Devotion to diversity

November 13, 2001|By Jacqueline T. Copeland

IT MAY take a village to raise a child, but it takes a community to sustain a museum.

Henry Walters gave his extraordinary collection of art to Baltimore City in 1931 "for the benefit of the public." The Walters Art Museum has just undergone a major transformation and renovation, from changing its name from "gallery" to "museum" to increasing its emphasis on reaching out to the community.

Its treasures representing 55 centuries of art from countries and cultures worldwide have captivated scholars and researchers for decades. But a museum today must consider its wider audience and welcome people from all racial, ethnic, social, economic and educational backgrounds. This requires time, resources and a reassessment of its mission and strategies. Most of all, it requires commitment.

The Walters has made a commitment to reach new audiences, to attract those who have been traditionally under-served by the institution and to develop ways to engage and collaborate with all parts of the community. This dovetails with its new mission statement about "bringing art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning ... to strengthen and sustain our community."

It means the museum is dedicated to developing exhibitions and programs that appeal to a diverse population, that a wide range of community voices are heard and consulted about how to "experience the Walters" and that different audiences find a voice within the institution.

It means the visitor will see a collection of objects from diverse cultures: from Ethiopian crosses and manuscripts to Islamic tiles, doors and manuscripts to a Torah Arc door.

It involves shared power and authority, shared programming, partnerships and collaborations that will create sustained and reciprocal relationships with people of diverse communities.

As one example, the Walters' African-American Steering Committee has been an active voice in exhibition and program development for more than 15 years.

The Walters' community outreach coordinator provides a bridge between people from diverse communities in the Baltimore area and the museum.

Community partner organizations are invited to develop on- and off-site programs cooperatively. ARTSmart, our new arts and literacy partnership with the Pratt Library, will debut at the library Sunday. Like most museums, the Walters has a long history of serving students through school outreach programs that involve activities at the participating schools and at the museum.

But to be relevant to the community, museums must also look at the barriers that restrict participation by under-served audiences.

The Walters provides free bus service to bring families to special events and celebrations through "Mummies, Manuscripts and Myth," a partnership with the schools and other organizations for inner-city students.

The most significant outreach strategy will be in diverse programming, with an enormous array of performances, films, lectures, seminars, family festivals, workshops and special events planned for this year.

The museum will host a diversity of performers and speakers, from the Handel Choir to Ossie Davis to Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, Tibetan Monks to Choregraphie Antique.

Artwork by contemporary Baltimore artists Claes Gabriel and Rick Shelley will be in the same museum as 3,000-year-old mummies and Tiffany glass.

Our commitment is to have a Walters Art Museum that is a resource for scholarship, a place to see a good film, a great stage performance and liveliness in the galleries where objects can inspire dialogue and debate that nourish our souls at anxious times like these.

Jacqueline T. Copeland is director of education and public programs at the Walters Art Museum.

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