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Ensuring Black Museums Matter

Jim Richardson:

Welcome back to MuseumNext Disrupt. Today, we’ve got a fantastic presentation for you from De Nichols. She’s going to be talking about the effect that the pandemic has had on Black museums in the United States. And she’s going to share some of the work that she’s done as a designer and activist with the Griot museum in St. Louis. It’s a great presentation. I know that this is going to resonate for everyone in the community. So enjoy.

De Nichols:

Hello, and many thanks to the MuseumNext team for welcoming me to participate with you for this year’s conference. My name is De Nichols, and I will be speaking today about Black museums and ensuring that our museums can matter and sustain themselves in the midst of multiple crises. I am currently a lecturer at the Stanford design school, as well as a recent LOEB fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. And I’m also a CURATE fellow with Monument Lab and in St. Louis, I run a practise called Civic Creatives.

De Nichols:

So today I would love to chat with you a little bit about Black museums and some of the challenges uniquely that have been faced by those in my region and those across the nation. And then I’ll dive a little bit deeply into one museum in particular, which is the Griot Museum of Black history, which I’ve been working with for the last few years and have led a lot of strategy around how we can sustain this institution in St. Louis in the midst of the current COVID crisis. And then, hopefully, I’ll be able to leave you all with a few provocations that come actually from some of the work that I organise through the national designers protest effort.

De Nichols:

So I am sure by now that many realise that our nation in the world at large is facing quite a few overlapping pandemics in crises, not just the COVID-19 public health one, but also environmental injustices, economic hardship, and racial unrest across the nation and across the world. Just a quick overview. At the beginning of the pandemic, 85,000 museums across the world, [inaudible 00:02:59] closed, at least temporarily and of 760 museums that reported challenges from COVID to the Alliance of American museums, about 33% of those express a significant risk of closing permanently. And it is expected that 13% of our global museums will face some type of permanent closure before the end of this year. And [one 00:03:32] can predict based upon precedence of inequity in funding that some of these closures will be uneven across the world and have dramatic impacts on African, Arab, Pacific countries, but in the United States, African-American, LatinX, Asian and smaller [inaudible 00:03:56] museums in the mist.

De Nichols:

So when we layer on the racial unrest that is happening in the United States, we can see both the challenge and the opportunity. Of course, the challenge is that in the midst of this, there’s struggle, there’s strife. And many museums may have to reckon with their own histories of racial, injustice and inequity. But the opportunity within this is to be able to chronicle and explore history as it is unfolding. Many museums right now have opened collective, a community based collective, collecting initiatives in order to document and keep some of the artefacts, the programmes, the stories, the oral histories that are unearthing themselves in the midst of this dual nature of the pandemic and our racial uprisings.

De Nichols:

But at large, like I said, there is a misperception of funding. At the beginning of the pandemic, many museums and institutions received funding that came from government stimulus, but that wasn’t enough. And for many of these museums who only had about a 25% threshold in government funding, we know that there is a lot more that can be done. However, when it comes to philanthropic dollars, there’s a long history of funding being unequal. And this quote from Billy Ocasio, the president of the national museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture expresses it in a very interesting way when he says, “So if you are, let’s say, a small organisation that doesn’t have a million dollar budget, they’re not going to give you more than 10% of what your budget is. And if you’re an institution that has a billion dollars, they could still give you 10% of that.”

De Nichols:

So it’s just not equal enough. So small organisations that, say, have a budget of a hundred thousand dollars are only getting a threshold of about $10,000 in operating in programmatic funds, if they even get the operating of funds at this moment. And then because of the use of many African-American museums, as well as the historic barriers and discrimination that museums have faced, as well as cultural preferences in charitable giving, we can just expect that many Black museums entered this pandemic already underfunded. And so the sense of finding financial sustainability is one that is a greater uphill battle for many that are navigating this pandemic. So I want to dive deeply into just a few examples, primarily from the Midwest, which is where I’m from. There are some unique challenges that some museums have been facing. One being the ability to open or reopen. The Black Holocaust Museum was slated to reopen at the beginning of this year.

De Nichols:

And those efforts were delayed by the pandemic, and even since then, there has been an ongoing struggle to find ways to open with the social distancing in place, with a strapped and trimmed staffing. And that is something that is going to be an issue or a learning point for many museums, as they opened. In Chicago there’s also the DuSable Museum, a historic Black history museum that has seen such a crippling decline in revenue that it is heavily questioning whether it will reopen at all. [inaudible 00:08:20] museum president and CEO Perri Irmer stated that in February, the museum was preparing for its exhibition opening and by March it was closing its doors. And since then, it has had to maintain fewer than 15 administrators and consultants to sustain its non-public operations. But when it comes to many of its programmatic and educational and community engagement efforts, it’s had to furlough or lay off many of those staff members.

