Artist Shaun Leonardo’s work has always been confrontational. He holds a mirror to societal injustice through his drawings of incidents of police brutality and performance pieces that address the gun-violence debate and also works to repair the harms of these systems through initiatives like Assembly, a program he founded to fight mass incarceration through arts education. This summer, he made headlines when he accused the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland of censorship for pulling an exhibition of his drawings of police killings of Black and Latino boys and men. (He described the cancellation of his show, “The Breath of Empty Space,” an “act of white fragility.”)
“People have been calling on me to offer my insights on how institutions should change and what I see as a future of institutions,” says Leonardo. “As institutions revisit, or better analyze, the ways they’ve upheld white-supremacist values, the contradiction is that the answers have been there for years. People of color, and Black people in particular, have offered the path forward in institutional change for decades. Folks in seats of powers have not ceded their power. And it’s a very simple equation. For change to happen, folks have to move aside and actually allocate power to the people.”
Now, Leonardo is taking on a new role as the co-director of Recess, an arts organization, alongside Allison Freedman Weisberg, who has served as its director since she founded the organization in 2009.
Leonardo doesn’t yet know what his day-to-day will be as co-director, and that’s by design. The organization — whose mission is to create a more equitable arts community — intentionally lets artists lead and participate in process-driven residencies, educational programs, and community workshops. Recently, the Assembly program, through a partnership with the Brooklyn Justice Initiative, invited Alexandra Bell to develop a curriculum for court-involved youth that involved analyzing media bias. Another time, American Artist held a workshop that taught the group how to design and produce book jackets.
This summer, amid the pandemic and George Floyd protests, Recess took stock of the work it has been doing over the past 11 years and thought about ways it could be even more useful and responsive to the needs of its community. The conclusion was structural changes to its internal operations and practices. For one, Recess has since implemented a starting salary of $65,000 for all employees. And it’s developing a program to help pair its artists with other arts organizations looking to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The way Recess has always grown and evolved has been in response to priorities articulated by artists and young people,” says Weisberg, who is staying on as co-director because she believes “it’s also a white person’s job to fix this shit.” “It was through that practice of listening to artists, and artists of color, addressing issues of inequity in the world that we learned where we need to go next.”