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Celebrating Black History on Museum Way

Museum Way Podcast

In the episode, host Stace Treat talks with Raven and Kentrell about how we at Crystal Bridges can continue to foster this rich and valuable discussion. We want to recognize our complicated history around the idea of an “Independence Day,” and talk about some of the artworks in our collection that help us think through this. Enjoy this episode of Museum Way.

Read this episode’s transcript

 

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Raven Cook

Raven Cook

Raven is a Museum Educator and oversees the Crystal Bridges African American Summer Institute professional development program. Raven has a commitment to educating all people on the life and legacy of Black Americans in America and abroad. Check out Raven’s past museum blog posts: About Martin, Juneteenth: A Day to Reach for and Celebrate Our Highest Ideals, and  Black History Month: Emma Cadwalader Guild’s sculpture “Free.

Kentrell Curry

Kentrell Curry

Kentrell is an Associate Museum Educator in our Public Programs department. He works with community outreach programs and oversees all Artinfusion branded programs. He’s also pivotal in our Gallery Conversations, Film Series, and much more. Check out Kentrell’s past museum blog post: Reflections on Bryan Stevenson’s Distinguished Lecture.

 

 

 

Artworks Featured in the Episode

“We the People (black version)” by Nari Ward

Nari Ward is known for his sculptures made from found materials discovered in and around New York City. The hanging multicolored shoelaces nearly obscure the words, “We the People,” encouraging viewers to stop, study, and decipher the text. Ward asks us to reconsider the phrase. Has its meaning changed? Who are “the people”? How do these words apply to our society today? Learn more about the artwork here.

 

“Our Town” by Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall’s work often explores themes of racial identity, community, and belonging. Our Town is part of his Garden Project series, in which low-income housing projects are ironically rendered as idyllic places. The carefully painted houses, manicured lawn, and bright sky coexist uneasily with graffiti scribbles and trees tied with yellow ribbons, suggesting war or tragedy.

Marshall contrasts the tidy scene, dominated by red, white, and blue, with deep black paint and minimal shading on the figures. Here, he emphasizes the blackness of his subjects in an art world that notably lacks images of African Americans. Our Town further evokes Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play of the same title, posing the question: for whom does this American ideal really exist? Learn more about the artwork here.

 

“The Cost of Removal” by Titus Kaphar

The Cost of Removal by Titus Kaphar not only weighs the impact of generational oppression, but the inherent loss in attempting to erase the realities of history. There is a current debate circulating the nation as to whether or not public confederate monuments should be torn down or kept. Kaphar believes that it is possible to think beyond this “one or the other” method of problem solving in order to explore the nuances within the development of history. In his viewcan be amended in a way similar to that of the United States Constitution; by readdressing outdated procedures and values, the American people can continue to assert their values through the engagement of contemporary artists to create art that responds and confronts these public sculptures. In no way does the art “fix” a problematic past, but it can spark dialogue between those who will create the future. Learn more about the artwork here.

 

“Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis or, Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis” by Vanessa German

Vanessa German is an American sculptor, painter, writer, activist, performer, and poet based in the historic neighborhood of Homewood, in Pittsburgh, which has been the home to luminaries of jazz, art & literature from Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Tina Brewer, and John Edgar Wideman. Homewood has also been described by MSNBC as “The Most Dangerous Neighborhood in America.” German’s community is the driving force behind her work. As a citizen artist, she is a vigorous advocate for children, creating safe spaces for artmaking amid violence. In recent years, she launched the Art House where she hosts neighborhood children, women and families to create beauty through art and build self-esteem. Before German acquired the current Art House, she lived in another row house not far away. She would often work on her sculptures on the front porch where she could spread out with her tools and materials and enjoy the fresh air. Neighborhood kids would curiously watch, and eventually started to participate. German started sharing her materials and encouraging them to make art.

She also creates elaborate sculptures of African American “power figures” crafted from found objects that confront violence and systematic racism. Some of these sculptures were featured in the 2014 exhibition, State of the Art: Discovering American Art NowHer work has been exhibited widely and is in collections all over the country. She has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, andO Magazine. German will also be featured in a documentary film on State of the Art, debuting nationally on PBS in April, 2019.