De Nichols:

And DuSable is an institution that is blessed with an endowment, but it’s a restricted endowment of only $20,000. And so there are quite some limitations on how it can be used and when, especially as it starts to navigate out of this current crisis.

De Nichols:

Illinois as a state is one that is suffering from a tremendous loss in tourist revenue. There’s an estimated loss of $93.8 million and 4.4 in wages alone. And for small museums like the Mao’s African-American museum, the African-American museum of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. Some of the issues that they’re facing are from a rural context with the Mao’s in particular, the loss of visitorship and tourism means no foot traffic. It means that schools are not coming by. It means that as the entire town shuts down, it has to navigate how it can sustain the preservation of the legacy of a town that doesn’t have a large amount of Black people to begin with. So there’s a tremendous loss that can be had in that circumstance, if it is to shut its doors. And with the African-American museum of Southern Illinois, it is one that has been largely based out of a mall. So many of its ways of navigating this is out of its own control because it is privy to whatever is happening to the spaces and environments around it.

De Nichols:

And then crossing over into Missouri, in St. Louis, we have the Katherine Dunham Centre for the Arts and Humanities, and right before the pandemic, it had been gifted $250,000 grant from the state of Illinois. And when board members came in for a meeting, they saw that the entire music room was flooded. And so the environmental issues that are happening along the Mississippi river with causing such drastic flooding is one that is affecting Black museums in particular at this time as well.

De Nichols:

So I share those to bring us to the point of the Griot Museum. It exists in north St. Louis, and it was founded in 1997 by an educator, Lois Conley, who saw a gap to tell a bigger and wider and more expensive history of the city and the region by bringing Black history to schools into the city at large. And when it got its museum building in later years, it became one of the primary spaces that people in St. Louis and across Missouri can come to learn about many of the legacies of activism, of culture building, of communities and neighbourhoods that define this region.

De Nichols:

But its experiences are not that much different from the museums that I just discussed. The Griot has suffered quite some inconsistent funding throughout this pandemic. Many foundations who are, in some cases don’t even express why they’re not giving funding to support and sustain it. It is one that is comprised of a small staff, one full-time staff member and many volunteers. And without having the visitors to come through the doors, it has suffered a great loss in revenue. And right at the onset of the summer, when it would typically host its annual Juneteenth fundraiser, which is one of the biggest fundraisers that it has, the team, which has its own technological challenges had to find a way to swiftly transitioned towards a virtual experience. And so these are things that I’ve been ushered and welcomed in to help adapt.

De Nichols:

So I got involved with the museum following the creation of one of my works, which is The Mirror Casket. It was created in the midst of a protest during the uprising in Ferguson, and on subsequent nights after it was marched from where Michael Brown was murdered on Canfield Drive across the town to the police department, it was thin utilised on various marches and protests across the city, and then across the region, and then ultimately across the nation, as it was collected by the Smithsonian for its national museum of African-American history and culture. Now, when this piece was collected, there was a lot of support. However, there were questions about, “Well, why didn’t we keep this in St. Louis?” And I want to come back to that in a bit. But while this was happening, I was being introduced to Lois Conley, the director of The Griot, as well as its team because of another issue was happening in our city.

De Nichols:

At the same time, I was a museum educator at one of our art museums. And the museum had a controversial exhibit of an artist, whose works in many ways, defaced in disgraced, the images of Black bodies, Black people, even including images from a civil rights archival footage of police and their police dogs, attacking Black people and smearing. He smeared chocolate, white chocolate, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate all over those pieces. And this caused quite an uproar where in the city in 2016, when this happened, when people started to boycott the museum and protests, and even as an employee, protesting internally turned into a national effort of about this, about what does dignity look like when it comes to how museums honour and pay attention to the strife, the ills, the challenges and the beauty of Black existence.

De Nichols:

And so when I was having these conversations about, at the same time about my piece being collected by a museum and working at a museum that I didn’t necessarily feel was honouring Black identity in a way that was anti racist. I fell in love with The Griot and the potential of what this space could be. And since then, I’ve been able to be a part of various efforts across the region that have allowed me to centre The Griot in our design work. One of those works is the development of the Brickline Greenway in St. Louis. And this is a multi spatial project that is creating a series of trails and parks across the divided city, the hyper segregation of St. Louis, in order to use green space as a ways of connecting and weaving and stitching of the divided parts of ourselves back together.

