More Museums Are Looking In Their Backyards For Artists To Exhibit

[T] he first time I saw Black art, or many people saw Black art, was probably in a museum and it might’ve been one painting…but that one painting showed them that something was possible.” — Artist, Jordan Casteel


Most people’s first exposure to art is through a class trip to a museum. What children see on the walls influences not only their own sense of identity but also their beliefs about whether or not museums are welcoming places. 

For more than 50 years museums in the United States have been criticized for excluding Black artists and women artists from exhibits and acquisitions. For generations, all White curatorial staffs positioned European art depicting aristocrats as high culture. They then lazily engaged art by non-Europeans and women, indiscriminately labeling the works as “primitive,” “outsider” or “folk art.” The result is many people, particularly African-Americans, never again set foot in a museum.

In 2017, building on decades of activism, art worker, LaTanya S. Autry, and museum educator, Mike Murawski, created the Twitter hashtag #museumsarenotneutral to amplify the need for museums to move beyond PR talking points touting racial equity and social justice and actually do the work to transform their institutions for the 21st century. The hashtag went viral and became a global rallying cry for a movement.

Despite continued stonewalling by many museums, there are museums that voluntarily reassessed their missions, strategies for community-building, and the role of museum education in their institutions. These museums are changing how they are visited, curated, and connected to the communities they serve. One of the most interesting developments has been museums looking in their own backyards for artists whose work they can exhibit.  

Local residents who typically don’t visit museums are more likely to attend an exhibit when they identify with the subject matter of the work or the artist who created it. 

Collaborations between museums and their local art communities also help emerging and mid-career artists who’ve been producing great work under the radar. By having a museum exhibit, a local artist has the opportunity for his or her work to be seen by a much wider audience, including regional art writers, collectors, and other cultural institutions.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri used the downtime created by the pandemic to take a fresh look not only at its collection but also its relationship to its neighbors. It wasn’t the first time that the museum took a comprehensive inventory. When Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins, took over in 2010 he spearheaded an 18 month study where museum leaders concluded that the public wants to “discover” art for themselves rather than have the museum dictate what they should like or consider important. The museum implemented innovative programming and, by 2018, attendance was up 43 percent.

More recently, the museum’s staff worked with community stakeholders to determine ways that they could strengthen shared goals and to explore projects of mutual interest. Zugazagoitia stated, “[I]t was a time for reflection on our own history as a museum, our role in social justice issues, and how we can respond to the many important shifts in our culture.” The result was that the museum invited artists from the Kansas City-based African American Artists Collective to exhibit their work. 

The African-American Arts Collective grew out of a 2014 gathering of local artists held at Gates BBQ in Kansas City, Missouri. Subsequently, the group was formalized with the aim to support art that acknowledges or is related to African-American social justice movements. Their first show, “Testimony: African-American Artists Collective,” will run at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art June 5, 2021 through March 2022. 

In 2018, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina launched the Constellation CLT exhibition series at its Uptown location. Constellation CLT is dedicated to introducing visitors to the Mint Museum to local artists. Each year, the work of three different artists from the Charlotte region is featured in the Mint Museum Uptown’s public spaces, including in the entrance; at the foot of the atrium escalator; and on the landings of the Mezzanine and 4th levels.

On view through August 29, 2021 are sculptures and collages by MyLoan Dinh whose family fled Vietnam in 1975. Dinh explores themes related to the fragility of homeland, identity, and perceptions around nationality. Additionally, Dinh tackles how systemic racism is foundational to former Western colonies. Prior Constellation CLT artists include de’Angelo Dia, Georgie Nakima, and Nellie Ashford.

In a 2020 interview with SouthPark magazine, Todd Herman, Mint Museum president and CEO, said. “If we’re not helping [regional artists] in our own community visualize creating art as a viable profession and paying for their work, we’re not fulfilling our mission.” The Mint wants to be seen as a leader in Charlotte and is using its public spaces to collaborate with other cultural organizations. Herman says, “We are part of a cultural ecosystem” adding “we’re a convener. Charlotte has an active cultural scene, and many people don’t see below the surface. We want to help change that.”

“What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth” (2017) by Amy Sherald. Columbus Museum collection

The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia tapped local artists for its exhibit “7+7 Established and Emerging Artists of the Chattahoochee Valley” on view through October 3, 2021 in the Yarborough Gallery. Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art, worked with seven established artists of the Chattahoochee Valley to produce the exhibit. The participating artists are: Bo Bartlett, Najee Dorsey, Betsy Eby, Renato Ferreira, Hannah Israel, Liz Lovin, and Bruno Zupan. Each artist selected an emerging artist from the region whose work he or she believed should have greater visibility. 

The works of the 7+7 exhibition are informed by the turbulent events of 2020. The installation was submitted as seven duos; the established artist paired with their selected emerging artist. The displayed pairs allow the viewer to see the similarities and differences in style, materials, and philosophies of the two artists.

When Walz assumed his position in 2016 he stated that he wanted to advance the museum’s leadership in the region and acquire works by artists who reflect an expanded vision of American art. 

Staying true to his commitment, in 2017, the Columbus Museum, through the Fund For African-American Art, acquired the painting, “What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth” (2017) by artist Amy Sherald. Sherald, a native of Columbus, is best known for her 2018 portrait of First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. A year later, in 2018, the Columbus Museum hosted the traveling exhibition, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.” Thomas was born in Columbus. By highlighting the work of established and emerging local artists in the 7+7 exhibit, the Columbus Museum of Art is presenting the public with a broader narrative on American art.

Rethinking museums as community spaces that welcome local residents, exhibit art that reflects their lives, and respects their judgment enough to encourage them to explore art on their terms is an important step toward making museums relevant to a wider audience. Hopefully, this trend picks up more momentum because it’s woefully overdue.


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APRIL 30, 2021-AUGUST 1, 2021

Man Next, Charly Palmer (2021)

Bold colors, strong figures, introspective messages and beautiful paintings encapsulate one’s experience with Charly Palmer’s work. Easily recognizable, Palmer’s work invites the viewer to stay, linger and escape into the imagery. Hammonds House Museum is thrilled to exhibit Charly Palmer: Departure as our first exhibition of 2021. Departure is a retrospective of 30 years of Palmer’s work, opening with some of his very early works and leading into his most current body of work, The Secret Life of B.E: Becoming, Beginning & Being. Departure represents 30 years of experiences which include the artists’ perception of identity and crisis, divided states, introversion, black beauty and being. A soundscape by cellist, Okorie Johnson accompanies the exhibition.

“Art should change the temperature in a room.” — CHARLY PALMER


Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture. Bynoe has written and lectured extensively about the Hip Hop generation and its relationship to culture, economics and politics.

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