German was recently named the recipient of the 2018 Don Tyson Prize! Learn more here.

 

“Domino Players” by Willie Birch

Learn more about “Domino Players” (2008) by Willie Birch here.

 

Episode Transcript

Stace Treat:
Welcome to Museum Way, the podcast of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. We’re sharing all the ins and outs of the museum, from the galleries to the trails, the architecture, and more. You’ll learn the museum way at Crystal Bridges.

Stace Treat:
Today’s bonus episode is one we’ve been excited to share for a while now. On the final day of Black History Month, we look to the coming year and consider how we can take the lessons of Black History forward throughout 2019. One way we’d like to do this is to listen back on a conversation we had last year. In June of 2018, I sat down with museum educators Raven Cook and Kentrell Curry to discuss the American spirit and the idea of Independence Day, which at the time was just around the corner. We were unable to turn the episode around in time for the holiday, but we’re excited to share it here with you today as we round out Black History Month 2019. Please enjoy this extra episode of Museum Way.

Stace Treat:
At Crystal Bridges, it is our mission to welcome all to celebrate the American spirit. So what exactly is the American spirit? We strive to develop a museum culture known for providing positive, enriching experiences for our guests and staff, and we want to continue thinking forward. So what does it mean to be an inclusive art museum?

Stace Treat:
Today, we’ll be talking with museum educators Raven Cook and Kentrell Curry about how we, at Crystal Bridges, can continue to foster this rich and valuable discussion. In light of the 4th of July and on the heels of our Sullivan Nation exhibition, we want to recognize our complicated history around the idea of an Independence Day and talk about some of the artworks in our collection that help us think through this. We are here with museum educators Raven Cook and Kentrell Curry. Welcome.

Kentrell Curry:
Hey, how’s it going?

Raven Cook:
Hi, how are you?

Stace Treat:
Hello. I’d like you all to just introduce yourselves. Tell us who you are, what you do at the museum, a little bit about your backgrounds.

Raven Cook:
Well, my name is Raven Cook, and I am a school programs educator. I work primarily with students K through 12. I take them through the galleries and I introduce them to works of art based on the curriculums that their teachers have introduced. So the things that they’re working on in class, they are able to have like a visual through the lens of the museum. But I also do the work of really trying to help our educators get to a point of comfort in talking about race and identity with some of the works of art, especially with art that tackles the African American experience.

Raven Cook:
My background is in African American history. Most of the work I do in the community pertains to teaching in that field, so how to make educators, teachers and even students more comfortable with having conversations about race and identity, particularly as it relates to the black experience. So, that’s kind of what I do, a little bit.

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah. My name Kentrell Curry. I am an associate museum educator over the ArtInfusion program. I actually work on the public programs side of education at the museum. Public programs is different from school programming in that, as the name sort of suggests, I look at outward facing programs, so I connect with the community. One of my major goals as a programmer for ArtInfusion is to always be collaborative and be working with our diverse community to sort of bring out that unique flavor and those sort of unique Northwest Arkansas sort of niches, I guess.

Kentrell Curry:
I think that by connecting our programming to our larger community, we’re really able to see that art is not only an impactful tool for these communities, but also the community is full of creatives who are creating art and sort of expanding on the experience, the American experience.

Stace Treat:
Well, this month of July, of course, we have a big holiday.

Raven Cook:
My birthday.

Stace Treat:
And your birthday.

Raven Cook:
Yes. That’s the biggest of them. It’s the biggest of all time.

Stace Treat:
The biggest one, yeah. Well, actually the United States celebrates it’s 242nd birthday on July the 4th. As an art museum dedicated to American art, we work to tell the story of America through its art. Yet that story is a pretty complicated one, depending on who’s telling it. Right?

Kentrell Curry:
Right.

Raven Cook:
Indeed.

Stace Treat:
America’s art history certainly stretches further back than just 250 years. It includes many different types of people and cultures. So, as educators and community engagers, you both explore these ideas through your roles at the museum. I want to kind of reflect on this Independence Day holiday, about what does this holiday mean for you all.

