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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Expands Access through Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Nari Ward
We the People (black version), 2015
8 ft. × 27ft.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas,
Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music,
1965 to Now, MCA Chicago, July 11—November 22, 2015

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art begins 2017 with commitments to expand access through museum-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives. A range of community outreach programs, internship and workforce diversity initiatives, a bilingual exhibition, and an art-based symposium serve to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion toward the museum’s mission of welcoming all. 

“Visitors should feel welcome from the moment they arrive, and throughout their experience in the galleries, on the trails, or at any of our programs,” said Crystal Bridges Executive Director Rod Bigelow, whose title was recently expanded to include Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “We know that our visitors represent a broad range of learning styles, abilities, and life situations–our goal is to better understand the spectrum of needs and address them in positive and inclusive ways. We want to meet visitors where they are in life and make their museum experience meaningful.”

Programs & Partnerships:

In 2015, the Access and Inclusive Programs Department was formed at Crystal Bridges to work with partners who have deep relationships in the community. Crystal Bridges is also working with advisory groups, clinicians and professionals to identify needs, programs, and accommodations for visitors with disabilities. Disability awareness training is available for staff and volunteers. Programs for people with disabilities that affect physical ability, learning, language, or behavior include:

·         Camp Connect at Crystal Bridges, a summer day camp program for children with autism and peer mentors.  The camp is a collaboration with Project Connect at the University of Arkansas and features activities for children to connect with artwork in the museum’s collection while also making connections with other children in the program.

·         Creative Connections, a program for individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and related dementia and their care partners; it is a collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association and the Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education. 

Mark and Ann, a husband and wife who participate in Creative Connections said this:

“Had it not been for Creative Connections, we probably still wouldn’t be in a support group. We avoided support groups for three years, thinking we were not ready. Creative Connections sounded more like fun and fellowship. It was that and more. Participating in Creative Connections has certainly proven to be one of our best decisions. I cannot say either of us is a better artist, but we know that our new network of friends has our back.”

Access and inclusive accommodations include:

·         For visitors who are blind or have low vision, the museum offers verbal description, tactile or multisensory tours upon request, and museum educators are trained with organizations like Art Beyond Sight to learn best practices. 

·         For visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing, the museum provides assistive listening devices upon request. The Distinguished Speaker Series includes American Sign Language interpretation. ASL interpretation is available for monthly guided tours and upon request for lectures, programs, films or tours with two weeks’ notice.

Programs can serve as an access point to engage new audiences. Events such as the Multicultural Festival and El Día de los Niños attract thousands of visitors from different cultural communities and celebrate the diversity of Northwest Arkansas through music and dance, multi-lingual art talks in the galleries, studio art activities and more. (According to a 2015 Quality of Life study conducted by the Walton Family Foundation, Hispanic attendance rates at Crystal Bridges increased from 30% in 2012 to 62% in 2015.)

In tandem with reaching out to new audiences, the museum offers free transportation and provides literacy programs to help remove social, financial and emotional barriers to the museum.  For English-language learners, Crystal Bridges provides sessions to help participants practice reading, speaking, listening and writing English while learning about American history and culture through the museum’s collection. These programs are in partnerships with groups such as the Literacy Council of Benton County, Springdale Family Literacy Program, and Ozark Literacy Council. Read more about the literacy programs HERE.

Leadership & Workforce:

According to a landmark survey completed in 2015 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of 278 museums in the United States, 84% of positions involved in the intellectual and educational missions of the organizations are filled by whites. The same study found that, although 70% of the curatorial, education and conservation staff of museums are female, women comprise only 24% of directors at museums.

 “Fostering inclusiveness and achieving diversity is one of the most critical issues facing museums today,” notes Bigelow. “In order to achieve comprehensive change, Crystal Bridges is committed to implementing a strategic plan that takes root in our organization and impacts the museum field broadly.  We can’t tell the American story through a singular voice. Everyone’s experience is enriched when multiple voices are represented.”

 Positioning underrepresented professionals as leaders is essential—it’s important to nurture a diverse pool of young people to consider museums as a career choice. One way Crystal Bridges is introducing the next generation to museum opportunities is through the High School Residential Internship, for students who are demographically underrepresented in the museum field. In 2015, the Walton Family Foundation provided a grant to Crystal Bridges to produce this pilot program for schools located in Phillips County, Arkansas. During 2016, the program brought 10 students to the museum for a six-week internship to experience every facet of the museum’s operations, from exhibition design to education to culinary services.

 The program gave students first-hand experience to broaden their appreciation and understanding of American art and and introduce them to a range of professional opportunties in the museum field. The goal of the program is to bring in a new group of students each summer, some of whom might be future curators, educators or chefs, making the museum industry, as a whole, more accessible to young people.

 Exhibitions & Collection:

“In addition to expanding access with outreach and education, we exhibit and acquire works by artists of all cultural backgrounds to broaden our understanding of the American experience,” said Bigelow. “Through works, such as those in Border Cantos, Crystal Bridges is able to facilitate conversations in a space that is inclusive and respectful.”

 Border Cantos: Sight & Sound Explorations from the Mexican-American Border is a temporary exhibition in which American photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican American sculptor and composer, Guillermo Galindo, use the power of art to explore the complex issues surrounding the United States-Mexico border. The exhibition will be on view February 18- April 24, 2017. Presented in English and Spanish, Border Cantos is the museum’s first fully bilingual exhibition and seeks to shed light on migration stories through works of art, inviting visitors to bridge boundaries and initiate conversations.

 As part of Border Cantos, Crystal Bridges is reaching out to community partners to develop supplemental programs, presentations, panels and events to expand the reach of the exhibition into schools, churches and other community-based organizations.  The museum’s newly formed Border Cantos Advisory Committee is a think-tank of local Hispanic/Latino community leaders that provides feedback and guidance on the exhibition and programs, particularly around interpretation elements and identifying opportunities to be more culturally inclusive.

 In the upcoming Art in Conversation Symposium on Friday, April 7-8, artists, curators, and scholars will convene at Crystal Bridges to explore issues of identity, race, class, gender, and the environment through the art in the permanent collection. Artist Nari Ward, will kick off the symposium alongside Crystal Bridges Curator, Lauren Haynes. The discussion will be focused on a recent acquisition, We the People (black version) and the question of how a work of art serves as a call to action to challenge societal power structures.

 We the People, an 8 x 27-foot wall sculpture, presents the three most recognizable words of the U.S. constitution. The opening phrase of the preamble is spelled out using hand-dyed shoelaces assembled in the form of elegant script.

 We the People calls on us to reflect on our bedrock values as Americans through its translation of that iconic text into everyday materials,” said Crystal Bridges Curator, Chad Alligood. “It references our shared history in all its messiness, its beauty, and even its sadness. Yet, the work remains hopeful. We invite visitors to find their own meaning and power in these words; they remind us that American democracy requires an inclusive embrace of our individual differences, like each colorful shoelace that comprises the whole.”

 Nari Ward was born in St. Andrews, Jamaica, and moved to the United States as a child. As an immigrant and eventually a naturalized citizen, he had a unique vantage point from which to observe American identity.  Working in and around New York City, Ward often uses the detritus from the streets around him—materials that he gathers and then presents anew in his artworks. In this way he connects directly to other artists represented in the Crystal Bridges collection such as Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell and Nancy Grossman. The work will be on view in the 1940s to Now Gallery in early spring. Ward was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York and Documenta XI in Kassel (2003). His works have been exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.