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Learning and Working Together

Charlecia Joy Cole, Adrienne DeVine, Mae Miller, et al

Five people on Zoom

By Charlecia Joy Cole, Adrienne DeVine, Mae Miller, Summer A. Sloane-Britt, and Joseph Daniel Valencia 

“We have to get to know each other better and teach each other our ways, our views, if we’re to remove the scales and get the work done.” 

—Toni Cade Bambara, Foreword to This Bridge Called My Back 

We are a group of Black and Latinx arts professionals dedicated to transformative pedagogies and combatting the hierarchical and exclusionary practices of the museum field. The devaluation of educational programs within museums (exemplified through low staff wages, institutional hierarchies, and unwelcoming architectural design), and the structural barriers that prevent most communities of color in the US from accessing museums and working in the arts have been well documented. Likewise, through their artworks and writings, practitioners of color have long criticized museums for repeatedly opting for empty gestures of racial solidarity and tokenizing diversity and inclusion efforts in lieu of more meaningful structural and institutional transformations.  

We draw inspiration from the visionary lineage of artists, activists, and educators of color who have challenged the overrepresentation of white Euro-American knowledge production within arts education and have foregrounded the collective experiential knowledge of Black and brown folks as a site of resistance, affirmation, and refusal. Our goal in this call and response is not to rehash or debate the racist institutional failings of North American museums, but to reflect upon our personal, professional, and collective experiences within museums. As practitioners of color who are perpetually overextended and underpaid, yet who remain committed to transforming museums from within, the following forum provides a rare opportunity for frank discussion and dialogical learning among peers. We believe that learning differently from and with one another and valuing knowledge rooted in lived experience is integral to the process of building more just, inclusive, and accountable museum futures. 

We have each faced a number of challenges related to museum hierarchies. How do we reimagine our roles as artists, curators, educators, and scholars to challenge these existing hierarchies? 

Joseph: It’s important to recognize the tremendous power museum curators wield in developing the content and scope of work for staff in other departments, including education, communications, fundraising, guest services, and more. Something about that hierarchy has never sat right with me. As a curator who started my career in museum education and public programming, I continue to fight for a museum field where inclusive and collaborative practices are prioritized and where curators actively work to decentralize their power.  

Summer: Yes! What we need to challenge the embedded hierarchical landscape and reorienting how curators work is for care work to enter all domains in museums, giving way for more communally-oriented labor. Living up to any pronounced investment in anti-racist or anti-classist organizational models isn’t possible if the institution itself engages toxic hierarchies and environments daily. 

Joy: Interventions into museum practice, and more specifically curatorial practice, can take place by way of coalition-building and community stakeholder involvement. As a former scenic designer, I participated in and witnessed the power of sitting together among theater directors and other key designers to share creative visions, combine ideas, and collaborate on a cohesive production. More museums need to foreground the creation of stakeholder teams where curators, arts educators, artists, historians, and community members come together to build meaningful experiences for the public. 

Joseph: I’ve had success practicing that model as a curator at the Vincent Price Art Museum. For Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943–2016, we established advisory groups of artists, designers, musicians, scholars, and members of the public associated with various Los Angeles communities to deepen our exploration of youth culture in the city. Their collective knowledge shaped the exhibition’s content while also inspiring dynamic engagement opportunities such as online music playlists and multimedia articles, oral histories and public community forums, tours, workshops, and more. It remains one of the museum’s highest-attended exhibitions—curated within and for community. Looking back, it was very powerful to witness how everyday people fostered a sense of ownership and relevance for the museum through a single exhibition.  

Summer: Curators and educators can also learn from what’s circulating online and apply it to their projects. I’ve had folks from different art spaces tell me some audiences wouldn’t care about or appreciate a specific artist or historical topic rooted in communities of color. Yet Instagram accounts such as @blackarchives.co and @veteranas_and_rucas prove that presumption wrong. The popularity of online-based archival resources is an indicator of where public interests lie. It isn’t inherently harmful to take cues from what is happening online, but some resist this idea. 

Adrienne: People are most interested in historical information when it is relevant to their lives and accurately represents their experience. Co-creating with community members can inform content and deepen historical context. 

Mae: Right. Historical and archival analysis definitely help shape contemporary praxis. Movements like Strike MoMA and Decolonize This Place have brought to light many of the structural injustices and centuries-long struggles over aesthetics, power, and global racial capitalism that shape the museum world. I’m constantly looking for historical examples that we can learn from and repurpose. The Harlem Community Art Center of the 1930s and 1940s had broad visions of community accountability and free arts education and has much to teach us about the work of building and sustaining collectives. Museum education models also need to address the historical processes of commodification, pacification, and co-optation that stall real institutional transformation.  

