Montclair Art Museum: A Thoughtful Approach to Community Engagement

Photo : Blondhairblueeyed at English Wikipedia

The Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, recently organized a community conversation to discuss its upcoming exhibition of the work of artist Kara Walker. Ms. Walker is known for creating complex, multi-layered works that candidly investigate race, gender, sexuality and violence through mural-sized, silhouetted figures. The museum recently acquired Ms. Walker’s 12-foot wall installation, “Virginia Lynch Mob,” and plans to mount an exhibition of several of her works in the fall of 2018.

Recognizing the potential for misunderstanding or controversy, the museum sought to engage the community in the planning process, and I had the honor of moderating the discussion. Community participants included members of the museum’s African American Cultural Committee (AACC), which consists of artists, community leaders and volunteers. Several years ago, I was hired by the museum to consult and help strengthen its relationships with the African-American community and I helped facilitate the establishment of the AACC. Since that time, the committee has served as a bridge between the museum and the community through outreach and programs, shared values and vision on both a local and international level.

In addition, the museum was smart to include in the conversation Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, Ph.D., associate professor of History of Art and the author of Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. Dr. Shaw, who will curate the exhibition, discussed various aspects of Kara Walker’s previous works, as well as previewed what will be presented in the fall. Dr. Shaw’s presentation provided invaluable insight into not only Ms. Walker’s work, but also the artist’s approach and process.

Participants asked several questions, including what to expect from the exhibition; the curator’s goals, and about the potential reaction and impact of Ms. Walker’s work. We also discussed how to create access to the work; cultivating the language used to depict it, as well as communication strategies the museum should consider when framing for the public the work and the artist. In addition, there was dialogue about the impact of the exhibit in this era of March for Our Lives, the Black Lives Matter movement; Time’s Up, and other groups protesting violence or social and racial injustice.

The conversation was weighty and filled with many contrasting opinions about Ms. Walker’s work. But in the end, there was resounding support that the exhibition should be held at MAM and everyone was looking forward to helping to spread the word about the opening and sharing the news with friends.

I often write and speak publicly about the importance of educating the community about the arts; not in a condescending manner, but truly respecting their intelligence, creativity and desire to engage. MAM is being both proactive and thoughtful in its approach to first engage the community in dialogue before designing a marketing campaign and also before the exhibition arrives. I applaud these efforts as a great example of leadership by an arts institution seeking to understand and respond to its community; develop partnerships and build bridges to support the arts.

Director and playwright George C. Wolfe once said in an interview with playwright Tony Kushner, “I can’t let despair define me, because then whatever currency I’ve gained is going to be wasted by disillusionment. I can tell stories.”  I think that is what Kara Walker does with her work. If we don’t share our stories, our history is lost.

We also need venues as platforms for these stories to be shared. Montclair Art Museum is certainly an example of that, and its acquisition of the dynamic work of Ms. Walker required both courage and foresight.

Ultimately, all arts institutions tell stories. But to engage diverse audiences, it’s essential to bring them into the process as early as possible—invite them to comment on the work and be involved in the decision-making process of how best to share the work with their communities. The best way to grow your audience and develop deep roots in the community is to listen and learn.