Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.
This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”
As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.
We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?
Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.
All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.
With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:
“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”
“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”
“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”
I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”
At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation.
Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.
RACHEL ROPEIK: Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Previously, she served as a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; a Smarthistory contributor; and cultural docent for Context Travel. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her current professional interests are in the places where accessibility, technology, and multi-modal learning intersect with art museums. She can also perform a passable jazz dance routine and tell you a dissertation’s worth about 19th century European menswear.
In the current air of divisiveness and disconnection, it can feel more challenging each day to bring people together in meaningful ways. When I listen to the news on my commute to work each day, the negativity and misunderstandings can seem overwhelming when compared to the small changes and connections I might make possible through my own work in a museum. As we celebrate communities, cultures, histories, memories, and stories in our museums, others deride them and shape a narrative that negates their value here in our society.
Yet at this time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ I continue to firmly believe that museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy and human connection. As museums respond to issues affecting our communities, both locally and globally, there is a clear shift toward focusing on human connection and the role museums play as catalysts for empathy and cohesion in a society rife with intolerance, discrimination, inequality, social isolation, and self-segregation.
In their essay included in the recently published volume entitled Fostering Empathy Through Museums(2017), a team of leaders and changemakers (past and present) from the Levine Museum of the New South powerfully reflect on their decade-long commitment to dialogue and civic engagement:
“With shared empathy, individuals can move from isolation to belonging, from division to connection, from suspicion to trust, and come together to begin the hard work of creating a cohesive diverse community that values and gives opportunity to all its residents” (235)
Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance these concepts of empathy and connection as integral elements to our museums’ values and culture. And it is time to take these principles seriously, and recognize the essential need for museums to lead and take action rather than just follow and passively react.
Expanding Our Definitions of Empathy
While there are many definitions of empathy out there (and we certainly throw the word around quite a bit these days, present company included), I really appreciated how this concept was framed by educator Thom Markham in a January 2018 article for KQED’s Mind/Shift about empathy and learning in our connected world. I would whole-heartedly agree that we need to move beyond narrowly defining empathy as ‘I like others’ or ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ A more complex definition of empathy considers it as a “deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.” It involves collectively working toward the common good and making a positive difference in the world. I’m interested in how we can expand our definitions of empathy to consider its relationship with social justice, so that striving for a culture of empathy means that we’re also committing to actions and convictions that lead to more equitable and just communities.
These core social functions of museums have been clearly emerging as museum leaders and professionals reflect on how institutions can be relevant and sustainable now and in the future. The Alliance of American Museums 2017 TrendsWatch highlighted empathy and social justice as key forces of change in the field. In a chapter devoted to empathy, Elizabeth Merritt states that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’ helping people to understand the ‘other’ and reinforcing social bonds” (8). To embrace these values, museums are working to build experiences based in storytelling, lived experience, memory, healing, and civic engagement. Exhibitions are being designed in partnership with community members, content is being co-created between museum staff and visitors, and marginalized voices are being brought into the core of museum spaces.
Strategies for Change
How can we more fully integrate these values in our own museum practice and institutional culture? How can those of us working in, for, and with museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset? In addition to rethinking hierarchies and internal structures, another key starting place for this type of change is simply practicing more empathy within the workplace environment and culture of a museum institution.
Building Empathy on an Individual Level
While this sounds very broad, it can start with anyone at any level of an organization. In many museums, especially large ones, the proliferation of departments and reporting structures combined with an over-reliance on email communication can lead to silos and barriers among staff within the organization. People are not connecting with other people in meaningful ways.
I can speak from my own personal experience, having been in plenty of tense meetings in which everyone comes in with their defenses up, ready to battle. A curator is certain that the education staff are going to ‘dumb down’ their ideas. An educator assumes that their suggestions to make an exhibition more accessible to families will be belittled by an exhibition designer. Situations like these are happening in museums everyday, and they are creating and maintaining barriers to change. We’re making assumptions about other people’s values and positions without ever listening to their perspectives.
