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Film: Museums build equity through audience participation

In this presentation filmed at MuseumNext New York in November 2016, Regan Pro, Deputy Director of Education & Public Programs, Seatle Art Museum and Leilani Lewis, Assistant Director, Diversity Communications and Outreach, University of Washington talk about how their museums are working together to expand their audiences.

How can museums collaboratively build equity through program development and audience participation? This case study explores an ongoing partnership between the Seattle Art Museum and Northwest African American Museum, two institutions in the same city that serve divergent core audiences.

In February 2016, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) opened the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Concurrent to the Wiley exhibition, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) hosted The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper which featured works from one of the country’s major collection of African American art. In hopes of building new audiences for both exhibitions, NAAM and SAM developed a new collaborative program model called Complex Exchange. Each session of this four part series focused on a theme found in both the Wiley and Kelley Collection exhibitions, such as ‘Power & Privilege’. Each theme was explored through three local presenters, representing diverse disciplines and perspectives.

This presentation will provide a case study of intentional partnership in action, unpacking the challenges and successes of the Complex Exchange series. Moreover, the presentation will speak to the wider responsibility and potential for institutions to collaborate in building city-wide equity through art participation, ideally moving museums to become more inclusive community spaces.

Regan Pro: Good morning, everyone. I’m Regan Pro, and I’m so happy to be here today with my friend and colleague, Leilani Lewis, to present with you about a programme we created called Complex Exchange. So thank you all so much for joining us.

Today, we want to talk about a collaborative programme that happened last spring between the Seattle Art Museum and the Northwest African American Museum. So this will both be a talk about partnership and our programme, but more importantly, what we’re trying to do today is have a conversation about how two institutions, our two institutions work together to address some of the historic inequities in our community. So we hope to share about our process and how we tried to marry theory with practice. But the important question to us is not just how to have an effective and engaging partnership, but how partnerships must work to address the institutional and systemic racism that’s embedded in the history of many museums.

So to start, I’m going to give a little framing about the museums, we’ll share about the process we took to create this programme. We’re going to talk about the programme itself and then we’ll end with successes and challenges because it’s always nice to hear not just what worked but also what didn’t work.

And so to begin, I want to frame a little bit about the city of Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum. So the Seattle Art Museum is the biggest arts institution in the Pacific Northwest serving over 700,000 visitors a year through our three sites, which is the downtown museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Seattle Asian Art Museum. With an operating budget of 20 million, we employ about 250 full and part-time employees.

So the demographics of Seattle are rapidly changing, like many of the places where you may live. But the rough population of the Seattle area right now is about 70% white and 30% people of colour. In contrast, SAMs is currently 75% white, 14% Asian, 4% black or African-American, 3% Hispanic or Latino, and 1% native Hawaiian. So you see here King County, which is the county where Seattle lives, those are the demographics as of, I believe, 2015 and same for Seattle Art Museum.

So I want to pause for just a moment and ask you all to reflect about how those demographics maybe relate to your own institution. Ask you if you know what the demographics of your institution are. And encourage any of you, if you haven’t, to look at the recent Mellon Foundation grant that just came out, looking at some of these issues that cited that, amongst museums they looked at in the study, amongst curators, conservators, educators and museum leaders, 84% of people in those positions were white.

So the mission of SAM, as an institution, is to connect art to life, and in recent years, it’s become an increasing priority for us to centre equity and specifically racial equity in this work. So we’ve engaged in that through all staff and all board trainings, increased emphasis on partnership, thinking critically about our curatorial and educational practices, and also directly addressing our staffing and hiring policies.

So we’re taking a lot of steps to address our own institutional racism, and I really want to be clear that this is not just an [advert] to engage new audiences or to change our staff demographics, but just simply because we want to be an excellent museum, and without equity, we’re not going to achieve excellence.

So now I’d like to turn it over to Leilani, who’s going to share a little bit about the Northwest African American museum.