De Nichols:

Many of these spaces will centre around the inclusion of historical markers and public art to help celebrate the legacies and contributions of people of all creeds, races, ages and demographics across the region. And we’ve been fortunate to be able to stretch this beyond the predetermined east to west framework of the Greenway, but also connect the city north to south, ensure that the Northern side of the city, the Black side, the poorer side, is benefiting from this massive public and civic project. And with being on the north side, part of that focus has been The Griot. The Griot is on St. Louis avenue and St. Louis avenue stretches from neighbourhoods that are close to the river all the way to neighbourhoods that are in the county. And it is a main thoroughfare that, if we do this well and design this space, it is one that will bring people right to the front door of this institution.

De Nichols:

However, for me, I’m not just interested in getting people to the museum, but bringing them in, making sure that they feel comfortable and excited to stay and ensuring that programmatically inside and outside of this space, we can submit The Griot as a cultural anchor, so that people are not just visiting, but they are investing in staying committed to sustainability. And then that has meant diving more deeply beyond just being an advocate for the museum, but really joining the team and partnering through my design team, my design practise on various initiatives. One of those initiatives is The Divided City, which is a funding source from Washington University in St. Louis and their centre for the humanities in partnership with The Griot Museum, civic creatives created an initiative called Growing Griot, a capacity building effort that would allow and welcome in community members to serve as a strategic planning body, a capital campaign facilitator and a community governance team to help steer The Griot in to its next wave of operations.

De Nichols:

Like I said, the museum was created in 1997, so it’s 22 years old. And in 2022, we want to make sure that it is prepared and equipped to launch its first ever capital campaign. And so much of that work right now is about building the creative capacity of the museum, even in the midst of this pandemic. And that comes through providing design and technical support to update its marketing, to update its branding, its virtual and digital interfaces, its social media engagement. This also has meant stepping in to support it and partner on project management so that the executive team and staff of the museum aren’t as overwhelmed in navigating the pandemic, that they can’t continue their current and planned programmes and exhibits.

De Nichols:

And that also means strategic planning and setting vision as volunteers in many cases for how the museum can find fiscal sustainability beyond this year and beyond even its 25th marker. So part of my role has been organising. As an activist in the city, organising is something that I am very much used to, but organising for the sake of sustaining the space has been one of the joys that I’ve just loved and dive deeply into.

De Nichols:

So the last thing that has been critical in this endeavour is curatorial practise. The museum was created as a wax museum, and it has sustained itself as such, but as it questions how it can meet these current times and find new audiences, it has been critical to take a curatorial approach and partner more radically with young contemporary artists in the city. While I was a LOEB fellow at the Harvard GSD, I was able to help co-create a new fellowship that partners six St. Louis artists with Harvard students and Harvard with The Griot museum in order to create a series of efforts in a fellowship, in a series of exhibitions that would curate new visions and new voices of how Black identity culture, history and experiences manifest across the city. And these are just some works by some of those artists, but I believe that more can be done.

De Nichols:

And I want to read this quick quote by Tyree Boyd-Pates of the Autry Museum, to remind us that this work of supporting Black museums, of stepping in and stepping up in partnership and in community with Black museums is not just about the building and what happens within it. This is a rise that has to serve as an occasion to not only engage with the stakeholders and capabilities that these institutions always have had, but the future possibilities that have always been desired. And I feel like that goes beyond the programmatic, the curatorial, the design. That goes into the policy, that goes into the community building, the civic spaces, the funding. And I believe that there’s a role that each of us can take up in this. Like I said, one of the efforts that I lead is design protests, and we have a huge effort, 10 demands that we’ve created in order to hold our cities and our civic spaces in our design field at large accountable to racial justice.

De Nichols:

And much of that is about how we navigate space together. And one of those demands within that is about investing in Black museums and cultural spaces. And so I leave you with this, this provocation to think about what is it that you can contribute and do in order to help Black museums and brown museums and small museums in your communities reach their new possibilities. What is it that you can contribute and do in order to help art institutions navigate and survive this pandemic and come out on the winning side. I would love to stay connected with you as we figure all of this out together, and perhaps through social media, through direct communication via email, we can keep this conversation going, but until then, thank you again for allowing me space to share a little bit about these efforts and engage with the MuseumNext community. Thanks.

 

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