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.
One of our goals was to allow the artist to select a writer who they felt would expand the experience of their art through the written word. It has been a thrilling collaborative process. As one of few online museums and as the only artist endowed foundation to represent a Mexican American artist, innovation is part of Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s DNA.
When I began a conversation with San Francisco-based artist Lorraine Garcia-Nakata and Cornell University Associate Professor Ella Diaz the exhibition took on a new dimension. In this partnership, the Museo would not only host an online exhibition and essay, but also extend the experience to Professor Diaz’s undergraduate students. Her students would examine the art through the “testimonio” framework which was the focus of the class. It was an innovative and forward thinking idea. And we welcomed it wholeheartedly.
Because Eduardo Carrillo was an influential artist and Professor of Art at University of California Santa Cruz for 25 years until his death at age 60 in 1997, Museo has felt that part of our mission is to encourage scholarship in the next generation by giving those students an opportunity to have their work published. Because the essays were so thoughtful and well written under Professor Diaz’s guidance, Museo did publish them online and they remain in Museo’s “On View” archives with the exhibition Navigating by Hand: The Art of Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.
Future exhibitions include the work of artist Jose Lozano with an essay by Professor Dianna Santillano and The Duron Family collection with Professor KarenMary Davalos. We are looking ahead to furthering this experiment that Professor Diaz instigated.
Written by Ella Diaz, Cornell University
Lorraine García-Nakata: Navigating By Hand, an online exhibition of historically important Chicana artist Lorraine García-Nakata, was launched at the Museo Eduardo Carrillo in November 2013. This retrospective sampling of work, spanning several decades, was seeded by a separate exhibit I curated for the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, that included her work. Over conversation, Lorraine and I found easy nexus regarding artistic practice as social change, public pedagogy, and Chicana aestheticism, evolving from 1960/1970s civil rights philosophies informing both professional and personal choices––values often absent in art institutions that default to viewing art minus the broader human context.
When Lorraine asked me to write a curatorial statement for her solo exhibit, I agreed. The web-based format offered room for in-depth survey of her work that would identify and interpret its complexity and related cultural grounding. Being an artist, writer, and a museum professional, Lorraine shared that curatorial statements about artists of color often play it safe, hovering obvious descriptions of art, a historical idea, or repeating culturally flat references. Having read my published article, “Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Autobiography, Performing Testimonio: New Directions in Latina/o and Chicana/o Visual Aesthetic” (published 2011 in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social), Lorraine appreciated my view of Latina/o and Chicana/o visual and performance artists who push autobiographical literary boundaries and testimonio by telling their stories as collective experience, bearing witness to sociopolitical and historical events in non-written forms.
Testimonio literature is integral to Latin American and Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/a literary canon, offering an individual’s story reflecting a whole community, urgent human circumstance, and significance/meaning of daily life. Having scheduled a 2013 fall course at Cornell University on testimonio, along with my conversations with Lorraine, I designed curriculum engaging literary testimonio and alternative visual and performing art forms that would test boundaries of this literary genre.
From I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984), a canonical testimonio, to Latina Feminist Group’s formative anthology, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), this course included testimonio as educational praxis, an important component of Chicano/a Studies pedagogy. Incorporating Lorraine’s body of work, the course linked to the Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s online exhibition launched in November 2013. After a semester of critical inquiry of the testimonio genre and visual analysis of 1960s and 1970s civil rights murals, students were adept in this literary form. With close review of Lorraine’s visual art and selected writings, students began writing (see Museo’s website archive) revealing how García-Nakata visualizes her story as a comprehensive experience, testifying to the power of everyday life. Students conveyed, in clear resonant voices, how Lorraine speaks to viewers through her life events, childhood innocence, hopes, vulnerability, desires in later years, and raising of children.
Working with an artist and a museum, I designed a dynamic, interdisciplinary pedagogy for students regarding genres of Latina/Chicana prose. Students considered ways we tell our stories beyond printed autobiography. Through interpretation of works by Lorraine Garcia-Nakata as narrative, they made insightful commentary that she digested and the public witnessed.
