Check us out in xoNecole!

Ravon and I are super excited to share an interview we did with Jamee A. Swift of xoNecole! We loved the questions she posed, and getting to share our mission with an even wider audience. Jamee wrote,

Although BGMB is only three years old, the organization has quickly become a go-to scholarly, professional, and community hub for the artistic curiosities, liberatory messages, progressive imaginations and praxis, and feminist entanglements of women of color artists across borders and boundaries.

Please go check out the final interview at the link above, or keep reading here for more content from our conversation.

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Brown Girls On the Radio

Just when you thought we couldn’t get any more cross-platform, we found a new medium to dip our toes into! Last week, Ravon and I were featured on the Maryland Humanities Podcast, and aired on WYPR  Baltimore. You can check out our episode, in which we discuss our mission to advocate for inclusion in cultural institutions, by clicking here or by hitting play beneath the cut.

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Beyond the Walls: Building the Capacity for Community

Last week we had the pleasure of being the keynote speakers for the 2017 Small Museum Association Annual Conference. Needless to say, we were honored to have the opportunity and were excited to share in the importance of small museum institutions to the future of museums. Below is a brief––very brief––overview of our keynote presentation. As always connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to continue the discussion.

If what we want for the future of museums is community-oriented public service, small museums should be our major model. Small museums have expansive ecosystems, the ideal location, and the richness of specificity that make up the new direction of the field.

 

When we say ecosystem, what we mean is the way an institution functions as a whole unit, thanks to the individual contributions of the people who work there. Ecosystem does not describe the building’s four walls or the items in the collection. Descriptions like “fast-moving, heavily bureaucratic, or community-run,” speak to the working environment of the organization. We are describing the work done by the people at those institutions, their goals and the ways in which they are enabled to or prevented from achieving them.

Some aspects of an ecosystem will always be specific to a single museum, but there are trends that occur across similar organizations. The question is not how to make small museum ecosystems more closely resemble the practices of large institutions; the question is: how can we make this ecosystem scalable at every size?

Black art incubator and the National Museum of Women in the Arts are perfect examples of what we think the ideal small museum ecosystem can look like.

The Black Art Incubator was a project created by four black women––Kim Drew (Black Contemporary Art Tumblr blog) , Jessica Lynne and Taylor Aldridge (creators of arts.black) and art historian and writer, Jessica Bell Brown  that took place over the course of the summer of 2016.

The Black Art Incubator so beautifully exemplified the boundless opportunities for collaboration when we tap into a multitude of resources toward a holistic goal and aim to be accessible. They took advantage of an intimate approach to create a community that could interact on an individual level toward a goal: to improve the arts and culture ecosystem for underrepresented and marginalized folks.

So what if we all were an active intervention in our spaces?

The National Museum for Women in the Art is such an example of an intervention being made by a museum. The museum launched a program, Women, Arts, and Social Change.

Through a host of panel and audience curated dialogue, the museum acts as a catalyst for their community of women on gender parity. Similarly, this project brings the community in but the planning of this program highlights the importance of each member of the museum working towards bettering the ecosystem.

One part of what makes the small museum ecosystem so able to be community-focused is the physical location of these institutions. Small museums are often located very close to, if not located within, the neighborhoods that make up their major audiences. Proximity is a powerful tool for organizations that seek to serve a local community rather than a national audience. Instead of representing global culture in a local location, small museums have the opportunity to represent their local communities and demonstrate their global significance.

Spatial proximity is a huge advantage when it comes to earning the trust of local communities, who may have never felt like a museum, large or small, can belong to them. After all, threshold fear, as Nina Simon calls it, is easier to overcome when it involves your neighbor’s door.

Workshops we put on at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, and the community engagement of the Anacostia Community Museum demonstrate the power of this kind of local access.

We recently had an opportunity to work with the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, in conducting workshops with the museum’s visitors. Read about that full experience here

This particular workshop had spurred participants into a conversation about their own awareness of others in their communities that extended beyond their day-to-day, and were part of a larger geography. Here is where small museums can be empowered! You play a large role as an entryway for a new population into the rich history and culture of your communities and while also uplifting the narratives of those local to your areas.

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum does this well––being a direct line to their community and bridging those stories for the masses. They are also the inspiration for the context for us being here today. It was during the American Alliance for Museums Conference, on a panel titled around “Community Museums,” and we couldn’t help but think but aren’t all museums community museums?

The museum remains closely identified with its community through exhibition and programming initiatives to address the concerns of their changing neighborhoods, and being a direct line for opportunities for students and young adults.

