-hour outside San Francisco, has even operated its own gift shop for decades, stocked with artwork made by hundreds of those on death row. However well intentioned, these museum and gallery shows frequently trivialize the brutality of the corrections system by framing artists in the very same social hierarchies they seek to undo.

More to the point, organizers of recent prison-art exhibitions treat galleries and museums as politically neutral ground, despite how the myriad billionaires who help fund those institutions—often with money made from arms, private-prison, pharma, energy, and extractive industries—nullify any progressive political agendas of the artists whom organizers claim to support.

There has been an odd reluctance on the part of curators to discuss how the incarcerated are compensated for their art in recent shows. “On the Inside,” which focuses on approximately 110 portrait drawings by LGBTQ artists who are incarcerated, first appeared at New York’s Abrons Art Center in 2016 and recently debuted at Los Angeles’ Craft Contemporary this summer. Asked if incarcerated artists were being compensated for the upcoming show, a museum spokesperson said artists cannot legally sell anything from prison, which is why curators have made donations to artists’ commissary accounts. Even so, the museum would not specify how much money each participant would receive.

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