Promise, Witness, Remembrance

The Speed Art Museum’s new exhibition honoring the legacy of Breonna Taylor


By Laura Ross


It was a moment in the dark of night that would change the trajectory of an entire city, with ripples, if not waves, following across the nation and world. It was also the night a family lost a treasured loved one. The fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor set off a tsunami of reaction that riveted a nation and called for change and justice. The community spent months searching for answers and advocating for meaningful change. One of the most visual results of that more than year-long community effort is now on display at the Speed Art Museum, with its groundbreaking exhibition, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.” The exhibition, curated by Allison Glenn, reflects on the life of Breonna Taylor, her killing and the reaction that followed throughout the tumult of 2020. The stunningly moving exhibition opened to national media acclaim on April 7 and will run through June 6, 2021.

Allison Glenn. Photo by Mariana Sheppard.

The Speed Museum was founded in 1927 by philanthropist Hattie Bishop Speed, who held a belief in the power of art to change people’s lives. It’s no surprise that holds true today. 

The Speed Art Museum’s Community Engagement Strategist, Toya Northington, led the community engagement and research work associated with ”Promise, Witness, Remembrance.” This included the organization of a local steering committee, composed of artists, activists, mental health professionals, and community members, and a research committee to gather extensive community feedback. 

When artist Amy Sherald offered her portrait of Breonna Taylor to the Speed for public display, Northington jumped at the opportunity. “Early on, I decided there had to be an exhibition around why the portrait even exists,” explained Northington. “I was grounded in that. Louisville is my home. I’m immersed in the environment and active. I knew bringing the portrait here represented so much to so many people. It was my responsibility in believing in art healing and art activism that if we could do this, we could make this community feel seen, heard and valued, and that would bring an affirmation.”

The Speed approached guest curator Allison Glenn, the associate curator of Contemporary Art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, to curate the exhibition, and she assembled a National Advisory Panel to help shape the early stages of the exhibition development.

“All the elements came together,” Glenn reflected. “I learned about the scope of the exhibition, the unveiling of the portrait and the support from the Taylor family, and it was all so thoughtful. I couldn’t say no. We had never met before, but I just knew I had to do this. Breonna Taylor was just one of many who are killed by the police and don’t receive the justice they deserve. This is all part of Breonna Taylor’s story.” 

Nari Ward, We the People. Photo by Xavier Burrell.

“What happened to Breonna Taylor, and what has happened in Louisville over the last year, are part of a larger challenge in this country, an ongoing crisis of gun violence and police brutality,” Glenn added.  “Many of the works in this exhibition speak to that crisis, past and present, both in Louisville and around the United States. But they also speak, on a more personal level, to how we honor the lives we’ve lost and stand in solidarity with their loved ones.” 

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is organized around the three words of its title, which emerged from a conversation between Glenn and Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, during the exhibition’s planning. The exhibition takes over the more traditional “1927 Galleries” which typically hold the Speed’s prized collection of Dutch Masters paintings. The selection of those prominent galleries was done on purpose, said Glenn. 

“It sends a powerful message,” Glenn said. “Our research showed people remembered coming to the Speed during their childhood, but they never saw themselves represented in the work. With this exhibition in such a powerful location in the Speed, the story is right there. It’s impactful that young boys and girls see work that reflects them and their lives.” 

In the first gallery, “Promise,” contemporary artists explore ideologies of the United States through the symbols that uphold them, exploring the nation’s founding, history, and the promises and realities, both implicit and explicit, contained within them. 

Sam Gilliam, Carousel Form II.

The second gallery, “Witness,” helps the visitor understand the contemporary movement, including art from Louisville native Sam Gilliam pushing the boundaries of painting, to Alisha Wormsley’s afro-futurist manifesto for Black lives, to photographs from the protests created by Louisville-based photographers Jon Cherry, Xavier Burrell, T.A. Yero, Erik Branch and the late Tyler Gerth. The art contained within reflects artists’ ideas, fears and political realities. 

The final gallery, “Remembrance,” addresses gun violence and police brutality, their victims and their legacies. At the end of the long set of galleries is the showpiece of Amy Sherald’s heralded portrait of Breonna Taylor, which was used as the September 2020 cover of Vanity Fair. 

“I made the portrait for Breonna Taylor’s family, first and foremost, and so it was important for this work to be seen first in this community, in Louisville,” said artist Amy Sherald. “I want to honor Breonna’s memory, and to provide some inspiration to the ongoing struggle for justice.”