The specificity of small museums is a direct result of their close proximity to the communities they serve, but on the national and international scale, these local stories often seem like niche interests.

This specificity is often talked about as a limitation, something for smaller organizations to overcome so that they too can play on the same international stage — but what needs to change in this framework is not the reach of the museums, but rather the way that we understand specificity. The mission of small museums is to demonstrate that specificity can be generative rather than limiting.

Rather than feeling the need to broadly represent history, art, or culture within their walls, these organizations can instead hone in on the unique details of materials in their collections, and exhibit them in their local neighborhoods.

Crosslines, put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, did just that.

The Asian Pacific American Center is another entity within the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, and like the Anacostia Community Museum specificity to their neighborhood, they have their own specific cultural mission. Additionally, the center does not actually have a physical location. However, they experiment a lot in ways to let specificity be generative rather than limiting––by including and creating new archives.

CrossLines demonstrated that specific viewpoints do not need to be discarded, but can instead showcase the fact that every identity has unique aspects that must be encouraged to be shared. By understanding and empathizing with the performance of specific ways of being in the world, environments, atmospheres, geographies, and even institutions can become safer places for people with unique experiences of their own. By being interested in and supportive of the full depth of viewpoints outside of the merely visual display of diversity, intersectionality is prioritized over inclusion.

Conclusion

Small museums have many advantages when it comes to representing public arts, history, culture, and the sciences. Their ecosystems, geographic proximity, and ability to delve into specifics put them in the prime position to be the future of museum work — community-focused, employee proving grounds that don’t sacrifice their unique positions in the attempt to appeal to all possible audiences and points of view.

It is not that small museums have an equally small reach, impact, or scope — it is that these organizations have become the test-labs for the new direction of the field as a whole. The work being done by these institutions proves that small museums do big work, and this framework must be extended to all museums, of all sizes.

An Artist Perspective: Interview with Adriana Corral

Let’s face it: museum professionals have a certain nearsightedness for the field. Don’t get me wrong, I think this intense focus on the details of our work is great. Curatorial practice, exhibition design, visitor experience — all of these things require great attention to detail, especially if your mission is to use these tools to educate people and hold space for the underserved populations in your community. But this practice of education and space-making depends on objects to ground the conversations, art and artifacts that bring to light something about our culture that should be discussed.

The art world and the museum field have a close relationship, but we don’t often hear the artist’s perspective on the collection and exhibition of their work. Artists are often politically aware, and politically active — what do they have to say about the growing trend of community-building and space-making that is happening in museums? What lessons can museums take from the world of public art?

To find out, we sat down with artist Adriana Corral to get the artist’s perspective on what museums do best, what it was like to move from grad school to the art world, and why geography is always present in her work.

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Admission Fees, Institutional Privilege, and Cultural Fluency

A few weeks ago, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for free. Usually a $25 entrance fee, all I had to do was show my Harvard ID and I was waved right past the admissions counter. Don’t get me wrong, I am tried-and-true bargains hunter and will never turn down the chance to get something for free, but as I walked through the museum exhibits, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was really the most deserving person to receive this discount.

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BGMB Open Letter to the City

Dear Friends and Supporters,
Below you will find the letter we wrote to the city recently regarding the hearing to destroy the historic Union Arts building which would displace artists, creatives and entrepreneurs that utilize the space. We press upon our community of museum workers and activists who fight for equity in this space.

Dear city council members, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and DC Zoning Commission,

We are writing to express our concern regarding case #15-19 which would displace artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs currently occupying the Union Arts Building.

Our concern is not merely with change; change is inevitable. Cities are increasingly faced with political, economic, and social challenges, challenges to maintain the viability of its citizen and to stimulate growth. However this endeavor must extend to all citizens, and we must do our best not to give the hope of our city to the highest bidder.

We write to you as graduate students, museum professionals, and culture workers. We are not naïve to our role as “transplants” to DC. We are gentrifiers. The city is changing to accommodate people like us who come here for employment, educational purposes and like a revolving door are on to the next city. But who will you have left when you’ve pushed the life of the city to the outer edges?

The irony of “revitalizing” an art enclave to make space for art is not a new agenda for city developers but here we have a critical opportunity to do it right. Consider what part in the revitalization process can and should artists play in enhancing the vibrancy of the city. Cities have a habit of going back to “recover” what was destroyed by earlier development, lets cut out the middle step and not only preserve the art, but the artist that create the city we love.

If nothing else you are taking away the very work that so many us inspire to do by moving to DC. This letter is not only an outcry to you, the city officials, but to the many museum professionals that take space in this city. We will and must protect the arts. We are prepared to do so.