To counteract this, we can begin to form a culture of empathy through the basic building blocks of conversation and listening. Building empathy on an individual level means identifying those people in your organization or in your community about which you might be making assumptions, then spending time having face-to-face conversations with them, taking a step back to truly listen, and trying to gain a greater sense of what they value and why. Being a human-centered museum starts with the human connections and social relationships we build within the institution and among our community. Getting this process started can be as easy as having coffee with co-workers that you find yourself rarely interacting with or even butting heads with. Removing these smaller-scale disconnections is a powerful way to start working toward change in your institution, one conversation at a time.
Building Institutional Empathy
In addition to embracing empathy on an individual level, it is vital to consider how museums can embrace a broader form of institutional empathy. Just as individuals can practice listening to and responding to the needs of other individuals, museums have the ability as institutions to mirror those same skills in building empathy with their communities. The amazing work of the Empathetic Museum group has focused on helping organizations move towards a more empathetic future. According to their model, “an empathetic museum is so connected with its community that it is keenly aware of its values, needs, and challenges.”
Using a rubric called the Maturity Model, museum staff and leaders can assess their own institution’s commitment to building empathy across a series of characteristics such as civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, and sustainability. For museums just beginning to think about their work as human-centered, models such as this can provide a spark for meaningful conversations among staff about what it means to be empathetic and better reflect the values of your community. For museums at more advanced stages of this change process, this model can help structure goal setting and inform strategic planning.
Identifying and Advancing Core Values
So this all sounds great, but what if just a few passionate staff are advocating for these ideas and models within an institution? How can these human-centered values of empathy and human connection be integrated into the DNA of an organization, and not just fade if those few passionate staff get frustrated or even leave?
Beyond advancing individual empathy as described above (an important strategy toward spreading empathy within an organization), one key strategy is developing core values and a values statement that reflect these ideas. If your museum does not have any type of core value statement, there is never a bad time to get one drafted.
Traditionally, this type of institutional language has been created through a top-down process and likely doesn’t have the buy-in of most staff and volunteers. Rather, it’s best to go through a process that allows staff at all levels (perhaps even some volunteers and community members) a chance to express their thoughts about a museum’s core values. These conversations might start during hallway conversations or cross-departmental meetings, and trickle up to the leadership team. The goal here is to develop a simple, clear, open, and transparent set of values that can guide everyday decisions and help organizations answer difficult questions and challenges when they arise. If an organization’s overall culture does not seem ready for this (yet), a similar process can occur within a single department and then often spread from there.
Having established a set of values based in human connection can more effectively lead to institutions becoming more human-centered and making decisions that reflect these values.
Share Your Thoughts
These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.
Are you working to embrace empathy in your organization? How do you define empathy in your practice? What challenges do you face in this work, or in thinking about empathy in museum practice? This conversation deserves to be more complex, and bring in as many perspectives as possible. Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.
Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!
Check out the previous post on rethinking hierarchies, and stay tuned for further posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency.
Header Image: “Wall of Empathy (6)” photo by David Goehring, not changed, CC BY 2.0. Photo depicts a “wall” of sticky notes installed by an artist group in selected San Francisco BART stations following the 2016 presidential election. This project was inspired by a similar one in the New York subway.
In September 2017, I was honored to be a part of the Smith Leadership Symposium in San Diego, an annual program of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Not only was this my second year being involved in this program, but I was also fortunate to be among a powerful group of presenters that included Shamell Bell (community organizer and choreographer), Milenko Matanovic (artist and community builder), and Monica Montgomery (founding director of the Museum of Impact). Throughout our conversations leading up to the symposium and that day, we shared ideas about the value of community dialogue and the role of community care in our personal and professional work.