Leilani Lewis: Thank you, Regan. Forgive me as I shiver up here; It’s very wet and cold. I’m going to share a little bit about the Northwest African American museum. So the mission of NAAM is to spread knowledge, understanding, enjoyment of the histories, arts and cultures of peoples of African descent from the enrichment of all. It’s about an eight-year-old institution, new museum in Seattle, nestled deep into the central district neighbourhood of historically black and minority neighbourhood in Seattle.

This is NAAM, and if I can play the video it would be great. It may or may not work. Maybe it won’t work. That’s okay. You can see the building there, it’s a 100-year-old Coleman elementary school building, and NAAM occupies the first 19,000 square feet on the bottom floor of that; that big building. With about a budget of $1million at the time of the programme, and at full staff, NAAM is about 12 people strong; small but mighty crew. Most of the staff would identify as black or multiracial. And the goal of the institution, at that time when it came to educational programming, was to expand audiences to include young people of colour and to develop defining programmes through partnerships with new and long-standing institutions. So we come to the Complex Exchange.

So I want to set the foundation here a little bit. There’s been overlap between the Northwest African American Museum and the Seattle Art Museums as NAAM opened its doors. There was some board overlap, there were key staff at SAM who had worked on curatorial projects for the Northwest African American Museum, and there were several other ways that they were connected, either through programming, curatorial endeavours, or just through board connections.

But for this particular programme, the Complex Exchange, we had an opportunity to connect over these two exhibitions. The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American artworks on paper, and the Kehinde Wiley exhibit, A New Republic, which if you were in New York, you probably saw the Brooklyn Art Museum or other cities as it travels around the world. These two exhibits had tremendous overlap and so there was an opportunity there to consider crossover themes and ways to build a programme, the Complex Exchange.

We began planning very early. We knew we wanted to look into overlapping themes, with goals of bringing together artists, people in media, designers, activists, tech people, the industry’s booming in Seattle historians, gallerists, and we said the possibilities were endless, and we started with the idea of a mashup of unexpected pairings. This is our early thought process about the programme.

We explored themes that were present in both exhibits. The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection had Jacob Lawrence’s work. They had early works from many African American artists and the great African American artists in the 19th century, Kehinde Wiley’s predecessors. And a nice sort of launching and thinking about different themes, tradition, innovation, beauty and fashion, both present in both exhibits; media and self-image, authorship, labour, power, privilege, representation and subjectivity.

We knew we wanted to bring audiences in and centre people of colour in both … in all of the programmes and both of the spaces, so at SAM and at NAAM, as part of SAM and NAAM’s ongoing work to increase equity. I really want to emphasise that when we brought the people in and when we asked, we made a list of dream participants. Because of both of our work, because of the programmes that had gone on at NAAM and the programmes that … and the institutional work that SAM is doing for arable equity, we had long-standing relationships with artists, critics, writers, activists and others, luminaries in our communities that had either worked the NAAM specifically or people that the NAAM staff knew. I think then it gets to a comment made earlier about staff being present in the institution and having those community connections, and ways that we built relationships over time.

So when we asked all 12 … the 12 people we knew we needed 12 for four programmes, all of them said yes, and that was based on those sort of build trust over time and structures and working with the people. So it wasn’t just a one touch, one exhibition type of thing. And then we went to work to put people together. So I’m going to turn it over to Regan, who’s going to talk about the structure of the Complex Exchange.

Regan Pro: So after a lot of initial brainstorming, conversations among staff, conversations with the artists and the presenters that we invited, we came up with the programme structure. It was a really iterative process, it kept evolving through the whole series, and the programme structure was nothing revolutionary or super out of the box, but it really seemed to fit the goals of what we were trying to do.

So we did four programmes, each focussed on a different theme. The themes we looked at were power and privilege, media and representation, collaboration and connectivity, and tradition and innovation. Two of the programmes were hosted at NAAM; two of the programmes were hosted at SAM. Every programme was free. And for each programme, we had three presenters who would respond to the theme either through performance or presentation. They’d speak to the theme for about ten minutes. This is an incredible musician, Quinton Morris, who played violin in response to the theme of tradition and innovation.

And then we asked each of the presenters to craft a question that they posed to the other two presenters. So some sample questions that came up were, why do you still live and work in Seattle? Or thinking through different areas where the arts have created space for survival and resistance, where would you like to see black artistry go in the 21st century? Then we ended with a short Q & A in the audience and then a reception for everybody who was there.

