Touring Exhibitions, Making an Impact

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For more than forty years, touring exhibitions have been at the heart of Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA (EUSA), our oldest program, brings exhibitions of varied size and subject matter to communities large and small across the country. Recently finishing its tour, Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo visited twelve venues across the country between 2015 and 2021.

Consisting of forty-one black-and-white photographs taken between 1988 and 1992, Blake Little documents the gay rodeo circuit and the lives of many of its participants in those years. The collected body of work not only served as a stunning example of black-and-white portraiture and rodeo photography, it also explored the diverse and complex natures of individual and community identity in the West.

Speaking about his series of photographs from the international gay rodeo circuit, artist Little summed up how his personal experience as a participant informs the images. “These photographs represent an amazing, magical time in my life. Back then, I questioned if I was a ‘real’ cowboy because in the back of my mind I always felt like an observer—and photography was my first passion. But my unique situation allowed me to document the growing sport of gay rodeo from the inside along with the thrills and personal challenges of fulfilling my cowboy dreams.”

Each venue that displays an EUSA exhibition completes a survey at the end of its time, and Blake Little garnered excellent feedback about the need for exhibitions telling diverse stories. From Florida up to Oregon, visitors were engaged and venues witnessed new dialogs and expansion of perspectives.

The Education Director at the Gilcrease Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shared the following after the exhibition was on view there in 2018: “Just want to share some feedback from one of our volunteers, who has been a dedicated volunteer at the museum for many years.

He visited the Blake Little show yesterday and wanted to pat us on the back for hosting this exhibition. It made quite an impression on him and he noted that he ‘will never see gay men the same after that.’ He mentioned that he wasn’t aware that gay men could also be so masculine and that the show expanded his understanding of what it can mean for someone to be gay.

I was touched by his comments and also by the impact that this show can have on shifting perceptions and cultivating understanding and perhaps even empathy.”

At the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, they witnessed deeply personal experiences while exhibiting Blake Little in 2020–21. Curator of Art Emily Kapes shared, “The James Museum was proud to host Blake Little and bring little-known stories of the gay rodeo to our community. Our initiative of amplifying voices of diversity has had an incredibly positive response from visitors, and this exhibition proved to be a wonderful addition to our program. It brought a new, eye-opening perspective to our gallery with beautiful photographs and a compelling narrative.”

The experience led a visitor to write, “the photographs are quite beautiful. I wasn’t expecting to see the exhibition through the lens of AIDS and loss, and that was a bit like a gut-punch. I found myself choking back tears as each photo was revealed within that context. I also commend the James Museum for curating such an important and stunning bunch of works.”

The James Museum’s installation included a selfie station where visitors were invited to “Break stereotypes,” just as this exhibition did. As one visitor put it, the exhibition was “a wonderful tribute that has taken too long to happen.”

Image credits: installation view of Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, St. Petersburg, Florida