Raven Cook:
It’s a very complex holiday because, as we know historically, most African Americans were not freed. They were not a part of this narrative of Americanness. So for me, it’s very difficult to talk about. Generally on the day, my family and I will reflect on Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”

Raven Cook:
So it is actually kind of a somber time, in my family. I can’t speak for the entirety of Black culture. Both of my parents are veterans, so there is an acknowledgement of this Americanness but at the same time it is an understanding of the truth, the realities of what it means to be Black in America. It can be really complex for me personally and what that means. Like, how do you deal with that? So yeah, I find it really a challenging holiday more than a really celebratory one, more somber than anything.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. The speech you mentioned, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”

Raven Cook:
Yes.

Stace Treat:
That’s an oratory that he actually delivered in 1852.

Raven Cook:
Yes. Actually, July 5th of 1852. He’s really in a space. If you read the speech, there’s a lot of language that’s used and a lot of rhetoric that really talks about the myth and the reality and how that’s being introduced into this rhetoric of independence and what that means.

Raven Cook:
During that holiday, we’ll play an excerpt of it from… Especially for my younger brother and for the younger people in our family, we’ll play an excerpt of that speech from a Howard Zinn, The People Speak video and we’ll allow the younger people in my family to kind of hear it and visualize it and get this understanding that there is a duality of what that means to be American and be Black, Black American. It’s a little challenging.

Kentrell Curry:
Right. Yeah. The 4th of July has always been a interesting holiday for me. I grew up playing music. So a lot of times around the 4th of July, might have some type of music engagement or something where we would play this really patriotic music, really thinking about nationalism and stuff.

Kentrell Curry:
But as I’ve grown, the idea of the 4th of July has evolved for me as I’ve learned more about my own history and just about the treatment of African Americans throughout American history. The 4th of July has become a holiday that really, like Raven sort of mentioned, it’s not really a celebration in any sort of way, it’s more like a reminder of our realities.

Kentrell Curry:
It’s interesting that she brings up this idea of myth versus reality because growing up, I was fed a myth about the 4th of July and what it meant to be American and sort of celebrate this as independence. There was never any mention of the fact that my people were not free growing up. This is something of course that I should have known at the time, but growing up, you don’t always think of things. You’re still learning a lot of things so you don’t always think of things that way.

Kentrell Curry:
But the 4th of July has since become a holiday where I too reflect on just, honestly, where I am in my own life right now and what our current state in society is really. How are we being treated? How is this idea of independence being pushed forward? And as the 4th of July being a symbol of this, America’s birthday, how has that affected my life.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. It’s really poignant right now when we think about all of the Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement, the situation of separating families at the border, even the ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights. It’s a time where I think a lot of Americans are reflecting. And this idea of the myth versus the reality is, I would have, as a white man growing up in the South, the so-called myth would have been my reality.

Female:
[inaudible 00:10:06].

Stace Treat:
But it’s only through talking to other groups of people and then also reflecting on what does it mean to be an American? What is the so-called American spirit that increasingly we’re finding cultural institutions like art museums, Crystal Bridges being the main one in this region, are in many ways having this really rich conversation about what is the role of the art museum in this contemporary moment. What are your thoughts on that?

Raven Cook:
With Soul of A Nation, that was a really game-changing exhibition for me as an educator, though the work leading up to that was something that really was… I wasn’t surprised. I was actually really empowered by the work that we, as an institution, did to prepare for the exhibition.

Stace Treat:
Why don’t you explain some of what you did to help prepare the staff for that exhibition?

Raven Cook:
I actually ordered the book in advance. I read through the text because I really just wanted to see what it would look like. I was really just excited about seeing Black bodies in visual art. Like that’s something that I wasn’t exposed to as a child in the way that I feel like would have benefited me. There were some narratives around art, right, that my parents didn’t want me to maintain the sense of this narrative of whiteness, right? There wasn’t a lot of representation of Black visual artists in the area where I was growing up. So it was really enlightening to me to see this exhibition.

