Preservation, Care, Librarianship: Keeping Local Memory Alive

What is the value of care in librarianship? How are libraries defining and supporting their communities? In collaboration with the District of Columbia Public Library at the NOMA Fab Lab Pop-Up, we explored the ways libraries are integral to the community and cultural ecosystems, and the current challenges with maintaining accessibility to their local communities.

“Preservation, Care, Librarianship: Keeping Local Memory Alive” featured a discussion among cultural practitioners doing the work of “radical librarianship,” workshops, and a local artist. Watch the discussion and see highlights from the event below.

The event also featured DIRT DMV, Smithsonian Hirshhorn‘s ArtLab and the Handgames Project. See highlights below!

Live beat-making with the Handgames Project.

Performances by the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+ Teens.

Dirt DMV’s live archiving station—visitors items were documented and archived on site.

Panel discussion with (L to R) Alison Beshai, Desireé Venn Frederic, Maryann James-Daley, Nicole Ivy and artist Dulcina Abreu.

a body of work: artist talks + tours (Transformer)

In our latest project, we’re exploring “Citation & Memory,” through art, community and dialogue. In our second installment, we hosted tours through Transformer‘s exhibition, “E15: A Body to Follow.” Highlighting the practices of citation and memory in the exhibit, the tours offered a fresh perspective on textile and fiber arts. Often secluded to the realm of craft and feminine arts, these tours highlighted four fiber works and their relevance within this exhibit as well as within contemporary art and the Washington, DC arts community. 

E15: A Body to Follow focused on fiber and textile as medium, history, and a means of survival. Considering the concept of the ‘survival thread’, artists Aliana Grace Bailey, Rachel Schechtman, Dulcina Abreu, and Alanna Reeves explore issues surrounding the body, security, identity, and connection to nature and family. See below for highlights from the exhibition and the public program!

E15 artists (from left to right) Aliana Grace Bailey, Rachel Schechtman, Dulcina Abreu, and Alanna Reeves

Little Jamaican-American Girl, Alanna Reeves 

My body is deserving of all the loving I can give, Aliana Grace Bailey

Untitled, Rachel Schechtman

Is there Such a Thing as, FUTURE?, Dulcina Abreu

E15: A Body to Follow is part of Transformer’s annual Exercises For Emerging Artists, a peer critique & mentorship program created to support a selected group of DC based emerging artists each year who are at critical points or crossroads in their professional growth and creative development. Learn more here.

How I Got Over (Review)

How I Got over (January 13-February 24) by Adrienne Gaither is the latest exhibition showing at DC’s Transformer art space.

I didn’t plan to write a blog post, but I was inspired by the artist talk with artist Adrienne Gaither, for Transformers 15th annual DC Artist Solo Exhibition. The show is described as follows:

How I Got Over presents a new body of paintings and collage works recounting Gaither’s personal recovery from traumatic events in her life. Gaither expresses the impact of trauma and visualizes what it means to become “whole” again while addressing the parallels between recovery and painting as time based processes…

Adrienne presents a series of paintings, in bold and bright hues. I appreciate the way her work doesn’t hide and I am always so impressed (not in a condescending way) by Adrienne’s work for this reason. it’s power, boldness and confidence attract me. Since the first time I ever saw it in person, at the DC Arts Center in a curated show Public Displays of Privacy (2016) by curator Martina Dodd.

How I Got Over is intimate and powerful. The works, many created on large canvas, are layered and give a sense of complexity. It is even more intriguing in the way that Adrienne is able to communicate a story through abstract art. I’ve recently become more interested in finding and understanding a black aesthetic in abstract art. As a genre within the art world, it is one that is not associated with artists of color, and most certainly not women of color. Black artists are valued for their depictions of oppression and trauma typically in figurative works. And although, Adrienne’s work depicts a process working through certain traumas she’s experienced, she does so carefully through color and shapes. It is through the complexity of her art that the audience is moved through a flux of emotions, because that’s how emotions work, if we are fortunate—in flux, to create a tapestry of experience.

