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How the MCA Chicago caters to the city’s bilingual communities

Representatives from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s media, editorial, learning, and curatorial departments shared their expertise on how the museum is changing the way contemporary art is viewed in order to cater for a more diverse audience.

Chief among these efforts has been the ‘bilingual initiative’ – a plan to make the MCA a fully bilingual institution.

Those speaking were Carla Acevedo-Yates (Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator), Cecilia Gonzalez Godino (Curatorial Fellow), Mayra Cecilia Palafox (Manager of Learning and Bilingual Programs), Antonio Diaz-Oliva (one of the museum’s four editors in its Content and Strategy Department) and Manuel Venegas (Director of Media Relations).

Representing the overlooked

In order to truly reflect the communities it is designed to serve, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago is taking steps to creating an accessible, diverse, and multilingual space for all communities and families, supporting children and youth from underrepresented social and cultural groups.

Manuel says, “Currently, the Spanish-speaking population in Chicago is roughly 29%. Traditionally, museums have been niche spaces. Contemporary art is often marketed as something that you either ‘get’ or don’t get, rather than something to appeal to everyone. We want to change that.

“From press communications to editorial, programming to curation, we’re all trying to make the space more accessible for all communities. Everything we do is an effort to reach the people that traditionally wouldn’t feel welcome.”

These efforts have included working with groups such as the Chicago Latino Caucus and the Ibero-American Consular Organization of Chicago, as well as platforming local, diasporic artists and ensuring that all materials and labels are translated into Spanish.

Antonio says, “We’re decentring English, because we live in a country that doesn’t have an official language. The Spanish-speaking population has rarely been represented in museums, but it’s not just about appealing to Spanish speakers; Chicago is more than that.

“As such, we’re doing some trilingual exhibitions. We currently have an exhibition in which text is translated into three languages: English, Spanish and Persian.”

Starting conversations

Much of the museum’s current efforts started during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as the team notes, there were efforts to create bilingual exhibitions in the museum “as far back as 1979.” While the MCA of that time was less keen to back these efforts, today things are different.

“When you work in a contemporary museum, you’re translating ideas for different audiences,” says Antonio. “We’re adding another step to this by also translating these ideas into different languages, sensibilities, and communities, and this require synchronicity between media, curatorial, and learning.”

Mayra says, “It’s important to get the museum’s voice out to people and communities that have been overlooked, specifically the Spanish-speaking community. I grew up in the south side of Chicago in Little Village, which is a very big Mexican immigrant community. And I love going there and telling them about our programs and then hosting them.

We partner with non-art institutions like the Mexican Consulate, the Latino Caucus, and Chicago Public Schools. By talking about art, we engage people in issues relevant to their lives like social justice, migration, identity, and diaspora.”

As Carla explains, the first bilingual exhibition organised at the museum was Carolina Ceycedo: From the Bottom of the River, which opened in December 2020: “This initiative then started taking shape institutionally and we followed this first exhibition with Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora.”

Family Days

Creating a bilingual institution isn’t just about adding new languages, it’s about prioritising conversation. The team is constantly asking themselves who they are targeting and who is still underrepresented, taking steps to empower visitors to return.

Mayra says, “We’re seeing really positive results, particularly from Family Days – a programme that I organised, running from October to May. A slow day is 500 people, and a busy day is 1,000. Because of all the outreach we’ve been doing, we’ve had many diverse families attend who have never been to a museum before.

“We’re a contemporary art museum, so we need to cater to the people. We’re a space for families, and we’re all learning together.”

This April, the museum will host a Family Day in the Little Village community (one of Chicago’s largest low-income Latino immigrant communities) for the first time, in an effort to rethink their role as a catalyst for the various socio-cultural and artistic realities of Chicago. It’s also an opportunity to support local artistic collectives.

The event has been made possible through interdepartmental collaboration between the media relations and learning teams. In addition, the event has been co-organised by the Mexican Consulate, the Chicago Latino Caucus and other key civic organisations, with the support of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and Choose Chicago.

This is the first time ever that a museum in Chicago has collaborated with artists and civic organisations to develop a fully bilingual community event for families in an area like Little Village.

“We look at the exhibition calendar to identify themes, and then reach out to local and international artists to see who fits these ideas,” says Mayra. “They come to the museum, and have the exhibition as a starting point, but they’re also free to develop their own programs and workshops. For audiences to have access to such a high calibre of artists is pretty powerful.”

Trailblazing through translation

The team’s work on inclusivity is opening many doors, a lot of which have never been opened before. This trailblazing work, though both exciting and necessary, is not without its challenges.

Antonio says, “We’re one of the first institutions in the US doing this, which is great but also a challenge. We’ve been contacted by the MED, MoMA, MCA San Diego, and more about going bilingual, and they’re coming to us to see what we’re doing. We’re creating the blueprint.

“Our initial efforts were trial and error, and that allowed us to make changes to better connect to different communities. Our resources aren’t limitless, so we need to think carefully about how we use them.”

Crediting Carla, Cecilia adds, “The work we’ve been doing, started by Carla, is about not only decentring English, but also decentring the position of the US within curatorial practices. It is more of a structural change in that sense, and that comes with a lot of challenges.

“We’re rethinking the structure of the MCA when approaching the curatorial. Traditionally, including Latin American or Caribbean art meant extracting that knowledge for a US lens, often by using stereotypes. In the US, when we talk about the history of enslavement or colonisation, we often don’t consider it on a global level; our viewpoint is very US-focused.

