The Sheldon Museum of Art is featuring an exhibition until July 3 that focuses on the lesser-known consequences of discrimination within the United States.
The exhibition, “Barriers and Disparities: Housing in America” utilizes a blend of photographs and artistic mediums to honestly and accurately show the inequalities in housing that has plagued the U.S. for centuries. The Sheldon has partnered with various civic organizations to shed light on the issue of housing inequality throughout the decades with installations like black and white photos of middle class suburban families around a dinner table and stark canvas prints of dilapidated urban living.
According to Melissa Yuen, the associate curator of exhibitions at the Sheldon, “Barriers and Disparities” was part of “Speak Up for Housing Rights,” a citywide initiative to address renter eviction and housing affordability in Lincoln. Yuen said the exhibition and the citywide initiative gleaned inspiration from a book by Matthew Desmond titled “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
“The goal of this exhibition is to really give more of a historical context to this issue of housing inequality rather than the housing issues that many are currently dealing with as a result of the pandemic,” Yuen said. “We wanted to give a look at moments in history within the United States from about the 1840s to 1990s and help viewers think about and really ask the question about access to housing and whether or not it’s equitable.”
The exhibition is based around photographic and printed works Yuen said create an intimate viewing experience. There are printed depictions of many walks of life, from the upscale homeowners to residents of the projects, all to portray many Americans’ struggle to find stable housing.
“We want visitors to spend some time looking at each object and thinking about the interpretation that accompanies each work and to really think about the moment in history that each work depicts, as well as the question of whether everyone had equal access to housing during that time,” Yuen said.
The curation of “Barriers and Disparities” involved a multitude of Nebraska organizations, including Civic Nebraska, Nebraska Appleseed, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Architecture and the UNL College of Law.
Nancy Petitto, the director of Collective Impact Lincoln at Civic Nebraska, worked closely with the Sheldon and the citywide initiative “Speak Up for Housing Rights.” Petitto said many Nebraskans aren’t necessarily aware of the housing crisis that many in their own community are facing. Because of this, Civic Nebraska and other organizations find addressing these issues through visual and artistic representation more adequately tells the story of housing inequality and spread awareness.
“It's tough work to get people to care about something that maybe they don't realize is an issue, especially in a place like Lincoln or in a state like Nebraska,” Petitto said.
According to Petitto, it’s important for community members to be aware of issues such as housing inequality because it affects multiple layers of civic health and local economy. Just because one can drive through the neighborhoods of Lincoln and see houses and school districts doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying issues that need to be addressed through policy change and outreach, Pettito said.
“I think people in Nebraska, and especially in Lincoln, care about their fellow neighbors. That's something that I think is really important to us as a community,” Petitto said. “Once you realize that people are struggling with housing issues, they start to open their eyes and really care about what's happening to people, and that just permeates through so many other aspects of their life and overall civic health.”
Both Yuen and Petitto agreed exhibitions such as “Barriers and Disparities” are wonderful ways to inform the public about underlying issues that occur nationwide, as well as in Lincoln. They hope these stories will motivate people to advocate for policies that support bridging the gap of housing inequality.
“Before working on this exhibition, I had a general sense that housing has not been equitable throughout history. Today, however, I understand more how policies and federal guidelines have been set that really shaped the close relationship between policy and discrimination,” Yuen said. “I have a better understanding of these issues after working on this project, and I hope that others can share that understanding after viewing the exhibition.”