My talk entitled “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept” was inspired, in part, by the writings of scholar and activist Angela Davis. Davis’s powerful work had been on my mind after being encouraged by a colleague to read the recently published collection of her writings and interviews entitled Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I am so grateful that this and other works by Davis made it to my ‘must read’ list, as she brings forward the urgency of feminism, intersectionality, and global solidarity to the struggles against injustice and oppression in our country.
In a speech to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in St. Louis in 2015, she stated: “Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.” It is within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective that my frustrations lie when it comes to the role of museums in our society and in our communities. Which brings me right back to the often-quoted words of Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
These words have resonated with me for quite some time. Not because this has become an internet meme since the election, but instead because I hear these words repeated by activists that I greatly admire and respect in my own community and beyond. And on that day of the Smith Symposium in San Diego, two of the other keynote presenters also included this exact quote from Davis in their slides.
So what are the things we can no longer accept when it comes to museum practice?
Well, for me, it is certainly not enough to lay out a laundry list of ‘things I cannot accept’ and continue to make the assumption that these are also ‘things that I cannot change.’ I think I was stuck in that long, deep rut earlier in my museum career. I still hear many museum professionals talk about “the way things are” in museums and our inability to change things from where we are located in our organization (and in these power structures, more importantly). Many of the entrenched behaviors, policies, and practices in museums are based in a whole set of false stories we tell ourselves — self-sabotaging and oppressive narratives that hold us back, maintain the status quo, and create a fearful and hesitant attitude towards change.
I came across this specific idea of recognizing our false stories in a self-help book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass(ok, so not everything I read is as intellectual and hard-hitting as Angela Davis). In it, Sincero writes:
“Because we’re so set in our ways and committed to our stories about who we are and what our reality looks like, we only scratch the surface of all that’s available to us every single moment.”
I’ve used Sincero’s framework in a few workshops I’ve led with museum professionals this year, working to identify the potential false stories that create barriers to change in our professional work, and then creating new powerful stories of change to replace them. In a couple instances, we made our new powerful stories of change public by writing them outside museums using sidewalk chalk (I’ll never forget how it looked to have these messages written all across the main entrance plaza to the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — thanks Nina!). We have too often upheld a systemic ‘big bad no’ that has dramatically limited the potential of museums to be agents of positive social change.
Rather than simply re-hashing the same concerns and complaints over and over again, it is far more vital and urgent to take action and change these things we cannot accept. It is on us to replace these false stories with new powerful stories that envision a bold future for museums. Below is my raw attempt at creating a new set of stories that I am working to tell myself — a set of stories that can lead to action and change in the work that we do as museum professionals as well as citizens, civic leaders, and members of our communities.
This modest manifesto – first shared with the community of museum changemakers that came together for the Smith Symposium in September — brings the forces driving change in my own work out in a public, transparent, and vulnerable place. No doubt this list is incomplete, imperfect, abbreviated, and oversimplified, yet I invite readers to add on to this list, flesh it out, and help us all move forward to change the things we can no longer accept:
1. I cannot accept that museums are neutral. Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality. Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. In a 2015 article entitled “The End of Neutrality: A Modest Manifesto,” scholar Robert Janes writes, “neutrality is not a foundational principle of museum practice, but rather a result of the museum’s privileged position in society.” He continues, “complacency, the absence of continuous learning, and the weight of tradition are persistent factors in the inability or unwillingness to rethink the meaning of neutrality and its implications for the role and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society.” It’s time to erase the tyranny of neutrality and move past this entrenched, limiting idea of museums.
2. I cannot accept that museums are entirely object-centered and their primary purpose is to serve and preserve their collections. Museums are human-centered institutions, in the broadest and most inclusive sense. This means more than just being visitor-centered or audience-centered. It’s a mindset that recognizes the human potential and impact of our work, externally as well as internally. It’s a mindset that has the power to inform our decisions as museum professionals (around exhibitions, programs, partnerships, budgets, security, collections management, etc.) in a way that places a spirit of human connection at the core of our thinking, rather than just the objects.