Women in the Arts recently showed of Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today (October 2017 -January 2018), which featured works of abstract art by 21 black women artists, born between 1891 and 1981. It was nothing I had seen before. I like many, was unaware of the ways in which black women have been and are inhabiting the abstract art world in such large numbers. Show’s like How I Got Over and Magnetic Fields are a reminder to afford folks of color space to just create. They deserve to be given space to express a range of emotions. A requirement of an artist, or persons of color, should not be for us to reenact our own trauma for the sake of your amusement. We are more than our trauma—we are joy, we are abundance—and it takes many shapes, forms and colors. Emotion is human, and to deny us that expression is a denial of our humanity. How I Got Over is a beautiful, layered, bold, and at times calculated, some times jagged but always tender show of humanity.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, “Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere,” 1993; Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 138 in.; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan; © Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Magnetic Fields (2017)

How I Got over runs from January 13-February 24.

 

Adrienne Gaither (b.1987) is a visual artist whose work explores color and shape to recompose various ways of communicating an idea. Her works can be conceptual and narrative, serious and playful, and are distinctly constructed with influences of West African Patternmaking, Suprematism, Constructivism, Minimalism, the Bauhaus, and Abstraction.

She has exhibited at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD, The National African American Museum and Cultural Museum, Wilberforce, OH, PRIZM Art Fair at Miami Art Basel, and MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) in Brooklyn, NY. Gaither lives and works in Washington, DC.

MAKING SPACE FOR OURSELVES – BLACK WOMEN AND THE POWER OF ART+COMMUNITY

This interview was originally printed at DIRT, an independent platform and resource for accessible critical arts discourse within the DC, Maryland, Virginia (DMV) area.

 

On October 7th, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center (PGAAMCC) will host Rated PG: Black Arts Festival, a festival to showcase local black women-identified artists and the first of its kind in the county. Festival events will explore beauty standards, identity, multi-generational traditions and sisterhood. It will also debut two exhibitions, “This Hair Deserves a March” and “Like Blood from a Stone,” that will be on view until January 2018.

The PGAAMCC stands as a monument to the Prince George’s black community in North Brentwood—a community space very much steeped in its history and actively imagining new futures for black collectivity in the museum. An event of this kind creates a fluidity between the museum and its community, and puts themselves in direct conversation with the issues that ail black women in our society. Black women are often seen as profitable to culture, but rarely are they valued for their contributions. As spaces arise to celebrate the full humanity and vitality of black women, we witness the full range in which black women have always existed. It is why I’m excited that a space for black women, though not exclusively, is being reserved in the institution to explore that range.

In a Q&A with the Executive Director of PGAAMCC, Maleke Glee, curator Yaya Bey, and artist Monique “Muse” Dodd, we discuss the upcoming festival, liberatory art-making and their vision for the future of the DMV arts ecosystem. It is a conversation I look forward to having with many others at the festival come October 7th.

 

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Ravon: What is the intention for the Rated PG: Black Arts Festival happening now? Why do you think these narratives need to be told in this moment?

Maleke: The intention of the Rated PG festival is to celebrate Black Womanhood, and its vastness. Our curator, Yaya Bey, has been very intentional on breaking the monolithic representation of Black Women in media. The limited narrative affects self identification, capacity for imagination, and treatment in society. I think these narratives need to be told in this moment to provide a self liberation that is healthy and progressive for a communal liberation. Having your image reflected is affirming; and further understanding another’s narrative is humanizing. I think the thoughts provoked in the exhibitions will allow for reflection, and the performances of the festival will create unapologetic, felt celebration.

Ravon: Tell me about the two shows you curated for the PGAAMCC. What is the inspiration for them?

Yaya: The shows, “This Hair Deserves a March” and “Like Blood from a Stone,” are parts of a series called “Tell the Truth About Me.” The overlapping theme is reclaiming black-woman narratives. While “This Hair Deserves a March” addresses falsehoods in narratives surrounding our aesthetic, “Like Blood from a Stone” addresses the truths about us that are often left untold.

Ravon: Tell me about your work that will show at the upcoming Rated PG?

Muse: I will be premiering a new body of work entitled La Negra de Nadie which translates roughly in English to “the black woman who belongs to no one.” It is a triptych which includes a self portrait inspired by the Colombian artist Enrique Grau’s painting La Mulata de Cartagenera. It is an ode to femininity and the Yoruba deity Oshun. My work is a reflection on beauty, autonomy, and power.

Ravon: What made the themes of this work timely? Why do you think these narratives need to be told at this moment?