Raven Cook:
I bought the book, I read through it and I saw some of the language about double consciousness and this duality, this sense of self that Black people experience. This double consciousness was created by Dr. Du Bois in the 20th century. It discusses this duality of the self, right? So you have this one self who’s trying to adapt to this narrative of Americanness, but then this other self that is still connected to this sense of blackness that isn’t quite fitting into Americanness and trying to navigate that.

Raven Cook:
I understood that most people would not understand, one, the concept of Black power as a beautiful sense, right? It’s always been demonized. So I knew that there was something that needed to be done about that. I went to our director of education and told her, “We really need to offer a space where people can learn.” I actually teach in the community anyway, so I just took the classes that I teach in the community and added some visual arts that were in the exhibition, but also art that was being done during the Harlem Renaissance and things like that, and I talked about Black culture.

Raven Cook:
So I taught an African American history class for the museum that has somewhat of an artistic focus. Once Soul of A Nation came, some of our staff were able to come back and tell me they viewed that totally differently than they felt like they would have if they didn’t have an education on what that exhibition was about. So it introduced some symbolism and some language that wouldn’t have been known had we not gone through the proper educational process. So it was about four weeks, intensive. People came out and it was great. I really was really proud of our institution for that work and then having-

Stace Treat:
It really was, a really great… You did an amazing job.

Raven Cook:
Thanks.

Stace Treat:
What helps with understanding and crossing perceived barriers of culture, if you will, oftentimes is context and voice.

Raven Cook:
Right.

Stace Treat:
It’s like actually allowing those that are maybe different from you the opportunity and the ability to speak-

Raven Cook:
To speak.

Stace Treat:
… to speak from their own place.

Raven Cook:
It was great. It’s a great experience.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. Let’s talk about some of the artwork in our collection and how… as we move toward this idea of being inclusive as a cultural institution. You both have worked with people who have favorites in the collection, or you, Raven, have you even mentioned trying to teach students of various levels…

Raven Cook:
Right.

Stace Treat:
… what, from second graders to seniors…

Raven Cook:
Right.

Stace Treat:
… about some works in our collection that are actually pretty challenging and require some depth of thought. Let’s start with We the People. Can we start with that work?

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah, definitely. Just thinking about We the People. I think that it’s the perfect piece to start with because it takes this historical idea, we the people, and brings it to a contemporary space. If you haven’t seen it, it opens up our galleries. It’s a very large piece by Nari Ward, that has the text, We the People, in the font from the Declaration of Independence.

Stace Treat:
Declaration of Independence.

Kentrell Curry:
Excuse me. So it’s sort of this fitting starting point. Just to go back to the point of what role do museums have. I think that this really sets up the role that a museum can play. We the People is an artwork that thinks about diversity through the use of shoe strings. All of these hanging shoe strings are a common connection between us all. We all, well hopefully, we all have shoes. I can’t say that we all do because we know the realities of things. But that brings us back to this whole myth versus reality sort of theme that we’ve been exploring throughout this podcast. I think that the Nari Ward piece really lets us look at both that myth of who were the people when the Declaration of Independence was actually being written-

Stace Treat:
Right. Right.

Kentrell Curry:
… versus who are the people now. And I think that our galleries do, especially the new rehang, does a great job of expanding on who the people are. I think that, it’s up to museums to really challenge the status quo and challenge what we’ve sort of been presented throughout the history of visual arts as who the people are. So I think Nari Ward’s work is the perfect place to start, start thinking about that idea, start thinking about the myth versus reality.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. So our regular listeners to Museum Way will probably remember our very first episode, the inaugural episode, where we talked with curator Mindy Besaw about the reinstallation. Of course, we recently reimagined the galleries because we wanted to tell a more inclusive story of American art. A large part of the curatorial vision was tackling that question about who gets to tell that story and how and the ways that the history of art and artists, past and present, contribute to that process.

Stace Treat:
So you have Nari Ward’s piece, and of course he’s a Jamaican-born but American-based artists in Brooklyn posed this really eloquent question with that. Our curators knew that that was sort of… that piece was so powerful in its elegance and its statement that it allowed the question to be asked. It sort of opened the way for thinking about American art and where does that even begin? Who does that include?