 What are some additional challenges faced in charting new paths within museum practice?  

Summer: I’m enrolled in an art history PhD program and engaged in curatorial work. I see how academic training can influence museum practices that may not grasp non-academic or non-white audiences. I believe class is an undervalued intersection essential for museums to confront within exhibitions, education, and strategic planning initiatives. Since beginning my program, some questions at the front of my mind include: How can we assume a specific demographic doesn't like an artist's work if an entryway is never built? If I don't want to exclusively engage with artists trained in BFA and MFA programs or non-traditional journeys, how can I get others to appreciate [them] as well? This shift is increasing, which is nice to witness and participate within. Of course, there have been necessary interventions at the Studio Museum or Lynne Cooke's Outliers and the American Vanguard exhibition. I’m particularly excited for an upcoming show at the Baltimore Museum of Art that was curated by seventeen museum guards who chose collection objects based on "personal resonances and direct engagement with the galleries." Other exhibitions such as Valerie Cassel Oliver's Dirty South: Its Meaning and Influence, Nicole Fleetwood's Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art's period room dedicated to Afrofuturism highlight how the number of exhibitions centering wider reaches of ideologies, artists, and audiences has risen. However, there are still vast gaps left to fill for museums more widely. A few years ago, the American Alliance of Museums released a demographics survey of museums across the country, finding that white administrators hold seventy-three percent of intellectual leadership positions. 

Joy: I was drawn to this Museum Professional Seminar because I wanted to collaborate with museum professionals to leverage the resources they have to offer from within their institutions alongside the knowledge I have of serving as a public high school visual arts educator. However, as a visual arts educator, I don’t often feel our voices are being included at the intersection of education, museums, and/or gallery and community art spaces. In the education sector, areas such as English, STEM, and history get greater recognition and priority. The arts are often looked at as an afterthought when it comes to funding, pedagogical practices, and/or professional development within the school. However, when it’s time for performative measures, the arts are remembered to portray a sense of community and/or enhance student engagement.  
In addition, through actively listening to the many Black and Latinx museum professionals in this seminar, it has come to my attention that a similar lack of consideration is given to museum education. Museum educators interface with most of the visitors and programs, yet it's curators and researchers who often have the most say on the final outcome of exhibitions. The role of a museum educator is relegated to the performative yet important work of boosting attendance. Finally, in gallery spaces, unfortunately some artists look down on arts professionals who choose to become arts educators or teaching artists. I’ve participated in group exhibitions and spoken with artists who have changed their demeanor when finding out that my primary work is in arts education. I’ve been told a variety of statements that bear the sentiment of “Those who can’t do, teach.” Whether it be in classrooms, museums, galleries, or community art spaces, arts educators do the brunt of the care and service work yet do not receive the equity, inclusion, or respect they deserve. 

Joseph: I’ve grown invested in artists who are educators partly due to the reasons you outline. Artist-educators empower others through their work and create culturally relevant and meaningful experiences for a range of audiences. But to circle back to your point about arts educators being considered an afterthought in the curatorial process, a solution is indeed to create exhibitions and programming simultaneously and collectively, to inform one another. Yes, it’s challenging to alter a museum’s timeline and process, especially in the large bureaucratic institutions we’ve been discussing, but this change would elevate an educator’s work to the same level of the curator. Then, education and public programs are rightfully just as important as the artwork on the walls, and the exhibition becomes more of a pedagogical and community-accessible project. 

Mae: The question of access has always been multi-layered. Access is about time, money, content, relevance, and relationships. There are two examples I want to bring into our conversation. A few years ago, I curated a small exhibition for Black History Month. The members of our collective knew we were being invited as part of a tokenizing gesture that was more about quotas and PR than about meaningful transformation of a predominantly white institution. Still, we took the opportunity to showcase Black histories and cultural production in that neighborhood, as well as the global connections. We developed exhibition content specifically for youth. Yet day after day we watched as the school groups were directed away from our exhibition. “The topic is too sensitive.” “There is not enough time.” “It isn’t relevant to national history.” How do we think about the question of access when the problem isn’t getting into the building per se, but rather about deepening institutional support at all levels so that transformative learning can occur? 

The past two years have also brought questions of digital access more centrally into museum dialogues. There’s been a tendency to equate moving things online to making them accessible. While we must continue to build powerful learning tools online and expand notions of collaboration, we must also challenge policies that view digitization as an opportunity to further divest from museum education (wages, materials, space, etc.). We have to continue to fight for a museum in which free take-home art kits for every student and imagination-driven learning facilitated by an art instructor who makes living wages and doesn’t have to work three side-hustles isn’t a pipedream.  