3. I cannot accept that museums function as separate from their communities. We often use language that externalizes those outside of our walls, setting up a false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Museums can, instead, think of themselves as part of their communities. All museum staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees, and partners are members of the community, and we only need to strive to be more inclusive and reflective of the broader local community.
4. I cannot accept the thought that involving community members and their knowledge in a museum’s core practices will lower the quality of content and decrease overall trust in a museum’s authority. I’ve heard this too many times. Instead, let’s repeat and amplify the words that changemaker Josh Boykin projected on the wall behind him during his entire lightning talk this summer at MuseumCamp: “Let Your Community In.” Our communities know more than we do, and we need to recognize and embrace the knowledge, creativity, and lived experiences of these communities. It’s no longer enough for museums to strive to be an essential part of their communities; we need to be working to ensure that our communities become an essential part of our museums. Quoting the transformative words of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto, “those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.”
5. I cannot accept that museums do not consistently and persistently recognize the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands our institutions now stand. It’s time – now, today — to regularly and consistently honor the indigenous peoples of our place as well as the genealogies and hidden histories embodied in these spaces. It’s time to work toward decolonizing our institutions, and partnering with indigenous communities (artists, leaders, educators, activists) as we rethink the roles and responsibilities of museums.
6. I cannot accept that issues such as immigration, refugees, police violence, transgender rights, water, and climate change are too political for museums. Museums are inextricably linked to these complex issues that are relevant to us today, and they permeate everything we do (whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). I believe we can boldly come together around a respect for each other and the environment, rather than continue to allow these issues to divide us.
7. I cannot accept that museums still use ‘keeping their donor base happy’ as an excuse to not be socially relevant and forward thinking. This fear of losing donors and patrons is far too pervasive. No way. I’m not buying it. If museums have a clear, bold, community-based vision for inclusion and social change, donors will support this work. We need to have more trust in those individuals and foundations that support our institutions, and begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in. Like the old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get that tree planted today! — And I wanted add to this a powerful, brutally-honest sentence from Brene Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
8. I cannot accept that many museums are hesitant or afraid to proclaim that Black Lives Matter and black life matters, or work with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and other intersectional movements standing up for human rights. Museums need to unapologetically recognize and engage the brave, transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives and their vision to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” (Vision for Black Lives), as well as other important movements fighting for these same basic principles of human rights. We should look toward the leadership and vision of the Ford Foundation, a global organization leading efforts to support social justice and human welfare. In their statement “Why black lives matter to philanthropy,” they bravely proclaimed, “now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”
9. I cannot accept that, for museums, being socially responsible is just a liberal trend. Museums have the potential to serve as agents of social change, bringing people together, contributing to local communities, and changing people’s lives. It is time for our institutions to respond to the challenges of our times by making a bigger difference. This is not a trend that involves museums starting a few new programs or pulling together an exhibition that is socially-engaged – this is a movement to re-envision the purpose of museums as collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces in a way that will affect all of the work that museums do.
10. I cannot accept that we, as museum professionals and as citizens, do not fully recognize and celebrate the work we do to be inclusive, relevant, and responsive to the issues affecting the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our audiences, and our staff & volunteers. We must fiercely and consistently recognize the work we’re already doing to make positive change in our society and for our planet, and build communities of changemakers within and across institutions. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now, so let’s work to make these stories the central stories of our museums. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, projects, and strategic & structural changes that actively embrace equity, unheard stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community partnership in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, in its staffing and hiring decisions, and in its overall allocation of resources.
* * *
In his introduction to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, journalist and activist Frank Barat brings light to an unexpected key aspect of activism and change: trying. “Trying to change the world…,” he writes, “That is victory in itself.”
“Everyone and everything tells you that ‘outside’ you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.”
Time to break outside that bubble, and be an active part of creating a new, radical future for museums.
Reposted from the Skirball Cultural Center’s Building a Better World blog, a place on their website dedicated to sharing some of the ways Skirball educators partner with families, schoolchildren, teachers, and community organizations to take concrete action to promote a more just society.