Kentrell Curry:
I think it’s a beautiful moment that that piece was actually able to be installed by the people, by the visitors of the museum. They [crosstalk 00:18:11]-

Stace Treat:
Tell us a little bit about that.

Kentrell Curry:
Like I said, the piece is a number of shoe strings that have been placed into the wall to create this text, “We the People.”

Stace Treat:
There’s like hundreds of them. I don’t even know how many.

Raven Cook:
Yeah. So many.

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah, there’s so many pieces, because this has taken up a fairly large wall. The museum invited guests, as they were coming through the museum, to actually step to the piece and take a shoe string or two and actually installed it into the wall.

Kentrell Curry:
So this whole idea of we the people and who the people are is even being explored in the installation or creation of this artwork, so to speak. I think that that’s an important… For me, that’s an important point because it shows just this sort of beautiful moment of artistry really on a part of Nari Ward as well as on the part of our museum to really think about how we can expand on that idea, expand on who the people are. I really appreciate the fact that people were able to have that sort of hands on experience and be a part of that artwork.

Stace Treat:
So thinking forward, and I want to pull Raven into this question as well, how do we as an art museum help to engage in these issues of social justice, really, that we’ve been talking about? Who were some of the artists in our collection that maybe can help us? Maybe, what are some examples? I’d love to hear some of your stories from the field, so to speak.

Raven Cook:
Yeah. In relationship to Nari Ward’s piece, I had one fifth grade student who really made that piece, in so far as language, it spoke to me in a really different way. He talked about… And this was just his perspective, right? Because when I open my tours, I generally ask the students to bring their whole self to the day. So not just looking at a piece, but examining it as a physical, like standing in front of it, making a decision, right? To stand in front of it, to think about what the materials are, how it’s made, but also emotionally, how it makes them feel. What is it about it that makes them feel that way? And then spiritually, like how can they take away something for the betterment of themselves and humanity from that work?

Raven Cook:
So we go through those steps and the young man walked in and saw the We the People piece and we talked about it a little bit and he kind of summarized it by saying, “This is the place that America wants to be.” Right? Like he talks about this is the desire, this was the desired outcome, but the galleries around it where the actual work in us getting there. And I thought, “Whoa.”

Stace Treat:
Wow.

Raven Cook:
Like fifth grade.

Stace Treat:
Insightful.

Raven Cook:
It was so brilliant.

Kentrell Curry:
[crosstalk 00:21:07]…

Raven Cook:
And I thought, that is such a beautiful way to consider it. And even in the field or in the galleries with students, they’ll say some of the most profound things about works that you really are challenged by as adults. Because as adults, we tend to have kind of a narrative of it in our own mind, but students come to it with this kind of really free and openness to it that kind of gives you this sense of this childlike wonder, which is really beautiful.

Raven Cook:
A piece that I’m working on right now, really examining how students deal with topics of race and identity, is Kerry James Marshall’s Our Town. It’s a huge canvas, and has so many moving parts to it, but the focus, the central piece are the two children, there’s an African American boy and girl. But Kerry James Marshall, as an artist, is using the literal color black to paint these children, right? So when you go to the piece and you have to have these discussions about what the children see, a lot of times there’s a hesitation between the students and the chaperones about acknowledging this black. And then even in acknowledging it, the students that are present that are African American tend to kind of withdraw or hide or…

Raven Cook:
It’s a really interesting piece to observe as an educator, but every day I’m like, “I have to do this piece. I have to do it with multiple grade levels and just experience what it’s like.” It can be uncomfortable at times to have these conversations, but I think embracing the discomfort is something that we as a museum must do. Having these really uncomfortable conversations and questioning why people are uncomfortable is incredibly important.

Stace Treat:
I would agree, especially when you’re talking about Kerry James Marshall as an artist because he very deliberately selected the black color to represent the blackness of the bodies in his painting. His work, his whole career is sort of this exploration and investigation of blackness.

Raven Cook:
Right.