What aspirations guide our practices and how might we bring these solutions into museum spaces?  

Mae: Throughout our conversation, it has become clear we’re collectively working to transform both the content within museums (i.e., what art is worth learning about) and pedagogical practices (i.e., how we learn and to what ends). Despite institutional attempts to expand community engagement initiatives, museums remain largely elitist spaces. Many of the teenage and adult students I’ve worked with, particularly from communities of color, express doubt about whether they look “the part” or belong in these spaces because of the kinds of systematic exclusions we’ve all discussed. 

As a museum educator, I start from a place of affirmation, asking what students already know, what they are curious about, and how we can find answers together. The point of museum education is not simply to memorize artists and artworks, but to think about all of the ways art can fire our collective imaginations and inspire social transformation. My lessons are informed by my previous teachers and strive to shift conversations beyond the performative gestures of “being the smartest kid in class” toward powerful, dialogic, and collective inquiry. In the past, I introduced high school students to histories of youth activism through interactive museum exhibitions, explored race and representation with children through illustrated books, and developed collective creative writing exercises inspired by Caribbean feminists such as Audre Lorde and Claudia Jones. By taking cues from Jones’ insistence that, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom,” we can begin to think more critically about art and museum education as political education.  

Joy: As an arts educator, I nurture the mind of an artist by unleashing the freedom to explore, think critically, and make mistakes. What curators can learn from K-12 educators is to provide opportunities for audiences to recognize how they can move throughout life with that same freedom to explore, think critically, and make mistakes. This care work can only be done when actively engaging audiences from an asset model to collaboratively listen and learn. 

Summer: For me, working with high school students and giving public tours at various museums indicated visual literacy's essentialness. There are few formal citations in an exhibition, and asking how that can change is integral. Visual studies can puncture something within people; that's why artists are so revered, or visual objects become important within home spaces. In Katherine McKittrick's Dear Science, she writes, "Citation could, then, perhaps be considered one fulcrum of black studies: in a world that despises blackness, the bibliography—written or snug or whispered or remembered or dreamed or forgotten—ushers in, or initiates, or teaches, or affirms" (27). While McKittrick is discussing Black studies, I’m curious about how the "bibliography" can actively exist within museum spaces? How can music be incorporated? Writers? Touch? Essentially, what are the layers that can be injected into an exhibition, genuinely facilitating corollaries from an object to a visitor's life? I do not mean solely adding playlists or online content but within spaces themselves. How can a museum be comfortable, welcoming, and, potentially, homey? It's worth noting the impact of installation art feels particularly present in contemporary exhibitions, archival practices, and in my questions themselves!  

Joseph: Wow, Summer, you raise a powerful set of questions. I’m reminded of the Teaching Trilogy by bell hooks1 where, instead of using footnotes, she cites authors directly in the text to pull her sources to the forefront and avoid alienating her readers with more academic modes of citation such as footnotes. This format reads more like a conversation and aligns with her belief that teaching is most effective when rooted in accessibility. The lesson I learned from reading these books is that there is liberatory power in having your work resonate with others. I’m guided by this belief and often seek to apply it in my work in museums. We must see our work as a bridge across communities. For those of us curators in the group, it’s clear we aspire to be the kinds of curators who are artist-centered and community-driven, and always thinking about mission, audience, and responsibility with concrete understanding of who we serve and why. It has been an honor to build community with a group of professionals who share that point of view.  

Adrienne: As a visual artist, I want to spark curiosity and create a visual dialogue with the viewer. Visual literacy is important. Museum programming can facilitate that process using an interdisciplinary program framework that incorporates history, historiography, research, criticism, and the mutual exchange of ideas among stakeholders. Interdisciplinary art education gives multiple points of entry to connect with audiences, whether the focus is on art processes, intellectual content, or discovering intersections with other subjects. In a recent interview, referencing the work of Congolese artist Cheik Ledy, scholar Kymberly Newberry says, “I think museums are in a sense supposed to be the “sidewalk radio” communicating the realities of our communities, collectively and individually; the goings-on of the world, and our cultural development.” That idea fundamentally guides my practice.  

It is both powerful and affirming to hold group discussions to share and validate our knowledge, experiences, and reflections on radical museum transformation. We recognize this is just the beginning of our collective work and we must continue working together to address the challenges and limitations of the museum field. As we close our conversation, we borrow from scholar and educator Shawn Ginwright: “Our job now is to continue and expand this work—to defend and dream, resist and reimagine, disrupt and discover. While we cannot expect the quick solution to come in our lifetime, we can, each day, prepare our young people for a more beautiful struggle in theirs.”