Big ideas: Can art galleries and collections preserve history and be relevant to today's audiences?

As the end of the Black Refractions exhibit at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts nears Dec. 8, leaders discuss the roles of art galleries and collections in today's culture.
Just what can art museums and galleries -- institutions from a European tradition, that have been preserving art and culture for centuries in some cases -- do to provide diverse, contemporarily relevant works to equally diverse communities in 2019?

As part of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts' recent temporary transformation into a museum full of African American art, the KIA held a symposium on "Vision and Visibility: Diversity, Inclusion, Contemporary Art and Culture," Nov. 9.

A panel discussion that was part of the symposium examined the roles of art museums and collections in bringing in works by diverse artists and bringing in diverse audiences.

Could museums even change society?

During audience Q&A, a young woman of color asks, "What action would you like to see in museums, moving forward, to facilitate a society that can make up for the injustices towards marginalized people?"

It's a heavy request for an institution that, by its nature, is about preserving the past and, with contemporary works, reflect the times. 

Belinda Tate, panel member and Executive Director of the KIA, had pointed out earlier in the panel discussion that the KIA was founded in 1924 as a traditional American art museum. Asking it to help change society and make up for the injustices of the past is a bit outside of its mission.

Tate responds to the question, "We're now living in an environment where community members want us to do things and address things that we were never intended or setup to do. So how do you take something that's been on this trajectory for 100 years, and shift it on a dime to do something else?"

The KIA serves an audience of around 100,000 people annually, she says, "and they don't agree on much. So it's very hard for us to even find programs that will meet the needs of enough constituents to be successful within the community." 

Tate continues, "it's difficult to take on projects that represent one particular view or another." 

What museums can do is "make people more enlightened, more aware, just try to create a more informed citizen overall. We as an institution can't be responsible for the kinds of decisions people make in their personal lives. But we can say, hey, look at this! Have you considered this different perspective?"

Since Sept. 14, The KIA has hosted many different perspectives with "Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,"   "Where We Stand," work by local African American Artists, and "Resilience: African American Artists as Agents of Change, featuring work from their permanent collection. 

The museum will start to transform back to its original state as "Black Refractions" moves on from its only Midwest tour stop Dec. 8. But as Tate made clear during the panel discussion, that doesn't mean the end of efforts to make the KIA an inclusive place for art and art audiences.

Highlights from the Nov. 9 panel on 'Institutions Cultivating Change/Museums Making Space' 

(Edited for brevity and clarity.)

Moderator Ashley Holland (assistant curator at Art Bridges, a national nonprofit and one of the funders of the "Black Refractions" tour):  She opens with a statement, "Art is powerful. It has the ability to create conversation, shape perception, and confirm ideologies. But like any tool or weapon, it's through its use by institutions, and the interactions of viewers, that the power is activated." 

Holland asks, "What are the most important issues facing museums, collectors or art-collecting institutions today?"

Stephanie James (curator and collection educator for The Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, a private collection of works by artists of the African diaspora): She says that one of the more important issues is "the issue of relevancy for art museums. We're living in a world where attention spans have shortened, and there's just a lot of competitions out there for what one does with their leisure time." 

James says that also important to consider is the relevancy of art to people struggling economically, like many of the citizens of Flint, "where there are a lot of challenges people are dealing with.... Let's face it, art has always been associated with leisure and the privileged, and it is still seen that way by a good sector of the public, who still see it, in many cases, as not for them." 

It is the curators' job to work to build relevant collections, "and that's where we get to the whole topic of inclusion because that's the most direct way to (connect) to those surrounding us." 

Izegbe N'Namdi (executive director of G.R. N'Namdi Gallery, a Detroit gallery of African American art): The most-problematic challenge for art institutions is economic, she says. "Because in order for those institutions to be, you need major donors." 

Things are more complex for a public museum like the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is asking for a millage coming from voters of three counties: Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland. Since "the demographic makeup is different for all three," that puts pressure on the museum to appeal to a wide swath of cultures.

