Addressing Equity and Community Building in Museum Contexts

Posted in books, resources by Editor on October 26, 2021

From the press release (20 October 2021), via Art Daily:

Cover Image: Titus Kaphar (b. 1976), Darker Than Cotton, 2017, oil on canvas, 63 x 36 inches (Jackson: Mississippi Museum of Art, Gift of The Gallery Guild, Inc., 2018.008 / ©Titus Kaphar).

The Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art, in Jackson, MS, today announced the release of two publications in service to the art museum sector thanks to generous support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Established in 2018, CAPE’s mission is to use original artworks, exhibitions, programs, and engagements with artists to foster mutual understanding and inspire new narratives about contemporary Mississippi. The publications, CAPE Toolkit and Compassion, Art, People, and Equity: The Story of the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art, are intended to serve as road maps for other art museums grappling not only with how to enact pledges to demonstrate diversity, equity, access, and inclusion during national awakenings regarding antiracism and social justice but also how to authentically serve their communities.

CAPE Toolkit by CAPE Managing Director Monique Davis is a digital publication that offers a model intended to guide institutional transformation by investigating equity, transparency, and truth in a community. It is available on the Museum’s website.

“CAPE’s goal is to align actions with methods,” said Davis. “To develop programs that would meaningfully connect with the community, we first opened ourselves to the adjustments we knew we would have to make in our own institution. In harmony with our community’s expectations and keyed to its values, our goals are simple in articulation and very complicated in execution. We do not simply say what or with whom we stand. Rather, we discover and embody truth.”

Compassion, Art, People, and Equity: The Story of the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art by art critic and writer Seph Rodney, PhD, describes CAPE’s establishment, its partners and participants, and its signature programs as a blueprint for promoting change internally and externally. The 21-page softcover is available on the Museum’s website.

Rodney explained, “CAPE’s purpose is inhabited by the feelings, wishes, and concerns of the community. The weaving of narratives around and through works of art begins when we can see the work and wrestle with its meanings. CAPE programs address a variety of sensitive subjects: labor, social status, justice, identity, visibility, accessibility, age, race, gender, sexuality, education (formal and otherwise), socioeconomic class, personal belief, myths, territory, land, power, and care of the soul. At the intersection of art and life, there is the potential for transformation, for healing.”

Betsy Bradley, director of MMA, said, “Our partnership with Tougaloo College in 2017 that activated conversations around art and civil rights, confirmed the need for honest dialogue in and about Mississippi. We knew that the conversations had to extend from the curatorial department to connect with our visitors and more broadly. Thus began CAPE, dedicated to the exploration of ideas about race and equity as inspired by looking closely at artworks together. We recognized that our staff, all expertly trained, and trustees would benefit from learning responsible ways to elicit and manage these difficult conversations. Ultimately, we moved more intimately into the heart of equity at all levels. As our journey continues, we hope these publications inspire colleagues embarking on their own.”

MMA staff and trustees training partners included the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process℠ that focused on a system of observation and inquiry by Museum visitors, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (Winter Institute) in Jackson created opportunities for shared understandings in discussions of race and equity issues.

CAPE Toolkit Components

Community Advisory Council (CAC) was established in 2019 and developed a series of engagements for residents of Jackson and adjacent counties.

“CAC members are engaged in the Museum’s on-going planning and operations as collaborators and partners, providing their experience and wisdom,” said Davis. “Our goal is to make the Museum not only a safe space but a brave space for exchange.”

The Innovation Lab was a physical space in the Museum where visitors were invited to respond to and participate in the curatorial process and discuss their experiences as visitors. The goal was multifold:
• to consider and challenge traditional modes of presenting information;
• to invite visitors to become co-curators to inform new modes of presentation;
• to investigate how people experience artworks in relationship to one another and what MMA’s role is in facilitating these interactions;
• to reflect on the process of identifying and incorporating new insights and directions into future exhibitions.

Re:Frame is an ongoing series of staged dialogues about issues of contemporary significance seen through the lens of the visual arts. Topics have included mass incarceration and the Mississippi State Penitentiary’s Parchman Farm, minority farm ownership, economic injustice, disenfranchisement, and the significance in contemporary life of the cotton industry’s fraught history. In consultation with the Winter Institute, Re:Frame dialogues have included collaborations with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance, and a wide range of local voices including artists, former Parchman inmates, farmers, chefs, musicians, and podcasters.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant also supported the creation of two types of engagements with artists: the In-State Residency program and the National Artist-In-Residency program. Both programs were developed to engage artists and communities in a collaborative exploration of Mississippi places and their histories. Their objectives are to co-produce art that fosters deeper understanding and honors personal truths. In-State artists included Mark Geil, daniel johnson, and Charles Edward Williams. The national program featured Jeffrey Gibson, Nick Cave, and Shani Peters. Peters’ residency was supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Monique Davis is Managing Director for the Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) at the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) where she also serves as the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer. CAPE is a W.K. Kellogg Foundation- and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded initiative that uses artwork, exhibitions, engagement with artists, and programming as a vehicle to have conversations about race and equity. Davis is responsible for creating brave spaces that expand visitors’ perspectives and reveal our shared humanity. She is deeply committed to the belief that art has the power to transform and inform us. Prior to her tenure at the Museum, Monique served as the Senior Program Manager for Parents for Public Schools of Jackson. Her primary responsibility was teaching parents how to be effective advocates for their children by creating workshops to help parents navigate bureaucratic, and often dehumanizing, systems. Her career has been a winding path that has resulted in her owning and operating a restaurant, advocating for homeless veterans at the federal level, and creating safe spaces for nursing mothers. Her board affiliations include Shift Collective (Chair); Visit Jackson (Treasurer); USDAC (United States Department of Arts and Culture) Cultural Agent for Mississippi; Coleman Center for the Arts (Treasurer); and Alternate ROOTS (member and former Chair). Davis is a CPA and a graduate of Howard University.

Seph Rodney, PhD, was born in Jamaica, and came of age in the Bronx, New York. He joined the staff at Hyperallergic in 2016, became an editor a year and a half later, and is currently the opinions editor and a senior critic writing on visual art and related issues. He has also written for The New York Times, CNN, NBC Universal, and American Craft Magazine and penned catalogue essays for Crystal Bridges and the artists Meleko Mokgosi, Teresita Fernandez, and Joyce J. Scott, among others. He has appeared on television on the AM Joy show with Joy Reid and the Jim Jefferies Show on Comedy Central. His book, The Personalization of the Museum Visit, was published by Routledge in May 2019. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism Prize and can be heard weekly on the podcast The American Age. His doctorate in museum studies was earned from Birkbeck College, University of London. He has taught research methodology courses at Parsons School of Design and writing courses at the School of Visual Arts. He has also been a visiting art critic at the Yale School of Art.

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