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah. Just as a side note, he did these great portraits of Black people under a black light and they…

Stace Treat:
Wow.

Kentrell Curry:
They really just are amazing, beautiful, beautiful works that you see then translated to his canvas in using this sort of black color. Even the, sort of, features that come out of these figures on his canvases, the features are still a black, just like a lighter grayish color. But it’s really just a beautiful thing.

Stace Treat:
What are some other artists? I think Vanessa German, her art-

Raven Cook:
Yes. I love Vanessa German.

Stace Treat:
… is very interesting, explores these questions in a really interesting way.

Raven Cook:
Yeah. I’ve had the opportunity to teach Vanessa German a few times. One of the most awesome opportunities, I had a group of all young Black women and it was probably a really game-changer for me because that wasn’t on the tour, but they were so enamored with it that we just had to stop and make it a stop, which you’re able to do depending on time and things like that.

Raven Cook:
So we started to talk about it and just kind of discuss it and we all had this consciousness of how we deal with double consciousness, right? We all had this sense of the way that we’re viewed by society and the way that we actually exist.

Raven Cook:
So there were subtle symbolisms like the watermelon in Souvenirs Of Our Trip, which is this red. It has these colors, these rich really reds and then it has like a boat at the top that says Jamestown. It’s a doll that is overlaid in red and she has like a black face. But then she uses shells, like the African type shells, to use for the lips. It’s a beautiful piece that she puts tobacco cans on the skirt of the doll, just to kind of echo that Jamestown is… The product that James Town becomes significant for in history is tobacco, right? So it kind of echoes this sense of what that means.

Raven Cook:
But the watermelon on the bottom, historically, Black people are using watermelon economically, buying and like selling watermelon for their ability to galvanize tour economic independence, right, to do this American thing. But we know that watermelon is also tied to minstrelsy or these shows that will reveal blackness with stereotypes and caricatures of not who we are, right?

Raven Cook:
She reclaims these narratives and then introduces them in a way that can have conversations about forgiveness, right? Because the keys on the piece actually represent are symbolic of forgiveness. So she’s having this conversation within this work of art that’s just a back and forth of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can go. I really like pieces that do that work of talking about past, present, and future. And it is right in front of Kerry James Marshall’s Our Town. So it gives you this really important conversation of what’s going on in the world through both sculpture and a literally painted canvas. So it’s a really powerful moment.

Raven Cook:
The young ladies at the stop, we were able to talk about blackness in a way that I really needed to for my own personal self. It was a day I really needed to be able to have that moment where I reached out to somebody that looked like me and talked about what I was seeing and how it worked, and to have a group of young ladies that we were all kind of echoing these same ideals. Some days, the kids are really just like a salve for a wound that you may have and it just kind of helps you grow and build as a thinker and an educator, and they’re really just incredible. I’ve been so honored to work with some of these students that have come through the doors.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, it’s a big project for Crystal Bridges, the education.

Raven Cook:
Huge.

Stace Treat:
And these opportunities are invaluable.

Raven Cook:
They are so brilliant. It’s really great.

Stace Treat:
Kentrell, I wanted to ask you about a particular work that you mentioned. It’s a relatively new acquisition that we had on view recently.

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah.

Stace Treat:
The artist’s name is Willie Birch. Can you tell me a little bit about that piece?

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah. First, before we get into that, I do want to say All or Nothing was an exhibition, was the focus of the exhibition that the Willie Birch piece was sort of first put on display in. I think that the All or Nothing exhibition itself, which kind of deals with this idea of color, all with it being black in this case and nothing being white in this exhibition, I want to point that out because I was talking to Raven and she just kind of told me about some of the dialogues that grew out of that exhibition being there and this idea of color, especially on the abstract piece that is literally a black canvas and a white canvas and how that sort of turned into a conversation about status in America.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. That was by Ellsworth Kelly.

Raven Cook:
Yes.

Kentrell Curry:
Right. Right. I want to just kind of mention that because I think it shows how important art is for building those conversations and sparking those sort of inspirations. But the Willie Birch-

Stace Treat:
Well, it was interesting that you note, because even the artists featured in that were a pretty good balance and mix of White and Black artists as well.