"When you look at a city like Detroit, it is very culturally diverse. It looks like it's black and white, but it is not. The person you want to say is black is West African, is Senegalese; the person you want to say is white is Italian. So you have these different cultural aspects that are going on," N'Namdi says. 

"So how do we capture all of that, how do we ensure that the Jamaican is feeling comfortable going to the institution?" 

She makes the point that museums also have to meet their own standards. There are people who "feel that it's not for them.... However we also have to be keepers of fine art, is what I'm getting at. So we cannot allow ourselves to waver from that, in terms of being a keeper. But we want to also ensure that we will open our arms, to embrace the individuals" who might feel that art isn't for them.

Belinda Tate (executive director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts: She agrees with the other panelists. A challenge she sees "is this issue of responsiveness and the fact that the world around us is changing very rapidly, and people want museums to be responsive and to change in lockstep with the society. And museums were not set up to be institutions to master and facilitate change," Tate says.

To add diverse art and programming to the museum takes resources, "but the resources are not available to do so. And the people say, 'Well, how can you say the resources aren't there? You have an x-million-dollar endowment!'"

But, "one of the challenges is people don't really understand how museums are funded and how we are subjected to so many other decisions that have been made outside the institution."

An example -- "We have a lot of funds that are restricted funds. They're only used to do certain things. So that donor has made the decision, for the institution, to host certain types of projects, to buy certain types of artwork, and to provide a certain type of educational platform. And there's really nothing we can do about that." 

"We may want to steer the institution in a different direction, but we're unable to do so because the resources aren't there. And then we comply with the restrictions of the endowment, and we have community members who become upset with the institution because they say 'You're doing one of those types of projects again! You won't change, you won't be responsive to our needs, etc.' It really can create a kind of disconnect between the institution and the community, and finding ways to be in constant conversation with the community is very difficult, and finding ways to be more transparent with the community is very difficult for museums. We're struggling with that a little bit." 

At the KIA, "We're trying to move things in a different direction, but it takes time, we have limited resources, but we want to demonstrate to you that we hear you, we want to be responsive, but we don't have all the resources.... It's a big challenge for museums. And if you look at some of the things written in the media today, some of the discontent that is documented out there, a lot of it is centered around the institution feeling defensive and not being able to be more transparent and responsive to the community." 

From the Mott-Warsh Collection: Nick Cave, "Soundsuit", 2016, Mixed media, 93" x 48" x 15". © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Holland: "How has your institution supported artists of color?"

N'Namdi: "Well, that's our platform," she says. 

Her gallery started in 1981, "making us the oldest African American gallery in the country. And we won't waver from that." They've expanded to become the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, opening up to music, dance and other performance genres. 

"You talk about the historical presence of institutions, it's always been about preserving culture, artifacts, the preservation of culture," she says. "Even the white wall structure" -- walls on which works are hung -- "that is a European construct. It's fine, no need to change it!" she says with a laugh. "But what we want to do is change the thinking when we do the curating." 

With the Black Lives Matter movement, "we've noticed a spike in interest," N'Namdi says. With art by black artists, "you can chronicle the whole African American experience.... When we see so much centered around color in the country today, I think we realize that's a serious conversation."

Tate: "This is a very difficult question that I think about quite often." 

The KIA was founded in 1924, as "very much a traditional American art museum." With the social change continuing in this century, "many institutions feel as if they're failing, but the bar is also moving and the landscape has become more difficult to define." 

There is "huge opportunity in that." Museums are working to allow more voices, opportunities, and new ideas. "Ideas that we wouldn't be opposed to, it's just that those ideas haven't even been put on the table before." 

Tate says she thinks these new ideas on diversity within the museum have never been presented to the KIA boards of the past. "There are these very real barriers and separations within our society, and communication does not flow as easily as one might think. And one great idea that exists in one part of town, never makes it to the other part of town."