Muse: This work is in honor of the divine feminine. Especially now, we have seen how toxic masculinity can be, when not balanced by femininity. Politically, socially, and culturally we need to respect the mother, the earth and each other in order to progress collectively and survive.

Yaya: It’s always the right time to talk about black women. Anytime I get a chance to put black women on a platform I do, because we need more opportunities to tell our own stories. Too often people tell our stories for us and do a bad job because it wasn’t their story to tell in the first place.

Ravon: As an artist, how would you define your art-making practice? How do you know when an artwork is done?

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Muse: I don’t like to define my art-making practice, everything I do is art, it is creation. I find myself most inspired when I’m doing mundane things like riding the metro or washing dishes. I think my work is never finished but an ongoing conversation, but how I know it’s ready to be viewed by other people is when I look at it and it takes my breath away.

Ravon: Yaya, I know you’re also an artist as well. How would you define your
art-making practice? How did that influence your approach to the shows you exhibited?

Yaya: I tell stories and I provide platforms for other people to tell their stories. In everything I do I strive to be better at telling the truth. For this show—the task was telling the truth about black women and that required pulling from different perspectives and knowing when to step back and let perspectives that are not my own shine. Again I think the better at balance I get, the better I will get at telling the truth especially when it comes to black women as we are not a monolith and deserve to be shown as dimensional human beings.

Ravon: I greatly admire the effort and ability to curate—it is deeply careful and methodical work. However, it is a word that now circulates largely in many spaces, but I don’t think that deeper meaning always travels with it. What does “curate” mean to you? When is something like the exhibitions being shown during Rated PG done being curated? What’s that process like?

Yaya: To curate is to help a story come together. To me, art is storytelling and when you bring several voices together in an effort to tell a story the message is layered, and probably more honest because I think the truth requires more than one perspective. I don’t think I’m done curating these shows as of yet, I think I’m still pulling truth from places and asking the artists questions. In a lot of my work, I like to interview people and I’m still sort of in that interview stage.

Ravon: How do you see these shows fitting into the larger art scene and landscape in the North Brentwood community? In the DMV area? How do they lend themselves to a larger conversation?

Yaya: I think black women are a worthy topic of discussion no matter where you go. Here in the DMV, and really any where there are black women, we are major influencers and deserve to be celebrated.

Ravon: What can folks look forward to at the upcoming festival?

Maleke: Folks can look forward to meeting new people, creating memories and having a great time! I am most looking forward to our pop up beauty shop. We are doing new, interactive things in our gallery spaces; I’m excited to see how people engage.

Ravon: As a museum, what is the significance of the institution being a space for these types of events and dialogue?

Maleke: Due to a long history of colonizing narratives, and appropriation of sacred artifacts, communities of color have not always felt welcomed in museum spaces. Museums fail the community when they speak for a community; I think the significance of community events and dialogue is that the history barriers and culture keepers have ownership of their narrative. What brought me to PGAAMCC as an educator and community partner was their openness for public involvement in the exhibitions and programming.

Ravon: What inspiration are you gaining from the local artist community to showcase certain work and perspectives?

Maleke: I think everyone in the DMV is a hustler! I think that is the inspiration I draw, it encourages me to be brave and bold in sharing my ideas and talents. I am inspired to find ways to support, sustain and celebrate the work artist are doing. I am really enjoying Goldlink’s At What Cost. The project exemplifies community support, as the DMV narrative is told by Goldlink, his features, and even in the cover art by Darius Moreno. Right now I am most inspired by artists in the region who are telling intimate stories of community, artists such as Lionel Frazier and Larry Cook.

Ravon: I am really excited for Rated PG’s role in uplifting the perspectives of black artists, and especially those of women-identified artists. There is a spotlight on these perspectives right now, particularly in our current political and social climate. As the director, what role do you think the museum has in deconstructing certain narratives? Are or should museums be “neutral” spaces?

Maleke: I really feel uncomfortable with the term “neutral space,” I have been teasing with the idea of neutrality in my career. However, my career is so tied to artistry, and neutral art does not exist. Art is political, cultural, religious, etc. I think the museum does have a role in elevating stories that need visibility. As it is, Black women, and trans-women are grievously oppressed in our society. The ways of oppression are both political and personal (familiar, intimate), they are in ways implicit and explicit. The museum is a safe space, a healing ground—I think the Black Arts Festival heralds our invitation to the community. The museum looks to listen to the community, and allow them to share their stories. I think the museum stands alongside anyone being oppressed. We should use our platform to activate changes, educate our community, and connect networks.

