Imagine Otherwise: Amy Sadao on Museums as the New Public Sphere

Imagine Otherwise: Amy Sadao on Museums as the New Public Sphere

June 29, 2016

Amy Sadao wearing a black blazer and green sweater, rocking an awesome pompadour


What role do art museums and exhibition institutions play in creating political dialogue? How is highlighting work by and about marginalized populations a form of social justice activism?

On episode 13 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with curator and director of the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art Amy Sadao about the role of art in social change, how ethnic studies informs Amy’s AIDS activism and curating practice, why we need more radical art and curators of color, and creating diverse community in Philadelphia.

Guest: Amy Sadao

Amy Sadao is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. She is a respected contemporary art writer, juror and lecturer.

Amy advocates for art and culture’s essential role in civil society, and has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and on the BBC,, Channel 4, CBC, NY1, and WXPN.

Amy has been the recipient of several awards for her work notably the 2014 ArtTable New Leadership Award, named a Women in the Arts Leader by Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, and knighted by the Imperial Court of New York, the city’s oldest drag house for her work as an AIDS and art activist.

She serves on the board of directors of Denniston Hill, an artist residency program and is a Director Emeritus of Visual AIDS.

Amy began her arts career as a curatorial intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art and then as gallery coordinator for the Downtown Arts Festival. She earned an MA in comparative ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley and a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art.

We chatted about

  • How collaborations between art institutions and academic institutions can make the humanities more publicly available (02:30)
  • Utilizing contemporary art to create and maintain dialogue around HIV/AIDS (09:30)
  • Arts organizations as hosts of political dialogue (15:30)
  • How art can be a site for both individual inspiration and collective activism (16:15)
  • Why prioritizing art by and about marginalized populations is a priority for Amy (19:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (22:20)


The cultural responsibility of art museums

Museums should be a place where we can be in shared contemplation if not conversation about political issues. [Artistic] work can be that kind of agent.

The interconnectedness of art and activism

It’s wrong to create divisions between the thinking that we do around social justice and the thinking that we do around cultural production.

Amy’s goals as the director of a contemporary art museum

Changing what we show in the museum, changing who works in the museum, and changing who attends the museum—all of those are the big challenges that are essential to anything I’m directing.

The role of art in social change

Artwork can help us imagine a future that’s not here.

The responsibilities of curators and exhibiting institutions

We have a great responsibility to make sure that interpretative work is not overstepping the experience of being with the artwork itself, or the artist’s intentions.

Imagining otherwise

I imagine a world where art is recognized as something that is living and changing and shaping and helping us imagine another world.

More from Amy

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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