Ways to draw more blacks into the mix

ART

Pursuing minorities as artists and museumgoers

Art Column

July 30, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

While much of Baltimore celebrated last weekend's Artscape festival along Mount Royal Avenue, a different gathering of art lovers assembled at the Walters Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art to talk about ways of making arts institutions more accessible to minority audiences.

The occasion was the fourth annual conference of the Museum Support Alliance for African and African-American Art, an umbrella organization for local groups across the country who are working to help museums reach out to minority audiences and become more involved in local communities.

The conference brought together just under 100 delegates, who shared information about their experiences and discussed strategies for bringing more African-American visitors to their local arts institutions.

Both the Walters and the BMA, for example, have African-American support groups that help plan programs and raise money for the purchase of works by African-American artists. In recent years, museums around the country have enlisted the aid of such groups to increase their profile among African-American audiences.

Many variables are involved in figuring out how to increase black attendance at museums. But ultimately, the similarities between black and white museumgoers turn out to far outweigh their differences.

Studies suggest that while income and education levels obviously play a role in who visits museums, the main factor is whether one visited museums as a child. People whose parents took them to museums during their formative years are more likely to attend as adults - and to take their own children - than people who never had such experiences during childhood.

This suggests that the most effective outreach strategies are those that involve enlisting African-American parents in helping establish the museum-going habit. Museum outreach programs that work with local churches, schools and civic groups to encourage parents to take their children to the museum are building the audiences of the future, because kids learn how to use their own leisure time mostly by emulating the example of their parents.

I suspect that early parental encouragement is even more important than the specific exhibits young people are exposed to in museums. Many museums are trying to collect more works by African-American artists, for example. But by itself, that may not necessarily increase the attendance of African-American audiences.

On the other hand, a concerted program of making museums more accessible to black parents and their children may reap big dividends - certainly this has been the experience of the BMA's African-American support group, the Joshua Johnson Council, whose most successful projects have involved "family day" events that target parents along with their kids.

Black support groups also have an important role to play in encouraging museums to purchase works by black artists for their collections. And here the issue goes well beyond the specific goal of increasing black museum attendance.

For most of American history, works by black artists were ignored by museums and collectors. Only in the last few decades have institutions begun to realize the unique historical importance of African-American art and the men and women who created it.

Leslie King-Hammond, the graduate school dean of the Maryland Institute College of Art, stressed the importance of preserving such images in her keynote address to the conferees Saturday evening. King-Hammond warned that the "invisibility" of African-American art and artists in the museum was the cultural equivalent of the continuing social and political "invisibility" of black people in contemporary American society.

So long as blacks continued to allow their image to be defined by others, King-Hammond suggested, they would remain condemned to occupy the inferior status assigned to them by others. Conversely, by seizing control over how they were represented, blacks could begin to gain an important measure of self-determination regarding their own destiny as a people.

Finally, it must be added that all these projects - expanding African-American audiences and bringing more works by African-American artists into museum collections - don't just benefit African-Americans. Recognizing the contributions of black artists and reaching out to new audiences makes museums both stronger institutionally and better able to meet the needs of all the communities they serve.

The kind of thoughtful - and thought-provoking - workshops and events that took place among black museum support groups this past weekend are critical to moving forward toward making an impact on these very important developments.

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