Written by Anna Schwarz, Skirball Cultural Center
The Skirball’s in-school residency program is one of the rare opportunities we have to work closely with students, exploring issues that are important in their lives and how art can be a tool for civic and social action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, one class of students and their teacher collaborate with skilled teaching artists and a Skirball educator (in this case, me!) to build identity and community through collaborative and creative practices. As we tailor every residency to the exhibition content presented at the Skirball in a given year, the teaching artists and the art medium also change yearly. Recent residency projects have ranged from dance pieces exploring gender disparity, to radio stories about incarceration, to noir-style films about contemporary high school issues. Through these various projects, educators and students creatively explore how art can become a platform for student voices and storytelling.
In our most recent residency earlier this year, we wanted to focus on the Skirball’s mission, particularly the imperative to “help build a more just society.” We collaborated with poet and arts educator Kahlil Almustafa, writer and performer Julia Grob, and one class of tenth grade LAUSD students from the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at Augustus Hawkins High School. Maria Gaspar, a social studies teacher at CHAS, invited us into her classroom where we met twice a week. During the one-hour workshops, students practiced using poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and activism.
The residency began with setting intentions. Together, we decided to create an anthology of poems to document students’ lives and their hopes and dreams for the future. We also planned for students to share a selection of these poems in a culminating performance at the Skirball in front of their peers from all over LA. In preparation, students listened to voices of contemporary poets—young and experienced—including Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Acevedo, and finalists of the Brave New Voices festival created by Youth Speaks. The teaching artists, Kahlil and Julia, also performed live in the classroom, which made the entire experience even more special and personal. With all this inspiration, students asked questions and began creating their own original poetry.
Similar to other creative projects, our original intentions evolved as the students explored how they could use spoken word as a tool for building self-confidence and imagination. A pivotal moment in this evolution was the students’ visit to the Skirball for a powerful performance of the play Riot/Rebellion, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company. Through a theatrical interpretation of first-person interviews with residents and community members, Riot/Rebellion introduced students to the history of the 1965 Watts uprising. The residency class felt a deep connection to the themes of the play—especially having recently protested the US presidential election and inauguration. Moved by Riot/Rebellion and the discussion with the actors and creators following the show, the students decided to change the plan for the residency. Instead of each person creating his or her own poems, the students decided to work together to develop a play that incorporated elements of poetry and focused on the value of protest. With six weeks to go, students began their work on a script for their very first original play, Walkout!, and they transformed into writers, editors, actors—and leaders.
On March 22, 2017, I sat in the audience filled with excitement and emotion as CHAS students proudly presented their work-in-progress on stage at the Skirball. Over 200 of their peers from other LA-area high schools filled the seats. Like Riot/Rebellion, Walkout! incorporated first-hand stories of the students’ experiences. But this play was truly unique—the personal poems throughout the performance were a reflection of the trust and support this group of young people had built with one another. Their dedication to the project and personal connection to the material translated on stage into a beautiful community of people celebrating the opportunity to speak their truth and build a more just society. It was a true joy to be a part of such a strong and meaningful process!
Reposted from Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s blog. Anabel is a curator, writer, and historian who focuses on political art, the artist as activist, art as labor, feminism, photography and the art market. ArtMuseumTeaching is thrilled to share her thoughts about the issue of museums and neutrality.
Written by Anabel Roque Rodriguez
The online dictionary Merriam-Webster defines neutrality as “the quality or state of not supporting either side in an argument, fight, war, etc. : the quality or state of being neutral”. The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral.
We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common – depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren’t museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.
I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.
And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything…; What these people don’t acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).
The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.
I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being “liked” by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as “alternative facts”. But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
IF WE WANT TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH HISTORY AND WITH OUR PRESENT TIMES WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THESE QUESTIONS:
If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn’t museums engage with what and who states the “norm”?