Kentrell Curry:
That’s true.

Raven Cook:
It was some really great dialogue from kids. The Ellsworth Kelly piece, the kids actually saw it as a story of like they actually personified the two just plain canvases. They personified them and then started having a conversation about who had access to what and how the black piece was bigger, but it didn’t have access to being a part of the white piece. There was still like this divide and they broke it down in such a masterful way that I’d never even thought about. So yeah, I had to share that with Kentrell.

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah. The Willie Birch piece itself really sort of speaks to me because I just remember sitting around a table playing dominoes with my friends and just having a good time. That’s called-

Stace Treat:
You all call them bones, right?

Kentrell Curry:
Yeah, we call them bones. I really couldn’t tell you where that comes from, that name itself, but we do call it bones. It’s just kind of one of those traditions within the Black community in a lot of spaces. But the Willie Birch piece, it’s just that reality. It really wipes away any sort of myth that you might have about blackness as far as how we spend our every day. I think that it’s important to have that piece hanging on the wall because it can also spark a conversation about the way that Black people are perceived, especially when you are unfamiliar with a scene.

Kentrell Curry:
So someone comes up to this painting and has no knowledge of dominoes, doesn’t really know much about New Orleans or I believe it was in the Ninth Ward that this painting was in, that this artwork was sort of pointing to, but if someone comes up to that artwork and has no understanding of those things, they might not realize that this is a reality. They might project their myth of Black people onto that canvas. But the job of the work itself is to challenge that. The work itself really challenges the myths that are out there. And Willie Birch, much like Jacob Lawrence, is painting the realities of the Black experience. And I think that that’s just important because it’s been excluded for so long and we have to take a step towards including those stories and including those just true reality.

Kentrell Curry:
So that piece for me, it’s just really one of those just real moments, almost like a photograph. Like, you can’t fake it. That’s what I really like about that work.

Stace Treat:
Well, thinking forward, what are the possibilities for an inclusive art museum? What would you think that would look like? And what kinds of discussions do you think we need to have?

Kentrell Curry:
I think the biggest thing is, is that we need to be willing to take risks. As cultural institutions, we need to be willing to take risks, because nothing is ever going to change if people are just settling for what’s already there.

Kentrell Curry:
We have to be bold. Not everybody’s going to like the practices that you may take, but you have to actively practice diverse hiring policies. You have to actively speak about issues in a community and connect with the community to sort of understand what their needs are. The institution, the museum institution should be a space where people can come and decipher culture, a place where we can come and discuss culture and discuss the realities and not the myth.

Raven Cook:
I would say just to have courage and being comfortable with the uncomfortable, and just being fearless about how you present these stories, and being honest. As Kentrell said, you’re not always going to have people who support what you do, but just being bold and brave and saying, “This needs to be done.” Also, being not afraid of failure and just being willing to fail forward, as we say in education, and just make sure that even when you’re not necessarily hitting the mark, you’re able to reevaluate and assess like how do we do this better, seeking the narratives from the community, making sure the community plays an active role in how you present exhibitions and how you have conversations about especially race and identity and gender and sexual orientation, all these different things in the context of exhibition space.

Raven Cook:
I think just being brave and being compassionate, also understanding that everybody’s moving differently in their journey and just having the compassion to say, “I know you’re maybe not here, but let’s try to talk about it and figure out how we can get you a step forward and not keep you going backward.” We’re always moving forward.

Stace Treat:
Kentrell Curry, Raven Cook, I want to thank you so much for this enriching conversation, which I hope is just the beginning of even more.

Raven Cook:
Thanks for having us.

Kentrell Curry:
Yes. Thank you so much.

Raven Cook:
That’s really great.

Stace Treat:
Thanks for tuning in to Museum Way. We hope you enjoyed the episode, and that you tune in each month to hear more. We’ll be sharing extra info about this episode on our blog, so head over to crystalbridges.org for artwork images, resources, and more related today’s conversation. I’m Stace Treat. I’ll catch you next month right here on Museum Way.

 

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