When I think of deconstructing existing narratives, I think of creating a new table when the one that exists does not serve you. I suggest an investment in our narratives, our institutions, our businesses, our families, our community.

Ravon: As an artist, do you feel a responsibility for your work to deconstruct certain narratives? Is art always an intervention? Should it be?

Muse: I believe the role of an artist is to question how we view things, to help us better understand the world we live in and ourselves. I think it is important to have a multi-narrative view on a group of people (especially minorities). However, I also believe that if all our work is reactionary then we are letting the oppressors drive our focus and creation. Toni Morrison put it best when she said, “racism is a distraction.” My audience is first and foremost black people, anyone else who sees my works and appreciates is a plus but not necessary. This is the greatest gift I have been given, and I will use it in service to my people.

Ravon: Who is or are some women-identified artist(s) that are inspiring you right now? Who should folks be thinking about?

Muse: I am so inspired by a lot of the amazing artists included in the show, like Nakeya Brown and Adrienne Gaither. If you don’t know who these ladies are then you need to get hip and come check out their work October 7th! Nakeya’s work is so layered but reads very clearly, black womanhood oozes out of her work and you can smell the Pink oil sheen through her images. And Adrienne’s work is amazing, her approach and application are unique and precise. Black women just make me so happy.

Maleke: There are too many to count! My artistic influences and mediums are varied—

Issa Rae. I love Insecure and the strong sense of identification we have with the characters. It’s like memes, we get it so clearly! Princess Nokia. I am living for the inclusion of self care, spirituality, and ancestral ties. Azealia Banks! I am an unapologetic stan of Azealia Banks. She is complicated, as we all are. I most admire her scholarship in Blackness, and how that influences her music in very subtle and explicit ways.

Zora Neale Hurston. I am in a Cultural Sustainability master’s program; I admire Hurston’s auto-ethnography. The relationship between her anthropology and literary writing is inspiring. Emma Amos. Her style makes me think of my Aunties. Centered on relationships, and held with care, rich with history, and bold personality.

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I am also a fan of all the artists in the exhibition, and am glad we are showcasing their work. I have followed Nakeya Brown for some time, and love her historical ties of beauty, objectification, and labor in work that feels very modern.

Yaya: Right now I’m inspired by my friends. The women that I know like Alanna Fields, Nakeya Brown, Lakela Brown. Women who make great art but also women I see living lives and making it work. Right now I’m really into balance and fullness, so I’m inspired by women I see doing both. The women I know personally and see raise children, or balance student/artist life or teacher/artist life inspire me strive for fullness. Also these women are amazing at what they do.

Ravon: So, I’ve been living in D.C. for a few years now, and I assume I was like many people when I first moved to the DMV area. I wrote the area off as not having a vibrant arts and culture scene. So much of that has to do with the way the area is changing and undergoing development. What would you say to those who assume the area has no artist-community?

Maleke: I would tell newcomers to the D.C. region who assume there is a lack of arts culture and community that I understand. I understand that in a gentrifying city most of what you see are ploys to attract particular demographics, these artistic ploys do not represent the community of Washington, D.C. I also think, and of course cannot speak for time beyond mine—however, I think, in this region the arts culture is within youth culture. Many adults moving here, without the experience of growing up here, will miss the rich creativity and community of young artists.

However, there are many small organizations that are well respected and do impactful work, like diamonds in the rough. I would encourage newcomers to visit art spaces, and talk to the people in the room…you will be sure to learn something new, that leads to another opportunity.

The African American artist community has been dispersed among the region, as one of many effects of gentrification. While I initially was disheartened by the forceful separation of art and business communities, I realized the potential. We now have folks spread across the region, displaced persons, and like seeds we can grow our artistry, and create networks of support.

Muse: If you don’t think DC has an arts scene, dig a little deeper.

Yaya: Anywhere black people are there is art.

Ravon: In 5 or 10 years, what do you hope will have been created to support the DMV arts ecosystem?

Maleke: In the next 5 to 10 years, I hope that the museum can expand our capacity to broaden our reach within the region, supporting other local institutions and artists.