Okay, so what were some of the successes we saw of this programme? One of the first great success and success we often look to in public programming was audience response. So all the programmes sold out and we saw over a thousand people attending. And most importantly, in the audience, we really saw a cross section of core audience members from NAAM and from SAM attending. Many people attended the full series and would often go to the other institution for the first time.

And the response of the audience and the anecdotal feedback we got indicated to us that we were really addressing a clear need in the community, that we were creating a space for conversations people wanted to have, and they were responding by voting with their feet and showing up.

Leilani Lewis: Another factor that contributed to the success of the programme was the fact that we gave artists a lot of autonomy. They had control over the contents; they performed or did a work based on their interests and their discipline. And the performances and presentations really led through them as part of building in equity in our practice as we put together this programme.

We also had a wonderful quote from one of the participants, Barbara Earl Thomas, who’s a working artist in Seattle and an amazing person all the way around. She said that, and I quote, “Complex Exchange allowed me, a visual artist, writer and my collaborators, one technology expert and the other a classical musician, to step outside our individual specialities for a public conversation that uses Seattle Art Museums Kehinde Wiley and NAAM’s Kelley collection as points of departure. We were challenged by our use of the shared vocabulary that did not necessarily signify the same experiential meaning. Going into our conversation with this knowledge, demanding that we listen, watch, and question our own assumptions, Complex Exchange allowed the audience to witness and be included in the risk of failure and the exhilaration of our shared flashes of understanding.” And I hope that gives you some insight into the energy of that … of the programme.

Regan Pro: Okay, so what were some of the lessons learned or challenges from this programme? One of our goals from the beginning was to really reflect equity in both the programming and the process itself. So an example of that or way that manifested was the role of museum staff in the planning process.

This is Philip. Hi, Philip. He works at SAM. He worked really closely on this programme. And as a straight, white, able-bodied man, he enters any room holding a really high amount of privilege and power. And so in the planning process, he worked really consciously to be aware of that and to create space for other people. In his words, quote, “We wanted each group to feel ownership over the conversation. As a representative of SAM, and a straight, white male, my responsibility wasn’t to shape the content or the conversation but to step back, listen and adapt my practice.”

Leilani Lewis: So reflecting equity in process and content. We were trying to strike a balance so that all participants had a voice. One thing that really contributed to, again, the success is that we tried to get the artists together before each presentation so that they could spend time with each exhibit, they could really talk to each other and sort of develop their own approach to the conversation and dig deeply into the issues and into the sort of ways of thinking for the programme.

Regan Pro: Also, one of the lessons or the challenges for us was thinking about the role of equity versus equality. So a couple of examples, you know, when we thought about hard costs, we … rather than just saying we were going to split all the hard costs, we really tried to take an equity lens and think about institutional equity and acknowledge that SAM had greater financial resources available and that they should be absorbing more of the financial hard costs. However, when we were thinking about paying the participants, we were really trying to be very equal and very transparent about the fact that we were paying all the participants in the conversation the same amount and being clear about that from the front.

One of the last lessons learned … there’s a lot more on this list, but one of the last we’re going to share today was it was really interesting for us to observe the different ways people interacted and perceived our spaces. We both saw institutions as art museums, but it became really clear that SAM was perceived more as a traditional, formal institution and NAAM was perceived more as a community-based organisation.

So an example of the way that played out, this is a really concrete example, but it was just in the spaces of the talks. So the talks at SAM were in a space much like this, a big auditorium space; it was formal, it had high-tech AV, the lights and the audience were down, there was a lot of separation between the audience and speaker; where at NAAM, it was in a boardroom space where there wasn’t … it was flat, the lighting was like the same throughout, there wasn’t as much technology, but the connection between the audience and the speakers felt much closer. And so we really tried to think about how to take the best of both those models and apply them. So the next time we did the talk at SAM, we had the lights up in the audience, we did more after … we had the speakers sitting differently. The next time we did it at NAAM, we thought more about technology glitches to make sure that wasn’t getting in the way of the content. But trying to really think about how those two different ways museums can function, two of the many ways museums can function, we could learn from each other. Now I’m going to turn it over to Leilani to wrap it up.