There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.
What you’ve just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I’d love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard.
This post is part of a series focused on the myth of museum neutrality. My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create a t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources. You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.
Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple. Let’s come together and spread this message.
My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums. For the first run of this campaign, more than 500 people purchased t-shirts and we worked together to raise $5,669.79 total for the Southern Poverty Law Center! So amazing! We just recently launched our second version of this campaign (including some new colors), and we’re donating 100% of the profits to support World Central Kitchen, an initiative using the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies. 100% of the profits from this campaign will go to support World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Puerto Rico. World Central Kitchen has demonstrated its in-depth commitment to Puerto Rico, its people, economy, health and future.
We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.
Here is a list of blog posts and articles that discuss the issues of museum neutrality (last updated January 2018). Stay tuned for more, and be sure to follow the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral on social media to get connected to the community.
The first time I experienced a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) Culture Lab, a pop-up museum experience, it was as a visitor repeating the word “finally.” Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality took over the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and was APAC’s first Culture Lab. It was a truly immersive experience with emotional weight—over 40 artists from all over the country created original works of art and interactive spaces where visitors of all ages and backgrounds entered to learn about, challenge, and be challenged by the Lab’s theme of intersectionality. The atmosphere was festive with a constant murmur of excitement as deep conversation filled the air of an historic building erected as the first United States National Museum. Since Crosslines, APAC has co-created Culture Labs in New York City (CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures) and most recently in Honolulu (‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence). Culture Labs are built with communities, a co-created and collaborative experiment that has since impacted the way we think about and approach the idea of what a museum should be.
I am grateful to be a part of APAC as their Education Specialist. Since joining the team earlier this year, I find the one question I get asked by my fellow museum educators is, “What does museum education look like at a Culture Lab?” My answers can be found in APAC’s Culture Lab Manifesto, which was published this July in an all-Asian American issue of Poetry Magazine (see full text below, along with links to Culture Lab’s Manifesto page).
As a museum educator, I think back to my impressions of Crosslines, and how surprising it was to walk into a museum space feeling like I belong, like my voice would be heard and that I would experience genuine empathy. How often can you walk up to an artist at a museum and jump right into conversations about intersectionality, what our futures may hold, and how our stories may converge into paths of better understanding? What I love most about being a museum educator is what is learned and shared from visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Creative dreaming and building with communities is something we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do in our professional realm. This manifesto was created out of a team effort steeped in reflection and proactive energies—it was time to share our vision and belief in how museums could be re-built with communities.
As an education program builds at APAC and future Culture Labs, I welcome conversation, idea sharing, and creative dreaming. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and reach out if you would like to discuss re-building museum spaces with communities.
Culture Lab Manifesto
BY SMITHSONIAN ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CENTER
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We believe that curation can be a form of community organizing; that art can be collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible; that those who have historically been pushed to the margins hold the stories that will center our future.
With these beliefs, we introduce the Culture Lab into the fold of museum practice. Culture Labs are fleeting, site-specific happenings that recognize art and culture as vehicles that can bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways.
The images in this slideshow are from the first two Culture Labs: CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality (May 2016, Washington, DC) and CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures (November 2016, New York City). What you see are alternatives to traditional museum exhibitions — or perhaps their next evolution. What follows is a declaration of principles for you to consider as you envision the museum experiences of today and tomorrow.
We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe that museums engaging communities should be built upon:
A CULTURE OF MEMORY. Every place embodies genealogies we must honor. Amplifying hidden histories builds empathy. Intervening in public space enriches our collective memory.
A CULTURE OF REPRESENTATION. Prioritize local artists, participants, and organizers. Nothing about communities without those communities.
A CULTURE OF AMBITION & EVOLUTION. Scale up. Open yourself to growth through conversation. Push both your ideas and practices.
A CULTURE OF IMAGINATION. Place value on daydreaming. Not everything is a logistic. Find the amazing in the margins.
