On March 12 at approximately 1:30 p.m., a mural on the 5th floor of the 162 North State Street residences at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) was vandalized with the statement “White Power” in black spray paint. An image of Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender gay liberation activist, which hung on a bulletin board in that hallway to celebrate Black History Month month was also defaced — someone drew a mustache on Johnson’s photograph. Upon originally writing this letter (March 18), to my knowledge, the person/s responsible for these actions have not been caught. On March 14, a rather ambiguous email from the Office of the Dean of Faculty was sent out to the student body. Within that email and attached to it are obliquely referenced mentions of this event and how interested students could find out more about its details.
I wrote this letter in the hopes of informing other students of the events of March 14. I was motivated by the lack of information that my peers and professors had when I discussed this topic with them. On March 21, I spoke with President Massey about this letter and my desire for the student body to be made aware of the details of vandalism. An email was sent out from the Office of the President on March 23, giving detail to the “White Power” graffiti and SAIC’s commitment to diversity.
The email from the Office of the President was absolutely a step in the right direction, but in my opinion, it was too little too late. Since I have been a member of this institution, I have come to believe that for a vast majority of students here, a push towards a more equitable and just community is important to SAIC students. I was personally informed of the details of the vandalism during a mandatory meeting for Jones Hall student residents, of which I am one, which took place on March 15. During that meeting, we were informed of the specifics of the vandalism and were allowed to ask questions and make comments concerning the event as well as larger issues of race and gender at the school.
In meetings and communications with SAIC staff, it is my take that the resident advisers (RAs) at SAIC are truly invested in the safety and well-being of the students in their stead. I am also convinced that the administration is willing to answer questions concerning these actions, but the lack of knowledge I encountered among both peers and faculty in the immediate aftermath of the event was unsettling.
It is my belief that without addressing these actions immediately and directly, including the ugly truth about what has taken place, we greatly deny the truth. The actions taken by the vandals were heinous in no uncertain terms, but at this point, whether or not the people that enacted this racist and transphobic vandalism are caught, we are left to attempt to understand these actions and move forward.
The much revered and promoted title of “Most Influential Art School in the Country” like so many titles, has to be earned on a regular basis and should stand for something, in my opinion, something more than just art work. Two recent events and a sub-par reaction by the administration to these events will not abdicate SAIC’s place as “Most Influential,” but for me, it has certainly torn a hole in the veneer of this prestigious institution. In a time of Black Lives Matter, racially charged rhetoric from presidential candidates, and heightened racial tensions within the city of Chicago, will we turn a blind eye, when those issues enter our community as well?
— Isabel Alexander Servantez III
Modern and Contemporary Art History, MA Candidate 2017
Graduate Curatorial Assistant, Sullivan Galleries
School of the Art Institute of Chicago