This will create a model for other African American enclaves, a model of communal creativity and entrepreneurial support. As the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center we are a historical database for the cultural and artist contributions of Africans Americans in our county Entrepreneurship, and the intention toward economic liberation is a part of our culture. I wish to patronize and herald PG County owned and operated businesses.

I also hope there will be an institution that is specifically for Go-Go music and culture. I imagine a Go-Go museum, and educational center.

Muse: More funding and institutions that specifically uplift artists of color. The talent is there but we need to cultivate more opportunities for artists in the city.

Yaya: I hope that there will be more opportunities for black women in the arts. I think the art scene is very much male dominated and too many resources are going to white artists to tell the stories of black and brown people. So I guess my hope really is that black women/black people are afforded more opportunities to tell their own stories and are supported with the resources to do so.

Ravon: What song or album is motivating your work right now?

Muse: I’ve been rocking with Celia Cruz’s La Negra tiene tumbao, it just gets me energized and ready to dance and conquer the world.

Yaya: Nina Simone, “Wild is the Wind.” That song calms my nerves and reminds me to stay true to self.

Maleke: Princess Nokia’s 1992 Deluxe Edition is inspiring me right now. An honorable mention, Rico Nasty’s Tales of Taco Bella.

Ravon: “Blocklist’” is my anthem.

Artechouse: Curating for the Digital Future of Museums (Review)

The newest art org to join the fray of contemporary arts spaces across the landscape of the District occupies particularly odd territory, previously solely utilized by uninviting office space. Artechouse, a new arts space opened in Washington, D.C. in June, and recently presented “Spirit of Autumn” (October 1 – November 5). It was the follow-up installation to its debut show, “XYZT: Abstract Landscapes.”

Photos by @bluelikechagall

The building, unremarkable in any way, features a sandwich and pizza shop among an array of unmarked business suites tucked within. The location, however, is interesting. Prior to about 3 years ago this precise sliver of the SW quadrant of the District saw little to no foot traffic – or any traffic outside the comings and goings of the 9-5 federal crowd. Known as Washington’s business district, it was assumed that retail, restaurants, let alone art, couldn’t thrive past 5pm with the mass exodus of the population, i.e. federal workers, leaving to return to their homes in the northern quadrants and the burbs. Then the SWBID (Southwest Business Improvement District) swooped in to “improve the business climate” of the quadrant. Focusing on the section of the quadrant connecting the federal buildings to the residential neighborhoods and Wharf further south – a walkable area through highway underpasses – the BID has worked to flip the impression of this area from staid and stuffy to lively and entertaining. Enter: Artechouse.

Not exactly employing a position of gentrifier in that groups have not been displaced by this section of the SWBID, Artechouse is certainly a tool for changing the landscape of its neighborhood. Though the BID has created a boom in development, including luxury high-rises, restaurants, and retail, throughout the sprawling 400 plus acre of Southwest, branded “District Wharf,” Artechouse’s placement is within existing business district territory. But as such, it’s impossible to ignore the agenda-ridden existence of the art org, written all over its design and #mood, I mean, atmosphere.

Artechouse is certainly an original feature in the D.C. arts landscape and self-describes as
“At the crossroads of art, science and technology, ARTECHOUSE brings a true 21st century art experience to the nation’s capital as Washington, D.C.’s first interactive digital art gallery.”

While most D.C. art galleries almost exclusively call the Northwest quadrant home, Artechouse brings a fresh art experience to unclaimed territory both in locale and in theme. As the District’s first space solely dedicated to tech art, Artechouse has the sobering responsibility of setting the bar for this rising art medium . . . but sobriety is not on the menu. Explicitly designed in the layout, curation, and experience of Artechouse is the bar, specifically the role in which artisan cocktails will play within the exhibitions. After downloading their app you’re instructed to snap a photo of your cocktail, which features an edible wafer cookie atop via AR, that reveals swirling leaves virtually floating above your glass.

Upon descending the two flights of stairs down to the exhibition space entrance you enter at the top of landing, where to your left is the minimalist-styled glowing-white surfaced bar, and down yet another flight of stairs is the main gallery.