“We think from other places, asking questions not to find solutions, but to keep them in mind when we approach exhibitions.”

The power of words

Examining their use of language so closely, it’s no surprise that the team think carefully about the words they use. This extends to ‘American’ – a word that houses millions of different lived experiences.

“We ask ourselves: what does the word ‘America’ mean?” says Antonio. “What does it mean for someone in the Midwest compared to someone from Latin America? Asking these questions forces us not to take anything for granted, to question everything, and that’s really important when creating exhibitions.”

Mayra adds, “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve really been the only Spanish speaker, the only immigrant, or the only Latina in a museum space. Convincing institutions and leadership that this work is important is a challenge, but it’s necessary to keep museums relevant. Museums cannot survive on the same structures that they’ve been building for centuries, and on the generosity of rich white donors.”

Having spent much of her career dealing with leadership in the form of “white Americans who only speak one language”, Mayra says their hardworking, multi-cultural team has been paramount to the MCA’s success.

“We’re a perfect storm. We rely on each other a lot. Our goal is to become a truly bilingual institution, but we have to constantly ask ourselves what that means in order to avoid tokenising. We aim for intentionality and collaboration and reciprocity both amongst communities, and within the museum.”

Community and coverage

Today, the MCA is fully behind the team’s efforts to reach communities so often overlooked by cultural institutions. Manuel says, “The fact that the museum put us in these roles speaks highly of them. They’re making a genuine effort to be more inclusive.

“This effort extends to press coverage. We need coverage in order to support our work, but we make a conscious effort to ensure any press, articles, and interviews push our greater message, which is to make our museum more accessible to overlooked communities.

“We recently partnered with the Mexican Consulate to host 60 child migrants at the museum to engage in activities around different themes. We do this for the children, and for the communities, not for a photo opportunity. The press is there to make sure as many people as possible are aware of what they can get from our museum.”

‘American People’

Immigration has, of course, been one of the most hotly debated topics of recent years in the USA and beyond. Speaking as an immigrant herself, Mayra says, “The terms we use to describe people coming into the country are very loaded. I’m all too aware of terms like resident alien, undocumented resident, and migrant crisis, and the stigma attached to them.”

“These people have been here for a long time, and the museum hasn’t catered to them. We need to acknowledge this past, and aim to do better. We work with government leaders, the mayor, the lieutenant governor, and the Mexican consulates to try and build that trust.”

A recent exhibition by the MCA underpins these efforts. ‘American People’ showcased the incredible art of Faith Ringgold. Mayra says, “The works discussed identity, lived experiences, diaspora, slavery, and movement. Faith was also a children’s author, and wrote a book called We Came to America. I read it to adults as well as children, instigating conversations about identity. I ask audiences: who here is an American person? And you can see them, even children, already questioning their identity.”

Manuel adds, “We work together, beyond our individual roles. We all keep that common goal of accessibility in mind, and we use partnerships, texts, curation, programming, and more to achieve it. We think outside of the box to make sure that, through art, everyone is included in this conversation and this space.”

Contextualising colonialism, celebrating translation

Museums typically deal in history, but unless exhibitions can highlight how this history is still relevant today, their potency can easily fall by the wayside. The MCA aims to build these bridges, inviting important conversations.

Cecilia says, “We work to reduce the distance between art and certain people and communities, using fresh ideas and methods. For example, we have a show that opens in May called Trade Windings. Half the pieces in this show are from local collectors and museums that are not the MCA. Inviting collaboration makes the museum less static.

“The exhibition investigates how trade routes that were inaugurated in the 15th and 16th centuries by colonial expansion are still used in the present day. 10,000 migrants arrive in Chicago every week, so these issues are still extremely relevant.

“Often, when museums talk about issues like slavery or colonialism, they don’t make that connection to today’s migrants, and their daily lives. We want to change that.”

And documentation is key to these efforts, as Antionio says: “Most museums in the US have a style guide, but there’s never been a Spanish style guide in a US museum. We’ve created one, and I’m also working on a translation statement in which we acknowledge the importance of translation and translators. And we’re not just talking about professional translators, we’re acknowledging translation in the communities we’re trying to reach. Sometimes, for example, children are their parents’ translators. We’re trying to document all this for the future.”

Advice for other museums? Put in the work

Asked what advice the MCA team would give other museums looking to broaden their horizons, their solution was unanimous: understanding the importance of community as an ongoing change, not a box to be ticked. Mayra explains, “It’s important to have a variety of different art practices and lived experiences on show, in order to benefit both the artists and the visitors and reach different audiences. We’re a small team, but what we’re doing is having a big ripple effect and interest is growing.”

The team are keen to emphasise that putting on a ‘Caribbean show’ or a ‘Latin American show’ in isolation isn’t sufficient. Instead, structural change is needed in order to give these exhibitions context and open conversations with visitors. It’s all part of that effort to decentre the US perspective.

Antonio also notes that making a difference goes beyond simple translations:

“We’ve seen other museums express a desire to become bilingual in the US, but often they simply translate their text into Spanish, and consider the box ticked. That’s their biggest mistake, because in order to achieve true accessibility, the work you do has to be part of a dialogue with the community.”

And Manuel concludes: “I think the future of the museums lies in working with communities, reaching beyond the walls of the institution to do truly meaningful work. By doing this, museums can garner greater support. It’s a win, win situation.”

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