Leilani Lewis: So, in conclusion, you too can do this programme and let us know how it goes. No, really, we’d love to see this model expand beyond Seattle in different places, different cities. And if you’re interested in learning more, please contact Regan or myself; we’ll be happy to talk about it. But please go do it, do it better, do it differently, and let us know how it goes. These partnerships are important. It was excellent lessons learned and things that both institutions learned from each other. It’s extremely valuable. Thank you.

Presenter: Any questions? Right here?

Female Voice: …your audience groups in any way? Did you say like maybe the artist or you, individually, had worked with different community groups and knew that this programming, in particular, would interest them and reach out to them and basically invite them in as a group? I know you said it was really successful and it was full for all your programmes.

Regan Pro: That’s a great question. Do you want me to try first?

Leilani Lewis: Yeah, go ahead.

Regan Pro: Both our institutions kind of just blasted these programmes out to our member and sort of our core audiences. I think also, though, because we were working so closely with so many artists, they had their own communities that they were also inviting, so that brought in a lot of people as well. Do you want to add?

Leilani Lewis: I’d say there wasn’t a particular strategy or approach to targeting certain groups. We knew that these conversations weren’t … just because of the subject and the content and the people who were there, it wasn’t just for a certain group of audience or any ethnic makeup or any gender or any other specific groups or ways that we break down audiences. We really wanted to invite all the communities, both arts and non-arts communities for this.

Female Voice: I don’t know if you said it when you started, but did you have a grant to support the ability for you to set up the artists and pay them as you said? And that’s one. And number two; is this an idea that will prolong forever? Are you planning to continue doing it? Because I have to say, we’ve done stuff like this before, but it’s one-off moments and you feel the benefit of it and everyone feels good, but then it doesn’t have legs and so do you anticipate it having legs and how do you do that from a funding perspective? Because you said it was all free, which to me, is amazing but does that … is that really something that can be prolonged?

Regan Pro: Yes. I’ll enter the money piece and maybe you can answer the next steps. We started out not having funding for this programme; it was just coming from our general funding for programming for specific exhibition, and we saw this as the core programming around the specific exhibition. Then we did get a grant that helped support the work, which was fantastic. We were already committing institutional money to make sure it was free from the jump.

Leilani Lewis: And to address the second part of the question, there are talks and demands … not demands, but talks, and there is demand from I think both institutions do want to work together and again and they will work together again. So I think this is a sustainable … possibly a sustainable programme, or the model at least is sustainable. And we’ll keep the institutions connected so it’s a really … it was an intentional programme where there was sort of informal and somewhat formal connections between SAM and NAAM in the past. This is really this intentional partnership stuff that I think will sustain.

Regan Pro: I think there’s one more down here.

Male Voice: Thank you so much. Okay, I just had a two-part question. One, just legally, how did you structure the partnership as a joint venture? Did you build a partnership agreement or develop an MOU? And then also, this is an incredibly partnership but I wanted to know if there are any places where your organisational models collided, right? Not necessarily in the places of shared value but more so in organisational mechanics and how did you work through those parts of the project?

Leilani Lewis: There was no formal agreement, I don’t think. I think, again, which, for better or for worse, it worked out great. There wasn’t a need and there isn’t usually until there is a need. On the other side of that, I think, you know, we didn’t talk about this too much but there were a few ways that it was challenging. So NAAM being very small, very … it wasn’t at full staff even when we were putting together the programme. I actually carried the programme when I was … when I had already transitioned out of the museum because of that. So there’s a capacity imbalance there that was sort of picked up by SAM. But also, through marketing and communication, some of the ways and stipulations or caveats with the Kehinde Wiley show prevented some of the imagery that was, you know … there was just some misalignment there which I think in future programmes there would just be earlier alignment and marketing and communications. Do you have anything to add?

Regan Pro: No, I don’t think so.

Presenter: Thank you, all.

Regan Pro: Thank you.

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