In “Spirit of Autumn” a giant two-story digitally-projected tree stands middle against the far wall, as digitally-composed leaves flutter in virtual air. The two side walls are projected with more falling, twirling, dancing virtual leaves, which respond to your movement and noise. As you interact with the painting a ghost-like outline of yourself appears on the wall. Two microphones hidden in the walls pick up sounds within the gallery space, but are best activated by clapping directly into the speakers. Sound triggers a visual response within the digital painting – storm clouds, thunder, and lightening appear and disappear.

As your ghost avatar shadows your movements throughout the space, you become a subject within the artwork itself – a moving object walking in painting. Another gallery space opens to an enveloping, hypnotic swirl of color, this time completely controlled by the visitor. Virtual paint spills move, change color, and churn along the floor directed by the movements of the visitor within the space. The responsiveness of this algorithm is more sensitive than the one working the leaves in the other room, resulting in a more satisfying experience of art-creator.

As a further immersive, interactive experience you’re invited to create a leaf to add to the digital collection within the painting. In the back room you can color a stencil – adhering to the guidelines of the artwork, no words please! – which you drop through a slot into a room where a technician will digitize and upload your creation to the algorithm of the painting. In just a few minutes your work of art will descend from the upper corners of the painting to join the mix of leaves swirling and twirling in response to the visitors.

The effect is meant to be pensive and peaceful, but the aesthetic of outlined ghosts coupled with the swoosh of falling leaves and sporadic, ominous thunder produces the creepy feeling of a virtual haunted forest. As nothing in the design of the exhibition or the gallery seems haphazard, I would guess that the spookiness is intentional. The art itself falls just short of being a parable of the season it represents. As fall is associated with the return of school it is married to the sensibility of intellectual resurgence. But the exhibit feels more like summer in its playfulness and intellectual-lightness. The docents explain that the artists attempt not a literal exploration of fall, but one that is surreal.

However, in considering the climate of arts within the District – monolithic national museums contrasted by small but feisty community-driven arts orgs – it’s Artechouse itself that is surreal. Where did this place come from? Who is it here for?

As a space that reads explicitly cool and detached, that has sprung to life not of the demand of a passionate horde within a dedicated community – as most non-federal arts orgs in D.C. do, Artechouse is a conundrum of placemaking, but assuredly an icon of today’s art trend.

The staging of both the exhibit and the gallery structure is meant to be Insta-envy prime.  As hip artisanal drinking is laid into the very plans of the exhibition, the gallery and show beg for social, as well as artistic, interaction. It’s impossible to ignore the prominent placement of the bar, upon entry, reachable before the art. Perhaps this is done knowingly, as in all art openings visitors crowd the bar anyway, why not make it easily accessible? But it remains that the bar, perched aloft the gallery space, sits physically above the art – looking down from it throne most high. As if to further illustrate the import placed on social drinking within the exhibit, when I asked the bartender for the hashtag for the show, he replied chuckling, “#amazingcocktails?”

However, the signature drink, as is the entry ($15 – $25), is expensive, at $12 each.

In an era of uncertainty for the funding of art Artechouse exemplifies what may well become the future for experiencing innovative art forms outside of traditional museums. Appealing to the social media boozing crowd and their need for Insta-ready spaces to share their happenings, Artechouse’s format resists threatened traditional arts funding structures. Self-monetization is a good thing, and may well prove a necessity for the future of alternative art spaces. But what does that mean for the future of art – and specifically tech art – itself?

Artechouse claims to be a haven for exploring the intersection of art and tech, but as such a broad and varied medium and with their galleries designed as selfie stations, can (or perhaps, will) the organization sustain exhibitions not easily bent towards social media?

As a space to explore new age media, Artechouse is refreshing in the D.C. arts landscape. Compared to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, whose dedication to exploring tech art has leaned heavily towards media art, and when it has varied from that, exhibitions have rested about a decade late of innovative, Artechouse is sharply zeitgeist.

But Artechouse delivers a very specific experience of tech art—one that is closely married to the commerce of social media. Not all tech art will comfortably fit under this umbrella. Moreover, Artechouse has the built-in problem of the Instagram double-edged sword: will visitors pay for the experience after viewing it for free through friends’ Instagrams? As one of the very few paid entry art spaces in town, Artechouse will have to overcome the local mindset that resists paying for art experiences.

The exhibition is designed as a social-media crack den but is that the Artechouse hook?