Written by Lorraine García-Nakata, Artist
When young, I took myself through a disciplined process resulting in a clear understanding that my life required the creative process. From that point, it was never a question, rather a quest informing my life as an artist, parent, art/cultural specialist, and as a museum professional who introduced to the field progressive best practices linked to redefinitions of community, further evolution of curatorial and public programs, development of partnerships of mutual benefit and related reciprocity, and use of accurate terminology.
As Latino contemporary artistic work has become part of the broader aesthetic, I’ve expected research, interpretation, and related writing (from within and outside our culture) to delve the complexity of Latino cultures: Chicano(a), Uruguayan, Indigenous, Caribbean, Afro Cuban, Afro North American, other cultures of Latin America, and the growing population of mixed race contemporary youth that embrace all parts of their identity. I’ve also expected exhibitions to expand beyond, and not regularly default to, group or cultural holiday exhibits. When Cornell Professor Ella Diaz approached me about an exhibit focused on figurative art by women of color, I agreed to lend my work. As a next generation, first voice (from within the culture) scholar/curator, Ella was not afraid to critique periods of our contemporary Latino history (that later evolved), such as the gender-biased framework of early phases of the Chicano movement or initial perceptions/invisibility of our LGBT Latino population. Ella also possessed a capacity to witness, interpret, and scribe the nuance of my artistic work, which is not overt or linked to the “expected” Latino iconography or color palette.
When approached by the Museo Eduardo Carrillo regarding a solo online exhibition, I agreed only if Professor Diaz could write the curatorial statement. It also seemed important for the Museum Director, Betsy Andersen, and Ella to meet. An interpretive component was developed by Ella, which included a Cornell graduate seminar focused on my work. I was delighted that students would research my work in depth and produce individual writings. I was excited to read them. For an artist, museum exhibitions are important as well as research of one’s work by a key academic institution. Cornell student writings were published on the Museo’s website, adding another important educational/interpretive element. We all worked hard to mount this exhibit, and it was clearly of mutual benefit to the Museo, myself as artist, Professor Diaz as curator, and participating Cornell students. The online exhibition provided a multi-level experience for the viewing public and offered a forum for publishing research by our next generation scholars.
While I am active in the local/national community, my artistic work is not obvious or overt in its protest or politic, but it does testify. It also challenges assumptions about how we live, how we intend our action. Being an artist, writer, and musician can be solitary and hard work. It’s a responsibility. Yet, I have long since committed my life to this practice and it will continue to be how I navigate my life.
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Click the link below to read the essays written by nine undergraduate students at Cornell University who enrolled in Professor Ella Diaz’s fall 2013 course “Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio.”
BETSY ANDERSEN: Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo, created to extend the artist’s work and compassionate legacy into the world. Andersen received her Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Santa Cruz. Since that time she has enjoyed being the host of a radio interview show devoted to the visual arts and has explored producing documentaries on regional artists.
ELLA MARIA DIAZ: earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, teaching several courses at William and Mary and developing the College’s first Chicana Literature course in spring 2005. Her research pertains to the interdependence of Chicano/a and U.S. Latino/a literary and visual cultures. Her dissertation, “Flying Under the Radar with The Royal Chicano Air Force: The Ongoing Politics of Space and Ethnic Identity” explores these intersections and, for this project, she received The College of William and Mary’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2010. She was a Lecturer in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute between 2006—2012. Her current book project explores the historical consciousness of a Chicano/a arts collective that produced major and canonical works of poetry, art, and literature. Diaz has published through Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, U.C. Santa Barbara’s ImaginArte, and in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social.
LORRAINE GARCÍA-NAKATA: Since 1973, Lorraine García-Nakata has been a “pilot” with the world-renowned Sacramento Chicano artist collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). One of six original primary muralists, Lorraine was the only female artist asked to join her fellow pilots José Montoya, Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orosco, Stan Padilla, and Juan Cervantes in painting the renowned and historic South Side Mural located in Sacramento, California. Ms. García-Nakata is a recognized visual artist and has exhibited extensively since 1970 on a local, regional, national and international level. Adept in a range of visual arts medium, she is noted for her large-scale works in drawing and painting. Lorraine is also recognized for her command of mixed media, printmaking, installation work, ceramics, and sculpture.