Erik Branch, Say Her Name. Courtesy of the artist.

Other artists represented in the exhibition include Terry Adkins, Noel Anderson, Erik Branch, Xavier Burrell, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Nick Cave, Jon P. Cherry, Bethany Collins, Theaster Gates, Tyler Gerth, Sam Gilliam, Jon-Sesrie Goff, Ed Hamilton, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Kahlil Joseph, Glenn Ligon, Amy Sherald, Lorna Simpson, Nari Ward, Hank Willis Thomas, Alisha Wormsley and T.A. Yero.

“The artists were all very interested in being involved,” said Glenn. “We didn’t have to chase down anyone. Everyone showed up in solidarity.”

As part of the exhibition, the Speed is sponsoring several events and community engagement conversations. Powerful films, conversations, workshops and virtual learning events will seek to generate healing and understanding. Among the community engagement initiatives is a photovoice project, called “It Could Have Been Me.” The project seeks to more fully understand the lived experiences of the Black community in Louisville in the wake of Taylor’s killing through picture taking and group conversation. Later, a web-based platform for anyone to upload images and videos that respond to the exhibition and life in Louisville will be hosted on the exhibition’s website.

“This conversation is needed,” explained Northington. “This has been someone else’s moment that was unknown. There are so many of these moments. The protests made these moments and pain heard. I realized so many of us responded, ‘It could have been me.’ It could be me tomorrow. The bar is so low, no matter who you talk to says that. It’s the inherent fear for our safety. We see ourselves as Breonna.”

Xavier Burrell, SAY HER NAME!!. Courtesy of the artist.

Both Glenn and Northington treasure the input they received from Breonna Taylor’s mother and family. “Her mom spoke so much like my family members,” said Northington. “We all honor family, Black love and Black joy. Those are things we all want, and those things were stripped from the Taylor family.  But joy is one of those things you just can’t destroy. Things will get better. This exhibition is designed to share that with healing, affirmation and hope. I hope people take that emotion and then catalyze change, whatever that change looks like.”   

Northington noted that every social justice movement has art. “The desire to fuel change is different for all,“ said Northington. “That wasn’t always something a museum set out to do, but society is always changing. We [the Speed] are the best to do this – not because of who we were, but because we are primed to do it now. The community’s voice led this and said what was urgent and needed to be seen.”

Jon P. Cherry, Open Up the Cells. Courtesy of the artist & Getty Images.

Glenn agreed, “Artists help us understand the contemporary moment. Artists are a slice of the pie in cultural time, it’s the books we read, the movies we see, the cultural moments and fashion that point to the time we are living in. That’s where understanding begins.”

“I want every visitor to understand that every move is intentional,” she concluded. “I hope people return. I hope they feel seen. I hope they see themselves and continue to engage with visual art. I want people to feel excited to come to the Museum and learn this crucial story.”

Amy Sherald, Breonna Taylor. Courtesy of Amy Sherald. Photo: Xavier Burrell.

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Both admission to the exhibition and parking at the Speed Art Museum is free and open to the public. For more information, ticketing and updates, visit speedmuseum.org.

The Speed Art Museum is presenting several events in conjunction with “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” and will add more through the run of the exhibition. Visit promisewitnessremembrance.org for a current schedule.

Bethany Collins, The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal. Courtesy of the artist and Patron Gallery.

Virtual: After Hours at the Speed
Friday, May 21 at 6 pm
Presented Live on the Speed’s Facebook and YouTube
Director’s Cut Pt. 2 with Speed Art Museum Director Stephen Reily and Amy Sherald
Showcase from selected artists in response to “There Are Black People In the Future” by Alisha Wormsley

T.A. Yero, Healing. Courtesy of the artist.

Teal Table Talks
Sunday, May 23 from 2 – 2:45 pm and 3 – 3:45 pm
Sunday, June 6 from 2 – 2:45 pm and 3 – 3:45 pm
Presented in person at the Speed Art Museum 

The Speed Art Museum will host “Teal Table Talks,” inspired by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk show. These events will bring strangers together to have candid conversations about their experiences, and the issues that have affected our community over the past year. The goal is to create a space for community members to come together to have organic conversations. 

Teal Table Talks will take place in small sessions led by Dr. Steven Kniffley and Chandra Irvin with additional facilitators from Spalding University. Participation includes admission to ”Promise, Witness, Remembrance” one hour before your session begins, and participants will have the opportunity to reflect on their experience afterward. Registration will be available at the exhibition’s website, promisewitnessremembrance.org.