Of course there is still the bar allure of the gallery.

 

 

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell (@KayleighBinDC), is a Washington, D.C. native and museum educator with over 10 years of GLAM experience, devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through museums and social justice practice.

ICYMI: Ravon Ruffin and Lanae Spruce in The Lily!

It’s been a week — actually, it’s been a year. And in the spirit of celebrating when we can, I wanted to make sure to re-share an article that was all over my twitter feed last week, for good reason.

For their amazing work strategizing social media for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lanae Spruce and BGMB’s own Ravon Ruffin were profiled in The Lily! Check out the article (including Ravon shouting out one of my all-time favorite books The Sovereignty of Quiet) here.

The Nation We Make Together (Part I)

It has taken me two years to write this post. It is the reason this blog was created, but it wasn’t until recently that I found the words and the courage to write it, unapologetically. We’ve had a lot to contemplate, here at the blog, and we’re excited to finally share the conversations we’ve been having to hopefully, as always, inspire thoughtful consideration and critique of the field. In a two-part post (because we know how much you love those), Amanda and I explore what it means or what it could look like when we bring our vulnerabilities into “the institution.”

For me, it all begins with American history, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to be exact. It is what made it so difficult to finally find the words. NMAH was the first museum to welcome me here in D.C. as an intern, to embrace me, and I learned so much in my time there. So this piece is written from place of love, gratitude and appreciation to the many who continue to guide me, and does not take aim to destroy but in hopes to rebuild, together.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

I am writing this after another verdict, during our country’s Independence Day celebrations, amidst our current political landscape. I am writing because until we come to terms with the psychological and emotional impacts of institutionalized racism on all of us, none of us are free.

Building Houses on National Memory

On a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I noticed their advertising for the now newly opened exhibition, “The Nation We Build Together.” I have not seen the exhibition since it’s opening June 28th, however I was struck by a few things during this last visit, that culminated in a number of anxieties exemplary of how whiteness constitutes national memory, and undergirds our institutions. On a banner above the south entrance, a collage of faces can be seen—across various ages, races, and eras. It is an obvious attempt at American patriotism, one that says despite our differences we’re all in this together. Among those faces was Emmett Till’s, a story that even in typing his name, it evokes imagery of his face that brings me to tears. See, the problem with national memory—that is fueled by nationalism in its very origins—is that not all of us can exist in it, not in our full humanity at least. Not everyone’s story will make it, in favor of a primary singular narrative.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend grad school, sure that my work would best be served in a museum-setting but as many young professionals not exactly sure how and in what ways. I was fortunate that a course my first semester granted me access to NMAH, as it was taught by a curator and held in the Museum once a week. It was my first real exposure to a museum on a national scale. One particular assignment from that course always stayed with me—we were tasked with observing an exhibit: What was the context for the exhibit? Who stopped at the exhibit? How were they discussing the exhibit? I chose the exhibit located on the main lobby floor of NMAH. I had never had the “National Museum” experience being from Chicago, and was fascinated to learn what the experience was like for audiences. It’s a small exhibit along the wall, that pays homage to 1960’s America through popular culture. I observed quickly, in a span of a few hours, that this case was overwhelmingly frequented by older white visitors and in a twist, white families. It was a moment of nostalgia for them to remember JFK, the Beatles, and a few major headlines. It was a moment that caused me to look around, and for the first time ask “where are we?,” as visitors and within the narrative.

The following spring, I interned at NMAH with a curator, who I continue to be grateful to today. She was sure to point my attention to the work that she did to secure certain stories existed within the Museum. It was also during this period that the blog was born.

 

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston

 

Decolonize This Place

For people of color, it is at this intersection of feeling and reality, that we repeatedly learn that we are in an overwhelmingly white space. It is at these moments that we come to understand our existence through the prism of whiteness. In a book I am reading,—which I’m sure my Instagram followers are tired of seeing me post—The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quashie, I am challenged to consider the capaciousness of black humanity that exists beyond equating black life with resistance. For Quashie, and I agree, “These assumptions are noticeable in the ways that blackness serves as an emblem of social ailment and progress.” (Quashie, p. 3) Although, Quashie specifically examines black being, I think aspects of his argument do apply to the collapsable nature of marginalized cultures, accessible only in the ways that they fold into and/or propel white narratives forward.