A CULTURE OF PRESENCE. Live-time interaction — nothing replaces human contact. Make all spaces maker spaces.
A CULTURE OF EQUITY. Pay artists. Pay artists fairly. Dismantle hierarchies. Everyone shares in the work.
A CULTURE OF COMMUNITY. Create lasting collectives. Come to museums to be challenged, to change, to fall in love.
A CULTURE OF INTERSECTIONALITY. Step outside the silos that constrain our narratives. Allow yourself to think, feel, and remember in the same complex ways that we live.
A CULTURE OF RELEVANCE. Choose to engage in what matters right now.
A CULTURE OF BELONGING. Forge brave space. Extend welcome and safety to all peoples and communities. Make room for the marginalized, especially by questioning what marginalizes them.
A CULTURE OF BEAUTY. Who gets to decide what counts as beautiful? Question aesthetic classifications and priorities.
A CULTURE OF INSPIRATION. Open the process. Dream together. Make together.
A CULTURE OF FUN. Play is innovation. Play is care. Play is life.
A CULTURE OF ACTION. Stay woke. We have a social contract with one another to protect the vulnerable and ensure human rights for everyone.
—Adriel Luis, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Nafisa Isa, Kālewa Correa, Jeanny Kim, Hana Maruyama, Clara Kim, Nathan Kawanishi, Emmanuel Mones, Desun Oka, Carlo Tuason, Lisa Sasaki, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Deloris Perry, and Emily Alvey.
“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim
“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger
Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.
As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.
In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.
After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”
Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.
In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.
Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.
In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”
The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.
As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.
Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.
At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.
To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.
What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?
Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations. Go check it out!
Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.
Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.
At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.
Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.
No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.
In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.
At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.
Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda). Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.
In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:
Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.
More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?
The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.
While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.
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About the Author
AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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 Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.
This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life. We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.
Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints. She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”
Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.
It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community. And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”
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When we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love. When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.
During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city. These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration. That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.
Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland. During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.
Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene. In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking. Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists. She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.
And in they came. Power up! POWER UP! Power UP! power up! As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”
Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.
And then printed more. And then some more. Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters. These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine). The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.
Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino. Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.
Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum. The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience. Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there. The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland. Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.
An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.
Are you a passionately-creative thinker who wants to make a positive change in your community? Are you frustrated with the slow pace of change at your museum, non-profit organization, community group, or school? Are you tired of conferences filled with static presentations and “show and tell” sessions that don’t seem to connect with your goals and vision for change? Do you dream big about taking action, making new things possible, and thinking outside the box? Do you thrive in a diverse environment filled with others who share your passion, energy, and vision? Then you need to be seriously thinking about applying for this year’s MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).
MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event hosted by MAH and the inspiring Nina Simon. Each year, the camp brings together diverse, passionate people for a sleep-away experience for adults who learn together through active, creative workshops and activities. The 2017 MuseumCamp theme is CHANGEMAKERS, and I am so proud to be working with this summer’s group as a Counselor along with the phenomenal Ebony McKinney, Founding Director of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA — a network focused on empowerment, leadership, and growth of next generation arts and culture workers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In beautiful Santa Cruz, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make change in our work, our communities, and the world. We will focus specifically on how we can use creative projects as catalysts for community action and change. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have battle scars to share, we want you here this year.
This year’s MuseumCamp will be challenging — but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront our fears about change, empower others, and create the future we seek.
Learn more about the details of this year’s MuseumCamp here, and Apply Now — the deadline for applications is March 15th, so you need to get online now and make it happen.
I look forward to seeing many of you there this summer!!!!
Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You’ll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we’ll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods’ process and product. We’ll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action.
Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year’s applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We’ve got two incredible outside counselors–Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski–and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change.
Build – and share – a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we’re building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You’ll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world.
Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you’ll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand.
Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.
