Baltimore Museum of Art faces challenge in reaching out to African-Americans

November 19, 1995|By GLENN MCNATT

Baltimore Museum of Art officials were thrilled last week to win a $1.18 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The money is to be used to increase the museum's efforts to reach out to urban families, particularly African-American residents of Baltimore's federal empowerment zones.

One wonders, though, just what the museum proposes to offer the city's troubled inner-city youth that presumably will draw them through its doors in significant numbers.

Yes, there are plans for an "art shuttle" to transport neighborhood kids to the museum, and to offer workshops for parents and grandparents to create art with their children. There will be a family center, a community art lab and audio tours of the museum's modern, African and American art collections.

But what is it we are really trying to accomplish through this project, and how are we to ensure that the museum's ambitious plans make a measurable difference in the lives of those it hopes to serve?

These questions arise not because anyone believes inner-city kids can't or shouldn't benefit from the museum's programs, but because we need to take a look at what is practical and achievable if the effort is to fulfill its potential.

For example, what are the real barriers separating community residents from the wealth of information and programs the museum offers? What are the best strategies for overcoming those barriers? What practical results ought we be seeking, and how do they compare with the outcomes that experience suggests we are likely to get?

To pose these questions is another way of asking how the "high" culture of fine arts museums, symphony orchestras, theaters and opera companies connects with the everyday reality of people who, at best, often view these institutions with a certain ambivalence. At worst, the institutions themselves come across as an implicit assault on the values and self-esteem of people who in the past have felt excluded from the social compact symbolized by "high" culture.

Today we speak hopefully of the arts as vital threads in the social fabric that help to bind the ties of community. But it was not always so.

It is a historical fact that most of the artifacts of "high" culture now found in museums were originally created for an economic and political elite that prided itself on the impassable gulf separating it from "the lower social classes." The art of "high" culture thus carries a heavy emotional baggage in the eyes of those for whom it once symbolized their own social exclusion and political powerlessness.

One would think that the gradual diminution of class conflicts, the wide dissemination of serious art and culture made possible by modern communications, and the national propensity for historical forgetfulness -- "let bygones be bygones" -- might have reduced the wellsprings of such resentment. And so they probably have for large numbers of middle-class Americans who no longer feel the sting of the class and ethnic discrimination their forebears were obliged to endure.

For African-Americans, however, there remain too many reminders of the painful past to completely let go a sense of wariness. There are still too many small daily indignities, too many petty humiliations and psychic injuries to endure to pass over that painful history with bland equanimity.

A white museum-goer, for example, may see in the museum's collection of ceremonial African masks the inspiration for Picasso's venture into abstraction. To an African-American, the same objects also will likely recall the European colonization and plunder of Africa, along with much of the rest of the world, during the closing decades of the 19th century. The different perspectives result from the different assumptions, expectations and life experiences blacks and whites bring to the same artifacts.

This is precisely why outreach programs like the one planned by the BMA are so important, and also why they are so difficult to pull off successfully. They cannot accomplish what they are intended to do unless they confront head-on the conscious and unconscious emotional barriers that are the legacy of our sad racial history.

The museum has tried hard to bridge this chasm. It regularly mounts exhibitions of works by African-American artists. It sponsors lectures, concerts and other programs of interest to African-American visitors. It supports residencies for African-American artists that allow them to work with community youth groups, and it provides scholarship funds for children's workshops.

But all that may not be enough. The barriers that keep African-Americans away from mainstream "high" culture institutions are not only economic, and perhaps not mainly so. They are a result of the alienation that people who have been excluded from the "mainstream" feel from "mainstream" institutions generally, and so require a concerted institutional effort to overcome.

No amount of money can buy that. What is needed is a thorough rethinking of the way in which museums and other institutions make their services available, a willingness to listen to people to find out what they need from the encounter, and the courage to deal honestly and compassionately with their concerns. Only then can arts institutions fulfill their mission of creating the ties that truly bind the fabric of a diverse urban community.

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