This article is part of our last special report on museums, which emphasizes reopening, reinvention and resilience.
It’s an existential time for museums across America, with plenty of yawning budget deficits alongside calls for deep structural change – and visitors are only coming back through their doors as the cold of the pandemic sets in. cultural life is slowly dissipating.
For some directors of small and medium-sized museums, the events of the past 12 months have given new urgency to their outreach initiatives – especially to black communities – and their efforts to make their collections relevant to a restless and reformed young generation. .
“In a difficult year, people wanted a vision,” said Adam Levine, who took over as director of the Toledo Museum of Art amid the lockout last May, and where a total overhaul of the institution‘s strategic plan is in progress. “People wanted something exciting for the future.”
Mr. Levine has charted a roadmap for the museum to become what he calls the “model museum of the United States,” whose collection reflects the demographic makeup of the country and where people experience “a sense of comfort and comfort. psychological security. in every interaction with the institution’s brand onsite and offsite, ”as he put it.
Supported by increased donations, as well as savings from canceled programs and two federal paycheck and loan protection programs, Levine adds Conservatives and educators to its staff to support its plan to map US Census data on the collection to identify gaps and – perhaps most importantly – to build relationships with five Toledo zip codes least represented among visitors to the museum, such as the Junction neighborhood, which is home to a predominantly African-American community.
One of the museum’s educators will work with Dr. Calvin Sweeney, pastor of the Tabernacle, a Junction neighborhood church, to create weekly after-school art programs and guide congregation members on trips to the museum.
The museum is also partnering with a black-run financial institution, Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, to provide financial literacy training – the skill most requested by its members – to parents, alongside the museum’s after-school programs.
Similar efforts to expand and diversify the local audience are taking root in other institutions across the country, such as the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla., Where a museum-wide exhibit explores artistic responses to violence. racialism in the United States, including the Tulsa Massacre, who has his centenary this year.
The exhibition, “From the limits of the present”, is accompanied by a constellation of community engagement projects with black-led organizations, Collective of the three cities, Fulton Street Books, and Silhouette – a sneaker store in Greenwood, or Black Wall Street as it is better known.
The idea for the exhibition was born with Quraysh Ali Lansana, a Tulsa-based author and scholar and founding member of the educational group Tri-City Collective. In 2019, he called on the Philbrook – which can be found in the wealthy white south of Tulsa – to mark the centenary.
Mr Lansana said it was important to him, and to Black Tulsa, that institutions on the South Side recognize the day in 1921 when white mobs burned Black Wall Street.
In Maine, the Colby College Museum of Art works with a social service organization, Waterville creates, to deliver art kits to thousands of local families, “indeed reaching the homes of people we would not otherwise have been able to reach,” said museum director Jacqueline Terrassa.
The new museum Bob thompson retrospective, which opens this summer, will highlight ways in which art can support social justice. Organizers are partnering with local criminal justice reform groups to use a restorative justice program created by educators at the Brooklyn Museum around his painting Thompson, “The jugement” (1963).
And at Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute of the Arts in Utica, NY – a city with a large refugee population, where more than 40 languages are spoken in the school district – a traveling exhibition of works by Emma Amos on view this summer will be accompanied by a permanent exhibition of the collection of works by black artists, “Call and Response,” featuring written interpretations of the works by members of the community.
The initiative is a product of the Munson-Williams-Proctor advisory committee known as African American Community Partners, which includes a pastor from the oldest AME church in town. The group has been meeting since the end of 2019 to guide the acquisitions of new collections and exhibitions. But, Director Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio said the events of 2020, “gave us a greater sense of urgency to reach the people who live in our city.”
Peter Linett, cultural consultant involved in a national research project on Americans’ relations with cultural organizations in times of crisis, said museums, of European origin, still have a long way to go to adapt to the present moment.
“Most museums haven’t gone beyond content,” he says. “They talk about what’s on the walls, what’s on the labels. They are not grappling with the form, the very essence of the museum.
Melody Buyukozer Dawkins, co-led a phase of the study that examines the engagement of black adults with cultural organizations. She said if content matters – some of the people she spoke to expressed a desire to see less reflections of black trauma and more sources of joy, for example – that shouldn’t necessarily be the main one. concern of museums.
Dr Buyukozer Dawkins suggested that participants might feel a stronger connection to cultural institutions if they saw them as a constant source of support. If cultural organizations offered community services, she said, “becoming truly integrated and visible in their communities, they would become more memorable to people.
For partnerships between museums and community organizations to be productive, Linett suggested, they must be deeply collaborative. “Ideally, there is a cultural exchange,” he says. “The museum is also learning. The museum does not only export its own behavioral hypotheses, its participation conventions. “
He added that the “formal, corporate and beautiful” spaces of the traditional art world are not helpful in accommodating communities that have been excluded.
Mr. Levine, of the Museum of Toledo, was quick to note the abrupt rise of his institution in the face of creating the atmosphere of “belonging” to which he aspires, even when the institution is at the heart of the landscape. urban. “Our main building is a 250,000 square foot Roman temple,” he said. “It’s not terribly inviting.”
Much of the museum’s outreach initiatives will take place off-site, using an approach that “marries educational activities with the discipline of community organizing,” he said. The extracurricular programs that Dr. Sweeney will develop alongside educators at the Toledo Museum will be replicated in the museum’s educational center, so that the collaboration is felt in the very fabric of the museum, shaping its educational practices.
The response from community organizations so far, Mr. Levine said, has amounted to, “It’s about time.”
Dr Sweeney said he hoped the art making lessons in the church and trips to the museum would create space for families in his congregation to express themselves and feel a sense of community, “something that we desperately needed at the time we find ourselves. ”He said he believed the collaboration would broaden perspectives not only for attendees,“ but also for museum staff ”.
For Amy Gilman, director of Chazen Art Museum In Madison, Wis., the lessons from the pandemic are in part about the need for transparency and accountability.
Ms Gilman embarked on what she said was a pilot project for the Chazen, a multi-year research initiative with artist Sanford Biggers and the MASK Consortium to study a sculpture from the museum’s collection, the ‘Group of ‘Emancipation’ by Thomas Ball (1873), which portrays Abraham Lincoln standing, posed and patriarchal, over a slave. A version of the work was withdrawn from public view in Boston last year.
Mr Biggers will create a counter-monument and related exhibit in 2022, but the artist and Ms Gilman hope its reach will expand much more, by inviting community input and including a public research forum slated to take place. roll out later this year. “I imagine we will learn a lot over the next two years,” said Ms. Gilman. “I can’t predict where we’ll end up,” she added. “I believe travel is the most important thing we do.”