To bring new ideas into the museum might mean that she should "even relinquish some of my own power as a museum professional -- because we like to control a lot, what happens," she laughs along with the audience, "in the museum." That means working with community groups, asking them to "organize an event or whatever that you feel represents your culture," while acknowledging "I'm not the expert in this arena, and that's okay." 

"When I've personally done that, and when we've done that as an institution, we've created the most fabulous experiences for all involved." 

Institutions helping artists of color "does move beyond the representation on the walls. It does have to include giving those artists a platform so they can get their voices heard in the community." She cites media coverage for the local artists of "Where We Stand." "It was a proud moment for me." 

From left, Belinda Tate, executive director of the KIA; Izegbe N’Namdi, executive director of G.R. N’Namdi Gallery; Ashley Holland, assistant curator for Art Bridges; Stephanie James, curator and collection educator for The Mott-Warsh Collection.

James: "As art professionals, we're part of a structure that goes back centuries, and while there is certainly a need for change, and we're all about it, part of that change comes about because of people like Belinda being in the role of director of an institution like this." James also includes N'Namdi and herself.

"Our being seated at the table in these institutions makes a big difference. But that doesn't mean that we don't carry some of the same interests and concerns that have always been a part of the institution or this field." 

James admits, "I push back a little bit -- I did all the work and finally become the African American curator, after working at the Detroit Institute of Arts for 16 years, heading the prestigious private art collection (of Mott-Warsh) -- now I've got to let go of my expertise and my voice, and be more democratic and let everyone have a voice?" She laughs. "It's not an easy thing to do." 

The Mott-Warsh Collection has an agenda, she says, "to bring artists of color, primarily African American, to the people of Flint.... The support is in that, it is the focus of the collection." The Mott-Warsh works to display pieces in public places like libraries, colleges, churches in Flint, "sharing it in the community."

Artists also benefit from the purchase of work, and increased attention increases the value of their art. Artists in their collection "also love the idea that it's truly among the people," James says.

Holland: Pointing out that there's an increased demand for African American art, leading to higher prices at auctions, asks, "How have the increased costs of works by artists of color affected the collecting of institutions?"

Tate: She says that not every museum curator has the resources to purchase in-demand art. 

"That can be a problem, but it can also be OK." Cultural forces in the art market can put work out of reach, but, "if we can move beyond that, we can create very compelling stories within our institutions with the artwork that is available to us," Tate says.

Citing the example of KIA's current exhibits, "These are stories that need to be heard... And that to me is so much more important than the particular prestige that can come with having a very expensive work of art by a certain artist." 

There is a desire to be connected to the national/international art world, she says; "there is a little bit of feel-good" to have a work by a well-known artist in their collection. 

But as a regional institution, "we have to balance that, and really be curators -- that means to really look with our eyes and determine what is important to show despite who the maker was or is." Curators can look through an auction catalog to shop for new pieces, "but it's a whole other thing to go out into your community and do those studio visits and figure out how you can make a compelling show, exhibition, that shares important stories with your community. And that's a space that I feel privileged to work within." 

N'Namdi: Of the question, she says "it's loaded!" to laughter.

"When we talk about being a platform and ensuring that artists of color are visible, we do that as the individual collector as well as the institutional collector." 

"It's about institutions having that reach" to be able to get a diverse collection. And they need to keep fresh she says. "How many times do you go into an institution and there's the same things on the walls?... Children will even get a little bored with it -- 'I've seen it!' -- right?" 

James: "There's a lot of artists that we would love to have in our collection now, but I have to add, it's not gonna happen! That's the short version," she says, about rising prices and rising stars.

"But it's a happy thing. I'm happy to see these artists getting valuation that they deserve, that's been commonplace for many other artists for many years." When the Mott-Warsh Collection began in 2001, they managed to "hit some of the critically known artists" before their prices rose.

