‘Absence Can Have a Powerful Impact’: Art Institutions Respond to Trump’s Immigration Orders

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Culture & Conversation Politics

‘Absence Can Have a Powerful Impact’: Art Institutions Respond to Trump’s Immigration Orders

Lilly Dancyger

The idea behind the Art-Less project at Wellesley College's Davis Museum is similar to the message of the Day Without Immigrants national strike that took place earlier this month.

Last week, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College uninstalled or shrouded every piece of art in its collection that was created by immigrant artists. It removed the pieces, 20 percent of the works in its permanent collection galleries, to make a statement about what this country would look like if President Donald Trump and his followers got their way and closed our borders to many immigrants and refugees.

“[This] demonstrates in vivid terms their astonishing contributions,” said Director Lisa Fischman of the removal of 26 works by 23 artists from 15 different countries. “Extrapolating out from that, we get a sense of how much immigrants have given to cultural life in the United States.”

And of course, while widespread and significant, the contributions that immigrants make to U.S. society aren’t limited to the cultural landscape—immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a small business than non-immigrants, and those immigrant-run small businesses employed 4.7 million people in 2007. Also, in 2011, foreign-born inventors contributed to more than 75 percent of patents issued at the top ten patent-producing universities in the United States.

Despite all of this, President Trump has taken unprecedented steps to ban, detain, and/or deport as many undocumented individuals as his enforcement army can find, making sweeping promises about an exorbitantly expensive wall and a newly militarized Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. 

It’s unlikely that empty walls at a museum in Massachusetts are going to change Trump’s mind on immigration—but they can inspire visitors and students, what Fischman called “the next generation of cultural citizens,” to remember what they’re fighting for, to keep them motivated in the draining, seemingly-endless onslaught of attacks against which we must fight.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.


The idea behind the project, called Art-Less, is similar to the message of the Day Without Immigrants national strike that took place earlier this month, where immigrant workers stayed home for the day to show how essential they are to the everyday workings of this country. (The 2004 movie A Day Without a Mexican took this idea to the extreme, imagining a California from which every Mexican suddenly disappears, leaving the state to crumble into disarray.)

Activists across the country also marched in solidarity. But in an unfortunate backlash, several people were fired for participating in the strike.

In the current political climate, institutions that usually stay out of the fray seem to have no choice but to step in. Lists of companies that do business with Trump and his children have been circulating since the election, encouraging people to attack Trump’s business interests as a surrogate for defeating him politically. Part of this movement, the widespread #GrabYourWallet boycott of Nordstrom, pushed the retail giant to remove Ivanka Trump’s clothing from its racks (prompting angry tweets from her father). When Starbucks announced that they would hire 10,000 refugees, conservatives started a boycott of their own.

On the day the Muslim ban affecting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was instituted, and protests erupted at airports across the country, the choice of which ride-sharing app to use became a political one. Taxi drivers in New York City announced they would strike against airport pick-ups for one hour, in support of the protests. Uber made the unpopular decision to scab against the strike by lowering prices for airport pickups, prompting the hashtag #DeleteUber to spread across social media. Its competitor, Lyft, saw an opportunity and chose the contentious moment to announce a $1 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union, which was in the spotlight for its round-the-clock work as one of many groups defending the rights of immigrants and refugees.

With coffee shops, clothing stores, and taxi services getting involved in the political debate, it’s no surprise that museums are as well. And the Davis Museum is not the first: New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, with hundreds of thousands of pieces in its collection to pull from, put art by people from countries included in Trump’s controversial Muslim ban front and center. In Washington, District of Columbia, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian tweeted that its bathrooms would be available to Women’s March protesters, and the Holocaust Museum issued a statement condemning Trump’s failure to mention Jews at all in his Holocaust Remembrance Day remarks.

In the turbulent month since Trump took office, we all, citizens and institutions, have found ourselves with an even greater responsibility to speak out against injustices. Everything is a political action: where we buy our coffee or our shoes, which service we use to call up a ride home, and which art we display—the voices we amplify in whichever capacity.

Fischman said she strongly believes that museums have a civic duty to be vocal in times of injustice (while acknowledging that “every institution is different, and makes its own decisions.”) But she added that the Davis Museum’s responsibility is especially great, since it’s an academic museum with a commitment to educate students and to lead by example.

“We share the educational mission and values of Wellesley College—inclusivity, diversity, access, integrity, excellence,” she said. “Art-Less directly articulates these values; it also demonstrates the many ways one might give voice to a contrarian perspective.”

The response among Wellesley students and visitors to the Davis Museum has been largely positive.

“The galleries have been full, which is great,” Fischman said, “since Art-Less creates an opportunity for dialogue, for measured consideration and experience, in the midst of fevered rhetoric on immigration.”

“I really like political art and that the school is trying to become more involved with the world outside of Wellesley,” said Frankie Frank, a Wellesley senior. She added though, that she was surprised to learn only 20 percent of the work at the Davis was created by immigrants, and she wishes those numbers were higher. “I hope there will be more initiatives to include art by immigrants as a result [and] as a greater form of political action.”

Kelly Chou, another Wellesley senior, feels that the Davis could have made a bigger impact by following in MoMA’s footsteps, and actively centering the work of immigrant artists.

“While walking through the exhibit, I did not quite understand why these works of art were taken down and instead of specially propped up,” she said. “If I had not read a statement by the Davis Museum on the context behind the initiative, I would have assumed that the Davis was following in tandem with the same values touted by our current administration.”

“There should be a conscious, ongoing effort on the Davis’, as well as any other museum’s, part to champion and uphold works of art by marginalized groups,” Chou added. “I believe it’s through the presence, not the absence, of diverse voices that truly make an effective statement in this situation.”

Fischman explained that putting together a new exhibit in response to the president’s statements and executive orders would have taken more lead time. This initiative, on the other hand, could be enacted right away, as a timely response to current events.

“We wanted to articulate the enormous losses we risk in turning away immigrants and refugees, and we wanted to do that within the context of our galleries,” Fischman said. “Absence can have a powerful impact.”