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St. Louis hosts national conversation on diversity and inclusion within museums

Visitors to the Contemporary Art Museum are now (Sept. 30, 2016) greeted by warning signs and a wall that went up in front of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive exhibit following criticism and outrage of the work.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A national meeting of museum professionals in St. Louis this week will explore responding to community conflicts and controversies, like the Kelley Walker exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in September 2016.

The region’s arts attractions could be a little more crowded this week.

As many as 5,000 people are expected to attend the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting, which is being held in St. Louis this year. The event, which kicks off Sunday, is the country’s largest gathering of museum professionals. 

“This is really the annual coming to the tent,” said Frances Levine, president of the Missouri Historical Society, who co-chairs the host committee. “This is one that cuts across all of the different museums genres. So it's everything from science museums to children's museums.”

Attendees will get to explore local museums and arts destinations, and have their choice of dozens of sessions under the broad theme of “Gateway to Understanding.”

Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American, is also a co-chair of the host committee. He said he’s especially pleased the group is choosing to focus on diversity and inclusion.

“This field, this area of museums, I think you tend to find people who are more open-minded, generally, around these issues,” he said.

Organizers say this year’s theme is no accident.

“Museums are very hungry for this,” Levine said. “The museums in the St. Louis region were known to be responding to some of these kinds of issues in a way that the (American Alliance of Museums) felt we had so much to offer to museums around the country.”

The public can take part as well, Levine said. A forum Monday morning will reveal the results of a first-of-its kind national survey of museum leadership, including looking at demographics. A panel Tuesday afternoon delves into the role of museums amid community conflicts, such as racial divides. 

One topic likely to come up, Levine said, is the controversy that resulted from the Contemporary Art Museum displaying works by Kelley Walker last fall.

The young, white artist’s exhibit was made up of iconic pictures from black culture and media, that Walker then digitally altered. One of the major pieces was a floor-to-ceiling print of the rapper Trina in a bikini on the cover of KING magazine, covered with digital scans of toothpaste.

It also included a picture of civil rights protesters in Birmingham being attacked by police dogs, with different shades of chocolate splashed across it.

The reaction was swift. There were calls for a boycott, and the museum put up a barrier around the work. News of the St. Louis incident traveled throughout the art world.

“I think it came down to a personality of a curator, the nature of the work and the background in St. Louis at that time in the aftermath of Ferguson,” Suggs said. “Some of these factors helped create the storm, because I would see a contemporary art museum as being more progressive and open.”

Suggs said in general, it’s been a “mixed bag,” when it comes to St. Louis museums and inclusivity.

“I think that in almost every case, it is a long way to go,” he said.

He called the current civil rights exhibit at the Missouri History Museum a highlight. Conference-goers will be encouraged to see the exhibit, as well as others in the area.

“I hope that this meeting helps to encourage, you know, some more substantive change in the way these organizations are run,” Suggs said. “One can't do what you’ve been doing and expect change to come. But I do think something like this can serve as perhaps the catalyst, you know, to make it more clear that some of these things can be done and maybe emphasize why they should be done.”

Follow Kameel on Twitter: @cornandpotatoes

Kameel Stanley co-hosted and co-produced the We Live Here podcast—covering race, class, power, and poverty in the St. Louis Region—from 2015 to 2018.