In NMAH, blackness is legible as a resource and marker of market capitalism that upholds progress in American life and history; a phantom of entrepreneurship and innovation.  In this way, we are left to understand blackness as a problem in either instance. Objects centralize the story, so things are made but we are never truly revealed as to by whom and how these things came to be; without these intersections objects are born out of a function not from people, not from labor, and are condensed into a singular narrative. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a presence in the museum, an exhibition space there as a preview for its coming arrival in 2016, that now stands in for the existence of black life and resiliency secluded from American history despite its clear proximity.

The basis of Quashie’s argument is that blackness or “to be black” is defined through acts of resistance, as a result black subjectivity is restricted to the ways it contributes to public discourse through its expressions. Blackness is expected to and limited by what it can tell us about about race and racism, which is also evident in its absence in the museum. Quashie, therefore, argues for a reexamination of black existence that is attentive to black interiority, that is present as well alongside public acts of resistance. Quashie borrows this definition of interiority from Hortense Spillers (as he should), it is “the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings of desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self; it is both a space of wild selffullness, a kind of self-indulgence, and the ‘the locus at which self interrogation takes place.'” (Black, White, and in Color, p. 383 in Quashie, p. 21)

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness. However, Spillers’ point in regards to self interrogation is not only toward the institution but is also applicable to ourselves—the marginalized folk. Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process. Quashie pushes this argument further in a critique of Du Bois’ concept of “Double Consciousness”:

“In double consciousness, the twoness of black subjectivity does not represent another consciousness,  that is free and wild; instead, the twoness is a kind of pathology, a fractured consciousness that is overdetermined by a public language of black inferiority…In this characterization, agency is limited to resisting public discourse, and the black subject seems to possess no interior worth speaking of.”—Kevin Quashie

 

It is not enough that we find agency in our oppression. To decolonize the museum we must leave home. And for the institution, how then can museums offer pathways to selfhood for their visitors?

Leaving Home

Conceptualizing this post has been a slow realization for myself. I have stakes in keeping things the way they are, because this feels familiar—this feels normal. However, I’ve been challenged with confronting my own vulnerabilities, which until recent contemplation I was unaware of just how much I feel encouraged to protect the institution despite my work of inclusion. For communities of color, this work looks like us seeing each other and acknowledging the possibilities for social justice and equity in collaborative solidarity work. To do that, I’d have to accept the full range of your humanity that exists in the way that I would like for you to see me. For cultural institutions this looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

This may seem simple or even obvious, but we underestimate the veil of security that nationalism and national memory affords us. Nationalism presents a clarity of self, whereas vulnerability is considered a liability to our survival. (Quashie, p. 77) But how do the stories we tell change the narrative when we consider the potential of our relationships to ourselves and one another in acknowledging our vulnerabilities? Could you see the expansiveness of my humanity? Seeing Emmett Till’s smiling face on a banner amidst other figures in history, knowing the ways in which the horrific events surrounding his life mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, was traumatic, and falls short of the thoughtfulness it’s meant to inspire when the institution fails to provide space for our humanity alongside these stories. In that brief encounter, we are meant to understand him as one destination in our nation’s story. As I mentioned, I have not seen the new exhibition since it opened and to be honest I don’t know if I will. I don’t know if my psyche can handle being jolted between slavery and civil rights narratives. However, here’s to hoping that we also exist somewhere in between.

Leaving home requires that we forego what we think we know—a sense of security wrapped into a tidy narrative. Our trauma is too great for that.

 

 

*All views expressed here are my own, and not the opinion of anyone else or institution.

BGMB 2 Year Party!

Recently, BGMB celebrated our two-year anniversary — two years of focusing on emerging professionals and people of color in museums and the art world. We couldn’t have made it this far without the support of our DC community and so we opened the doors to the Anacostia Arts Center for a night of connecting, discussing, and celebrating the work we are all doing together.

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Image Making: Interview with Michael Platt

This Friday, March 25, “image-maker” Michael Platt will give a talk at the Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia about his most recent exhibition, titled Pathfinders. In support of this upcoming talk, the Anacostia Arts Center, and local DC art in general, we talked to the artist to get a preview of what he’ll be covering at the event, including the difference between image-making and artistry, the goals of Pathfinders, and how art speaks back.

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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.