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How Can Museums and Artists Help Advocate for Social Change?

By Yonci Jameson
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Jimi Hendrix’s likeness at the Museum of the African Diaspora. All photos courtesy the author

Members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) often discuss the role of artists and museums in social and racial justice—and these conversations have taken on new significance in light of recent demonstrations across the country calling for police reform and racial equity. To further these discussions and bring them online, we invited Yonci Jameson, a Twin Cities teen artist, queer black woman, and social justice activist, to share her recommendations for both artists and arts institutions interested social change.

Growing up, art museums used to bore me. There was never anything captivating about artists I’d never heard of, and most visual art held no significance to me. Coming into my teenage years (and beginning my own artistic journey at the time), I learned to appreciate the individual expression of artists, yet the content of so many artists remained uninteresting.

As I delved deeper into personal consciousness and social justice, I came to the realization that museums in Minneapolis were superficial in their multicultural representation. Museums I frequented often zoned in only on ancient art forms from Africa and Asia. I was tired of looking at the same decorated masks, jade figurines, and woven mats.

Around this time I visited San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. This experience drastically changed my perspective on the intersections of art and culture. MoAD featured a variety of artists and works from African and Black-American spheres of influence around the world, chronicling the past and present and intertwining a multitude of radical and revolutionary social movements. I was exposed to an abundance of black artists I’d never heard of before; I was immersed in a mecca of black culture and history, black self-expression, and social justice. Why did I have to leave Minnesota to find this?

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Wall text at the Museum of the African Diaspora

The reality of my experience is this: museums are prime spaces for representation and social movement and change. As the American Alliance of Museums puts it, “They celebrate tolerance and freedom, teach respect for cultural differences, facilitate a sense of individual and collective identity, empower through knowledge and nurture an understanding  of our connections to the world and to each other.” Art and community-/self-expression are large parts of all cultures. Museums hold the power of representing these aspects of culture and exposing them to the general public to advocate awareness and action in our local communities.

Recommendations for Museums

From my perspective as a black woman involved in Minneapolis’s art culture, here’s what I think museums can do to advocate for social justice and change:

1. One word: representation. Museums can start by exhibiting more artists of color, women, queer artists, and disabled artists. More exhibitions like Radical Presence at the Walker. More museum staff of color. Art and activism often intersect when created by oppressed groups. Representation in art is inspiring, empowering, and informative.

2. Art museums can facilitate discussion on the intersection of art and activism. Museums can analyze an artist or a certain piece of art or engage in a community discussion about motive, content, and reception of such art. These discussions and public forums will encourage dialogue from different perspectives, both on the art and activism front. Staff of color can make these conversations more inviting and accessible for those who may be intimidated by all-white settings.

3. Museums could further advocate by facilitating community events. Pop Culture Shock, for example, provided a gathering for teens specifically to engage in art, music, and other activities. A similar event could be targeted towards teens of color, featuring art, activities, and discussion centered around non-white artists. These events should be accessible and could provide culturally-specific activities that evoke discussion in context. Engaging youth in dialogue about the intersections of art, activism, and culture will in turn inspire more art, more activism, and more community involvement.

You’ve heard it said a million times before, but representation matters. Visiting San Francisco changed my life. I am a better artist now because of that experience. Representation in museums, community engagement, and social networking centered around art and activism not only encourages social change itself, but helps to develop the individual, as an artist, activist, and member of the community. As Lois H. Silverman wrote in The Social Work of Museums, “Increasingly, museums are exploring ways they can assist people at risk for social and economic deprivation and oppression to adjust to and thrive in the face of challenging social circumstances. Museums are also recognizing their ability to empower people to tackle the root causes of social circumstance like prejudice and ignorance.”

Recommendations for Artists

The last thing an artist wants is someone telling them how to do their art. The beauty of being an artist is that your work is entirely representative of you and only you. But what is the artist’s role in social justice work? No one is obligated to advocate for social change, but many POC, queer, and disabled artists are pushed by the events of their oppression to create social justice–centered art. Here are my suggestions for artists who find themselves in places of privilege based on race, class, ability, and gender, who are working towards social change.

1. Identify and understand your privilege. Where is your art coming from? Are the materials you need accessible to you? What type of feedback are you receiving on your art? All art has cultural context attached. It is crucial that you recognize that the cultural context from which your art is coming is different and that your art will be received differently because of the privileges you possess. That said, you must constantly and consistently examine your presence and your privileges in any and all artistic settings.

2. Do not culturally appropriate! Do not exploit oppressed people for development of your art! Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an oppressed people’s customs and cultural elements by the dominant culture. If you are inspired by a different culture, do extensive research and absolutely credit the person or work that influenced you.

3. Examine yourself. Work to unlearn your biases and discrimination. Educate yourself through exposure and research, but know your place and your privileges as you create your art.

Again, art is a large part of any culture. It is community and self-expression. It is also a tool for social change. That being said, museums and artists must work together to advocate for social justice through representation, discussion, and dialogue, self-examination and education, and community outreach and involvement. My name is Yonci, I am queer, black, and a musical and spoken word artist—and I believe that art inspires social change, and that art is social change

 

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