Sincerely,

Ravon and Amanda

Brown Girls Museum Blog

#SaveDCArts #iwillnotbemoved #agentrifieddc
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Mining the Digital Landscape, Engaging Communities of Color

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So we know a few things about these digital platforms:

A) There is an immediacy and ability to mobilize or respond vs. the top-down structure of the museum

B) They collectivize people across institutions

C) They archive and preserve (tag, url)

But that’s the platform…What about the people?

What we see is, communities of color filling in their own gaps online.

However, “engagement” does not necessarily mean providing a sense of propriety on the behalf of the community.

Although museums have not typically engaged these groups in productive ways, it does not mean these groups are stagnant in culture production, preservation or presentation. Creatively, they have established online spaces for themselves, circumventing the periphery.

And so, although, I am here speaking specifically to communities of color, this is a model that should be utilized when considering all marginalized groups and social justice initiatives. Simply, what conversations are being had.

Communities of color enact agency in these spaces. Such hashtags as #blktwitterstorians and “Black Twitter” as the social phenomenon that it has become, identify communities that not only participate but create. As cultural institutions––museums, historic homes, national parks––transition to dialogical forms of patron and museum staff interaction, and include more participatory models (think #AskACurator), the online has increasingly made itself a tangible space to the representation of black and brown bodies rendered invisible by history, or visible by the markings of servitude. Communities of color, through online participation, are able to make themselves visible as subjects as opposed to objects.

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So we can’t talk about museums unless we confront our own privilege to collectively be in this room.

(This is one of those no caption needed moments)

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So with studies like this, done by the Mellon Foundation. We have to confront that in these brick and mortar spaces that have historically allowed black and brown bodies entrance as specimen or security, it has neglected these individuals as visitors which impedes on the interest of these communities to participate.

In what ways has your institution prepared itself for the entrance narratives of these communities? And, is your museum willing to sustain interest in these communities not as novelty items to programming, but truly seek to have transparent conversations.

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So not all is lost. And if we return to these digital and social platforms, again, we begin to see how the online allows for communities of color to negotiate space, identity, and meaning-making practices.

There are a few ways that the online is making this possible:

Distributing Responsibility
– As of 2014, Twitter is used by 23% of all online adults, according to a PEW Internet survey
– While not all users may be active, the pervasiveness of the app can be attributed to user-driven content
– That is, the very function of twitter depends on its use
– Responsibility for creating, curating, and promoting content is distributed to all users
– By having a stake in the viral status of individual tweets, promoted through follows, favorites, and retweets, users are responsible for creating their own communities

Democratizing Ideas
– Following directly from the user-generated content model, Twitter can be seen as a meritocracy, where the best content will naturally rise to the top
– A lack of governance or editorial board (issues of abuse and infringement aside) allows for more radical or outsider perspectives to be noticed and heard
– The issues with any meritocracy include access, privilege, and prioritizing of messages that already conform to users’ biases
– But Twitter’s hashtags allow users to explore content outside of their own personal echo chamber

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Encouraging Directness
– Much has been made of Twitter’s 140-character limit on individual tweets, and that limit’s effects on speech and censorship
– While the character limit does force users to abbreviate and self-edit, we might also see this enforced directness as a useful tool for alternative viewpoints
– Without the room to soften messages or debate issues at length, activists and outsiders must be direct in their communication and know their audience well
– There is no room for subtlety or shyness
– Twitter is like the headlines, and alternative communities must develop additional spaces for greater detail (websites, forums, email conversations, etc)

Elevating Collective Knowledge
– Twitter operates as a return to collective knowledge
– While empirical fact is traditionally valued in Western society, Twitter has spotlighted the ways media outlets in particular do not always provide facts without their own biases
– For example, on-the-ground news of activism in Ferguson was not broadcast from a single account
– Rather it was crowdsourced journalism, and through the many tweets of local activists and witnesses, a definitive story, distinct from the narrative of mainstream media, was told
– Again this can be a double-edged sword, as bias and errors are just as viral as truth, but when a community grows large enough and tells a similar enough story, we can understand that narrative as fact. This elevation of collective knowledge again reinforces the distributed responsibility of Twitter, in which all members of a community have a stake in maintaining their online community

I think in this conference alone we’ve witnessed the power of social media to mobilize and we must harness its potential

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Here are a few things to consider:

1) Sweep Around Your Own Front Door
Does your museum support diversity in word but not in deed? Representation matters and diversity “outreach” initiatives are worthless if you don’t practice what you preach. How homogeneous is your staff/board? Are the people of color segregated in certain positions? Are only white, cis, able people depicted in your advertising? Acknowledge the intersectional and systemic oppressive structures that are present in your museum’s internal processes and seek outside support with dismantling them. Being inclusive internally leads to inclusivity in programming, partnership, and patronage.