I attended my local march in Raleigh, North Carolina, with loved ones. While I marched for personal reasons, it was equally important for me professionally. As a museum educator, the number of colleagues who marched left me joyful and inspired. The Raleigh crowd of over 20,000 people included coworkers from my museum, staff from other institutions, educators, artists, and gallery owners. Part of the power of the march was sharing it with so many people with whom I work in a variety of contexts.
Thanks to social media, that communal experience stretched far beyond my network in North Carolina. As photographs and videos spread, I shared the day with art professionals across the country and the world. As colleagues marched in Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., their images reminded me of how fortunate I am to work with many who feel the same concerns, ask the same questions, and are making the same demands. Within my museum, my local arts community, and my broader profession, there is a shared commitment to public conversations about how our society has operated in the past, how it functions now and what changes are necessary for greater equality and justice in the future.
Of course, a single march is not enough to create change. We cannot simply applaud ourselves and carry on as we have in the past. Gloria Steinem reminded us:
“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day. A movement is only people moving.”
How, then, will I create movement? What concrete actions can I take to support the causes for which I marched? How can I promote equal rights for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of all races and religions? How can I protect the public discourse around art and science? How can I speak out for appropriate funding of schools, access to clean water for all, and the protection of our environment? Many of my answers are things that I will do as an individual – phone calls to government officials, financial support of non-profit organizations, relationship building within my community, and my own lifelong learning about these issues.
Another answer to the question of what I can do is, simply, my job. It is impossible to ignore that my largest platform is my museum and the programs we produce. As museum staff, we have the honor of encouraging community conversations around the art we exhibit. With that role, how can museum educators translate the energy of the Women’s March into our professional practice?
Much has been made of the creativity of the marchers’ signs. There were funny signs, angry signs, and emotional signs, but they were all direct and clear in their message. I think museums can look to some of the signs for direction.
Museums are frequently criticized (appropriately) for their extreme whiteness. Don’t let this be true of any aspect of the museum experience that you influence. Whether you play a role in hiring staff, identifying teaching artists, inviting guest speakers and performers for public programs, or selecting artworks for tours, you have a responsibility to be inclusive. Prioritize racial diversity in your programs and staff to reflect your community more fully and to foster meaningful conversations that represent a variety of viewpoints and experiences.
Examining whom you include shouldn’t start and stop with racial diversity. Ask if you are representing a wide range of lifestyles, perspectives, and beliefs. Include those who challenge your own ways of thinking. Like the march, the museum is a shared space. As a shared space, museums must create meaningful engagement of the many, not the few.
Gallery conversations are often open ended. This is important in order to validate multiple interpretations and empower visitors. It is equally important that museum conversations embrace the facts. A recent visitor to my museum commented, “Being a slave wasn’t so bad in North Carolina.” One opinion, stated as fact, can make another visitor feel disregarded, or even unsafe. As museums engage in difficult social discussions, museum educators and gallery teachers will increasingly need to provide historical and current information that may challenge previously held assumptions and beliefs.
Art museum programs should spotlight a full range of disciplines. Invite scientists, social activists, medical experts, legal professionals, historians, musicians, poets, and more to participate in public programs. Art connects to all aspects of life. Therefore, discussions about art should engage more than artists and curators. Creating change will require conversations across all disciplines. Museums facilitate those conversations best when they ignore programmatic norms and build surprising partnerships.
While so many of us turned out to march, our eagerness for change does not mean the work will be easy. This is not work that can be done in 140 characters. Actively respecting and engaging others is the serious work and it can be uncomfortable. Hard and uncomfortable are often part of anything that is important and necessary. Accept that mistakes happen. When they do, acknowledge them and use any missteps as opportunities to learn, to teach, and to improve.
Most importantly, remember the day we stood together. Remember how many share your goals of equality and justice. Remember that you are not doing this work alone. Remember that even when we are not marching, we are in solidarity.
Share your story from Saturday, January 21st.
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Manager of Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica founded and directs the Nasher Museum’s Reflections Program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. She has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.