"It's not like these African American artists have just emerged." James jokes, "Oh wow, these great artists that were just discovered! Betye Saar!" Saar, a painter now 93, who's been working since the 1940s, has done well in her career, "but now everyone knows her work, and she's doing better!" Saar is now part of the "American cannon of art that all of these artists should've been a part of." 

James notes Mott-Warsh's "major miss," Martin Puryear. Her collection has "some lovely prints by Martin," but none of his more-valuable sculptures. "You do what you can." 

Holland: "How are you communicating with communities, how are you bringing in new and diverse communities? And how is the art a tool to do that, as well as programming?"

Tate: She returns to the question of getting new art. Tate asks all the museum professionals in the audience to raise their hands. A large portion does so.

A lot of the KIA's works are donations from private collectors, she says. Tate asks those in the audience if that's true for their institutions. Many raise their hands.

"I wanted to make that point because working with collectors is critical, because the collectors are often really making the decisions decades in advance of what ultimately will be transitioned to museums," she says.

This is a "hidden part of museum collecting practices that the community doesn't necessarily understand." 

Turning to the question on working with communities, Tate responds, "Wow!" and laughs. 

For the KIA, that's "the way we work. It's just part of our habit to engage community organizations." It is a way to get audiences, "to facilitate a constant amount of community collaboration." 

Tate invites the audience to look up the KIA's "Black Refractions" site. All the local events tied to the exhibit shows that the community "is deeply engaged and committed" and are "empowered to host their own related programs in order to build a larger conversation." 

"We talk about the museum existing beyond the walls," but for many museums, this means simply getting art into the public square, she says. The KIA has worked to generate a community response. Local groups get to claim, "This exhibition is ours, and we get to take it and interpret it and work with it in a way, using a language that speaks to people we serve," for example readings at the Kalamazoo Public Library, or performance pieces by local theatre groups.

James: "The most important thing is to be truly engaged with your community."

For Mott-Warsh, "that comes a little bit more easily" since getting art into the community is a major part of their mission, she says.

"I'm the one going out to change exhibits every four months or so." She often meets with people at churches, universities, libraries, and talks with people about the art and what she does as a curator. "It sounds like a little thing, but for an eight-year-old to get exposed to that, I hope, is a great thing. I hope it opens some ideas in their minds about what one can do."

Her mission is getting the collection "into the community as opposed to having the community come to you." 

Institutions can also get involved in local art shows, speak to groups, use the skills of their staff to offer services to public. One of the most fulfilling programs she's seen is when James worked as a curator with the Smithsonian Institution. "Save our African American Treasures" called for artifacts from people around the country, "sort of like an 'Antiques Roadshow' kind of thing," to examine their family heirlooms. They helped teach families how to preserve their objects, use archival methods to preserve valued family history. 

N'Namdi: Her museum's collection is "done truly out of the love of art, and understanding the psychological impact that it has on the African American community." 

They reach out by showing works outside of the museum, but also by being part of a larger arts neighborhood, fitting into "that whole creative placemaking thing," she says.

The G.R. N'Namdi Center is part of the Sugar Hill arts district.  The neighborhood was historically a center of integrated black and white musicians and their audience. Now it's a center for arts institutions, including N'Namdi.

There, "You live with art," she says. To create neighborhoods where art is commonplace "allows the community to really embrace the arts and to live with it.... Now, we're not getting into how comfortable you feel going into a museum, you're just walking with the art, it's around you, you're living with it in such a way it becomes an innate part of you."

Holland turned to audience questions. One asked, "considering today's political climate," if the panelists have seen any pushback against the effort to make their collections culturally diverse. 

Panelists said, generally, they hadn't.

N'Namdi added, "We're not going to be all comfortable with the same thing in the room.... That uncomfort allows us to grow, allows us to expand. So it's very fortunate when we have curators and executive directors such as Belinda and Stephanie, as well as foundations such as Art Bridges, that allow for this kind of conversation. They know how to set the table for them. They know how to allow a community to be comfortable in their uncomfort." 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.