2) People of Color Aren’t “Problems”
Treating communities of color like things that need to be “fixed” is unfortunately common. Often, it begins with good intentions—“We noticed we don’t have very many Black visitors. How can we change this?” But soon the issue’s being addressed are with less sensitivity and consideration, causing patterns of distrust to emerge or be reinforced.

3) Examine Your Access
How easily can communities of color connect with you? What are the barriers? Are they intentional or unintentional? Have you created roadblocks in your physical and digital spaces? Are you inviting communities of color to collaborate and/or design programs and exhibitions? Ask people what they think of your museum. If it’s viewed as an impenetrable fortress atop an ivory tower, with access granted to a privileged few, you have much work to do.

4) Mind Your Language
For organizations that pride themselves on careful word selection, museums can be strikingly tone-deaf in regard to inclusive language. Carefully examine all writing from program copy to wall labels to social media posts for coded language that suggests exclusion.

5) Myth of the Monolith
Communities of color are extremely diverse, although it is customary for certain groups to be lumped together as if they are connected to a Borg-like hive mind.

6) H*e, Don’t Do It
Communities of color have a large and influential presence digitally, especially in social media. “Black Twitter”, defined by Dr. Meredith Clark as a “temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference”, has become such a topic of intense interest that the Los Angeles Times recently dispatched journalist Dexter Thomas to cover it exclusively.

It’s not uncommon for the latest ubiquitous vine or catchphrase to originate from digital communities of color. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for businesses to want to tap into these trends, committing cringeworthy culturally appropriative acts and microaggressions. So think carefully about the implications before your staff performs the latest viral dance (a la the “Harlem Shake”) or you declare your latest acquisition “on fleek.”

So if much of this does not make sense, that’s kind of the point. In short, deliberate before you appropriate.

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Here are some resources to check out.

 

This presentation was in collaboration with Adrianne Russell (@adriannerussell), museum educator and non-profit consultant. Please visit MuseumNext for the official live stream of this talk on day 2 of the conference.

 

In the ‘Business’ of Museums

I enjoy still moments and often feel like I do tourist sites because I have to. Like Instagram, If you didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen. But what if there were this awesome thing where a person who knew stuff could show you cool places, filled with history that you never knew was there?–Yeah, I’d sign up too. Tourism is a booming business that brings in a stream of revenue into cities, and museums are prime to capitalize. And as funding becomes increasingly competitive in the non-profit sphere (such a catch-22), public humanities is growing more and more dependent on attracting audiences through tours as a means to actively engage audiences. With the wealth of resources available through technology, the museum isn’t the brick and mortar sanctuary it once was in this millennial age. So once you get people in the doors, how do you keep them there and convince them that it is worth coming back?

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Local Communities, Global Initiatives

“Local” is a buzzword that is practically inescapable these days, sometimes a codeword for expensive organic farmer’s market produce and sometimes an adjective that describes grassroots communities sprung up around a cause. Local economies, local groups, local issues. With all this increasing focus on what we have at home (and with the idea that buying local is what will save us from neoliberal economic bloat), what is the role of museums in promoting the communities of their immediate areas? How can museums balance responsibilities to the local neighborhoods with the global pursuit of access to archives for everyone? Particularly thinking about social media: does a digital presence serve people close to home or far away?

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Join the Festivities and Build Greater Cultural Networks

On March 28th, we attended the inaugural 17th annual National Cherry Blossom Freedom Walk. As a recent D.C. transplant, I look forward to activities that will allow me to discover the pockets within the folds of the city. The program is an embedded tradition, within what many city residents and tourists have come to enjoy as an event-filled few weeks of concerts and kite-flying. However, the annual Cherry Blossom Freedom Walk reminds us of the relevance of this national tradition, that goes beyond the welcoming of Spring after a long Winter.

On this brisk morning, we gathered within the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II. The program opened with an invigorating performance by Nen Daiko, a taiko (a drum style of Japanese origin) ensemble that has been performing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area since 1994. It was truly empowering to witness this collective of women and men striking their instruments with unforgiving movement and resound (in a way that put my coffee to shame). A Nen Daiko musician, Maya Nakamura, informed us that the performance group is a collective built from various networks, many with ties to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation (NJAMF), who helped sponsor this event. The Nen Daiko drum ensemble has committed annually to the Cherry Blossom Freedom Walk. Continue…