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Boost in visitors, volunteers brings new energy to the Griot Museum of Black History

Things are looking up for St. Louis’ struggling Griot Museum of Black History.

Last fall, Griot founder Lois Conley could barely pay the bills. Plunging attendance meant the museum was only open three days a week. But so far this year, the number of visitors has at least doubled. Conley doesn’t have a hard figure because she hasn’t had time to add up the numbers.

“We’ve just been too busy,” she said. “We were open every day in February and had visitors every day."

The museum's back to being open Thursday through Saturday. Conley’s seeing more visitors from St. Louis County and Illinois, and more groups are coming. Recently, two busloads of students on a road trip to visit colleges arrived from Arkansas. Conley thinks the uptick may be related to an increase in people finding the Griot online.

Even coupled with a small increase in donations, the additional income from the entrance fees isn't enough to secure the museum’s financial future. Still, it's one of several developments that could produce long-term results and even bring new exhibitions, including one around the events of Ferguson.  

That’s the hope of a group calling themselves artivists — activists who make art. Conley said this small group, made up of mostly millennials, shares with the Griot a mission of celebrating the local African-American community.

“It’s a natural partnership,” Conely said.

This photo of the Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave. is from February 2016.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave.

'A valuable resource'

Artivist Elizabeth Vega says she contacted the Griot after seeing St. Louis Public Radio’s November story on the struggling 19-year-old institution.

“I saw the article and recognized this is a valuable resource in our community,” Vega said.

Artivists created their Mirror Casket using mirrors from Goodwill and dollar stores, plywood and sealant.
Credit Elizabeth Vega
Artivists created their Mirror Casket using mirrors from Goodwill and dollar stores, plywood and sealant.

Artivists such as Vega are helping the Griot by participating in focus groups and organizing contingents of students to do things like landscaping and creating a new outdoor sign.  They would eventually like to help mount an exhibition commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement.

Right now, many items they’d put on display are sitting in Vega’s basement.

“The story-wall that was created in Canfield, protest signs, multiple banners,” Vega said.

The artivists are best known for their Mirror Casket, a sculpture designed to demonstrate that anyone can be a victim of violence. Protesters carried the coffin in numerous demonstrations, and it ultimately wound up in the Smithsonian. For artivist De Nichols, that’s bittersweet.

“There aren’t collections in St. Louis that we were able to get it a part of. And that’s actually heartbreaking as much as we celebrate that opportunity,” Nichols said.

Who can be an artivist?

De Nichols, Elizabeth Vega and Marcis Curtis are artivists collaborating with The Griot.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
De Nichols, Elizabeth Vega and Marcis Curtis are artivists collaborating with The Griot.

There are seven core artivists, including Marcis Curtis, a visual artist who often works with wood. He and the others welcome those who just want to dip in and out of the group’s activities, even if they aren't artists.

"A lot of people that come basically say, ‘I have two hands and I can take orders,’” Curtis said. “Oftentimes I find those are the people who contribute in really great ways.”

Volunteers can participate in marches, share information on social media or just play a small part in making a banner.

File photo. Lois D. Conley poses for a portrait in November 2016 at the Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Ave.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lois D. Conley is the founder of the Griot Museum of Black History, on 2505 St. Louis Ave.

“Your entire role as an artivist might be to cut fabric for 20 minutes before you had to go to class,” Curtis said.

Conley said she knows some of the artivists now dedicated to the Griot, especially the younger ones, might want to change the way she runs things. But she welcomes the challenge.

“I think that’s part of what is required as we go forward, to see how my vision might be adjusted,” Conley said.

She said the artivists are already bringing new energy to the Griot. Together, they applied for a grant to bring in a summer art program for people who’ve recently been incarcerated. It would have also included some money for upkeep and maintenance on the building. They were turned down but plan to apply again.

Conley hopes the second time is the charm, and that these new connections will also translate into more financial support for the Griot.

“We don’t need a lot of money, we need a lot of people giving us a little money,” she said.

At the same Conley is pursing big donors to sustain the museum in the long term. 

“I hope to know something by the end of the year,” she said.             

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.