University of Michigan Museum of Art announces commitment to anti-racist action

Black Lives Matter. These powerful words are featured on a new banner that will welcome faculty, staff, students and other campus visitors to the University of Michigan Museum of Art for the foreseeable future.

Installed this week at the front of the museum’s Alumni Memorial Hall entrance, it represents a series of anti-racist actions that UMMA has committed to completing within the next year.

Accompanying the phrase-which has again come to the forefront this year following the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey-is a link to the museum’s full Anti-Racist Action statement that details their plans to “build a more inclusive museum.”

Though UMMA director Christina Olsen and her team have been intentionally working on exhibitions and programming that embody these commitments since she began leading the museum in 2017, the staff’s goal is to be transparent with the community about their intentions and plans.

“Museums haven’t always been places of equality and solidarity, where everyone feels like they belong, but we’re working to keep changing our practices to make sure that’s increasingly the case moving forward,” Olsen said. “The purpose of making a public announcement is to hold us accountable to the commitments we set forth here, and to assert these commitments as broadly known institutional values and principles.”

The effort was led by the museum’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, co-chaired by Chrisopher Ankney, director of marketing and public relations at UMMA, and Anna Sampson, interim chief development officer. The group developed the action steps and commitment language over the course of several months of input with more than 50 staff members, students and collaborators at partner U-M and community organizations.

UMMA’s commitment will be focused on four main priorities for the museum’s work in 2020-21, including:

  • Amplifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) perspectives and voices in UMMA galleries, exhibitions and other platforms, onsite and online
  • Being transparent and open about UMMA’s history and collections
  • Making the museum an open, safe, comfortable and equitable place
  • Prioritizing and institutionalizing anti-racist staff development and education

“This public commitment statement may live on our website, but our hope is that the values from which it was born are also represented in our programs, exhibitions, communications and in our interactions with our visitors,” Ankney said.

Visitors may have already noticed the museum begin to transform in recent years through acquisitions from artists like Titus Kaphar and Chitra Ganesh; commissions from artists like Meleko Mokgosi which explores Pan-Africanism; and through interventions like “Collection Ensemble,” which staged a complete reinstallation of UMMA’s historic Tische Apse that replaced the mostly Western art collection on view with works from artists that more reflect UMMA’s diverse audience and collection. It includes more work by women and BIPOC artists, spanning genres, media and eras.

“We have tried to take into consideration all of the ways that our varied audiences interact with us, and we want them to know that we understand that being actively anti-racist involves much more than just being not racist,” Olsen said. “We want to act as an ally and offer up our spaces and resources to key community partners who are working on anti-racism and social justice.”

Examples of this include a recent installation of Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s “In-Between the World and Dreams,” an architectural intervention curated by the U-M Institute for the Humanities that blankets UMMA’s exterior with jute sacks. Mahama’s work, which “celebrates the often-invisible labor of Black and brown people behind global exchange and commerce,” offers eye-catching views from the outside, while inside a recent partnership offers gallery space to the city of Ann Arbor for a satellite city clerk’s office, making it more accessible for students to vote. The transformation of the museum continues with other projects as well.

I Write To You About Africa,” launching in early 2021, will double the size of the museum’s space dedicated to African art, and will begin a public investigation into several objects of uncertain provenance and explore their potential repatriation back to their home countries. “Unsettling Histories,” set to open in January 2021, will see the reinstallation of one of UMMA’s most prominent gallery spaces of European and American art as a way for both the museum and its visitors to “examine the ways slavery, colonization, and uncomfortable histories have shaped their collections.”

Other related initiatives include increased efforts to build upon relationships with Title I schools in Michigan; examining and enhancing accessibility and wayfinding throughout the museum; expanding the diversity of the museum’s advisory groups; strengthening hiring tools used to recruit more diverse staff; implementing a review process for all programs, exhibitions and projects through a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and more as detailed in the online commitment.

UMMA is working to develop specific timelines and measures of success, and more details can be found in their full (PDF) FY 21 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.

The museum has made its commitment and action steps available on its website and is now seeking feedback from community members about their plan.

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