When we enter a gallery or a museum, we bring stories.
Dr. Melissa Crum, Founder and Principal Consultant of the Mosaic Education Network, showed Wexner Center staff how to unfold these stories. On August 27th and September 7th, Dr. Crum facilitated a diversity training workshop that focused on stories—the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others, and the stories we unwittingly internalize. In the workshop, which included full- and part-time staff, GAA’s, student interns, store and café staff, docents, and security officers, we contemplated how stories are not isolated, decontextualized products. They are cultural narratives, molded by our society and shaped by our understanding of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality.
Organized by Executive Director, Sherri Geldin, Director of Education, Shelly Casto, Director of Administration & Operations Maureen Thomas, Administration Manager Peg Fochtman, Manager, Gallery Teaching and Engagement, Tracie McCambridge, and Educator and Manager, School Partnerships, Dionne Custer Edwards, the workshop was an opportunity to reflect and openly discuss how to create a more inclusive space for Wex visitors. It served as an energizing start to this year’s exhibitions, which includes artists such as Mickalene Thomas, RaMell Ross, and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, all artists who question and reframe Black representation.
Dr. Crum brought her previous experience with the Wexner and her expertise in diversity, inclusion, race, and ethnicity to the workshop. Along with serving as a Shumate Council member and advisor of the Education staff, she holds an MA in African American and African Studies and a PhD in Arts Administration, Education and Policy. She also works as a curriculum developer for Americans for the Arts. She is an Adjunct Professor for the Columbus College of Art & Design and founder of the Mosaic Education Network, a consulting company that combines arts, education, inclusion, and narrative to help foster relationships with communities.
We shared stories to promote brave spaces and honor different realities.
Before we dove into the workshop, Dr. Crum framed our dialogue by challenging us to embrace “brave spaces,” opportunities to ask and respond to difficult questions. These were chances to be cognizant of questions we may avoid and to celebrate our engagement with these subjects in performance spaces, galleries, and beyond the walls of the Wex. Dr. Crum also encouraged us to speak from the situated place of our own experiences. There are diverse stories of identity and daily interaction, and thus there are different realities. These narratives exist in the same space. Our intention, Dr. Crum emphasized, is to honor these distinct truths.
We contemplated stories about Black women.
In our first activity, we acknowledged how stories about racial groups frame visual art and its history. Artwork is part of a tradition that values, foregrounds, and defines “beauty” and “art.” Significantly, groups such as African Americans have been historically excluded from these definitions.
Dr. Crum highlighted this exclusion and erasure with an activity. Each table of participants received a copy of a well-known portrait. Dr. Crum asked us to write a short, three-to-four sentence story about a Black woman in the portrait. After creating these stories, we shared them with our fellow table members, noting differences and similarities. The purpose of this discussion was to critically reflect on how Black women are visually portrayed and positioned. These women resided in the portrait’s background; their visual stories were marginalized. Yet, the portrait and our desires for the black female subjects were at odds. Incongruent. While the portrait hid them in the shadows, we wanted to foreground their feelings, longings, and curiosity. What did our conflict between the portrait and our desires say about the history of portraiture?
To explore this question, Dr. Crum explained how images prompt stories about difference, emphasizing that we must always do the difficult work of challenging these narratives. To challenge these perceptual frames is to confront the way in which images and other art mediums participate in bias, exclusion, and institutional racism.
We analyzed stories of one’s own experience and position within a system.
In another activity, we visually mapped our identity markers. The resulting map traced our positive and negative experiences with race and our feelings about our own identity. In small groups, these maps served as guides for contemplating our own biases and internal conflicts. We discussed not only our perceptions of race but also how we formed them. Thus, we had to confront bias and how it is created. Dr. Crum also discussed how identities are “normalized” and privileged over others—our goal is to recognize when policies and artistic canons participate in this exclusion and imbalance.
We contemplated stories about Black women in Mickalene Thomas’s work.
In our previous activities, we self-consciously analyzed the stories around us. At this point in the workshop, Dr. Crum’s session came full circle by contemplating how artists create stories for those who have been silenced and ignored. Currently, Mickalene Thomas’s show, “I Can’t See You Without Me,” is on display in the Wexner galleries from September 14th to December 30th –her three-dimensional, textured paintings contemplate the relationship between artist and muse, while traversing a history of portraiture and touching on themes such as the gaze, Black femininity, sexuality, agency, and more.
Dr. Crum discussed how Thomas’s work challenges heteronormativity and whiteness; she also connected our previous reflection to Mickalene Thomas’s show, artwork that subverts preconceived narratives about portraiture and gives breathing room to Black women’s untold stories. At the beginning of the workshop, we worked to create stories of Black women in portraits. Thomas’s work, Dr. Crum articulated, fills the gallery with narratives about them. Presence signifies on a history of absence.
Additionally, Dr. Crum provided a series of questions for docents, staff, and visitors. “How might Thomas challenge identity markers?” “What does it mean to highlight women with afros and dark skin?” “To highlight women who may be erased from systems?” “To re-center Black femininity?” “To re-center Black women in positive stories when negative stories attempt to surround them?” These questions can help generate conversation around Mickalene’s work.
Stories as theories.
We ended the workshop by reviewing terminology such as “intersectionality,” “race,” and “institutional racism” to further contextualize Thomas’s work. These terms became our new frames, useful concepts for revisiting the portraits that constrict Black women’s stories. Our goal, as Dr. Crum’s workshop reminded us, is to continue to foster a dialogue with different stories, an intention we carry with us in the gallery, during tours, and before and after Wex programming. Dr. Crum’s workshop, an informative and engaging session, was a thought-provoking introduction to this year’s events.
–Ebony Bailey, Shumate Council Intern
photo credit: Brooke LaValley
Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Visit wexarts.org for more details: https://wexarts.org/exhibitions/mickalene-thomas-i-cant-see-you-without-me