Museums focus on inclusive programming

Exhibits, book clubs and educational materials show visitors how we got here.
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The Windows GR exhibit at Grand Rapids Public Museum focuses on works created for downtown last summer to further discussion of racism in the city. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum

West Michigan museums are giving the public a chance to look at the past through art exhibitions, educational programs and activities.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum, Muskegon Museum of Art and Holland Museum are making a concerted effort to focus on recent history and the social and cultural issues that derived from those times.

GRPM is in the process of developing a curriculum guide with interdisciplinary connections in the arts, social studies and English language arts for students and educators in grades 6-12. The guide will provide activities and lesson plans that will tackle various matters including race through a Grand Rapids lens so that students can engage in those conversations.

Some of those lesson plans will incorporate the historical events of last summer. Most recently, GRPM purchased three large-scale art pieces that focus on racism from Jalexia Stoutmyre, a multimedia artist; DeVante Barnes, a visual and musical artist; and Guillermo Sotelo, artist and graffiti writer, who all created them last year for the Windows GR project.

The project emerged after the Black Lives Matter protest that later turned into a riot in the streets of Grand Rapids following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The rioters damaged several downtown buildings.

Stoutmyre, Barnes and Sotelo, all artists of color, used the plywood-covered windows on those buildings to paint pieces that speak out about racism.

Since the protests of last summer, the Muskegon Museum of Art has placed an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion through its exhibitions, programs and admission.

Its newest exhibition is “Our Voice: Celebrating the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.” The exhibit includes artwork from books that have won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, which is presented each year by the American Library Association to African American authors and illustrators of books for children and teens.

The museum reintroduced its “SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male” exhibition in a virtual form. The exhibition is portraits of Black men from the Greater Muskegon area and it is meant to explore how the Black American male perceives himself and how others perceive him.

Along with returning the SONS exhibit, the museum has produced “Black Man,” a documentary film created and directed by Jon Covington, which chronicles the experiences — past and present day — of 32 African American men ages 18 to 94 from all walks of life and experiences. The film was featured at the 2020 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The museum also is featuring the work of contemporary Native American artists in “Art of the People: Contemporary Anishinaabe Artists,” “Levi Rickert: Standing Rock, Photographs of an Indigenous Movement” and Jim Denomie’s “Challenging the Narrative.”

MMA will dedicate its summer exhibition program to women artists. Starting on May 27, the museum will be showcasing the “Rising Voices 2: The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters” exhibition. It will feature works of 10 female finalists for the Bennett Prize. The winner will receive $50,000.

“We are more determined than ever to do programming that reflects our community,” said Kirk Hallman, MMA executive director.

The museum also started offering free admission to families who are receiving food assistance through its participation in Museums for All, an Institute of Museum Library Services initiative. As a result, EBT cardholders can receive free admission for four guests per card.

“We can never forget our mission to stimulate learning and creativity through diverse public and educational programming, and enhance community involvement and support in a safe, accessible and welcoming environment,” said Marguerite Curran, MMA director of marketing.

Holland Museum is continuing its Cultural Lens Series after its traveling exhibition “THEM: Images of Separation” concluded in January 2020.

The series was a big part of the exhibition, which showcased the negative stereotypical imagery on postcards, license plates, games, souvenirs and costumes toward Asian Americans, Hispanics, Jews and poor whites, and people of different sexual orientation and body type.

There is a virtual program at least once a month where experts talk about different topics, some of which are geared toward adults and others toward families.

The museum is focusing on fair housing and the history behind some policies this month. Michelle Stempien, education and community programs manager for Holland Museum, said over the past few months they’ve had discussions about allyship.

“We are doing programs that focus on Black, Indigenous and people of color, LGBTQ communities, to explore topics that are important … and that we all need to know about,” she said. “It is so important that we are having a dialogue with our community about these topics. The museum has been very focused on telling particular stories. We need to broaden the stories that we are telling at the museum with our collections (and) exhibitions so that we are a museum for everyone, that we are connecting with everyone in the community — with all cultures and groups who live here in this area — and programming is one way that we can do that. It is one way that we can do it more immediately. To change exhibitions and add to the collections takes time, but programming is a way that we can start connecting and having an impact immediately.”

Another initiative that Holland Museum rolled out is its Diversity and Culture Celebration Book Club. There are about 200 available books and individuals can check out books for a couple of weeks. The books focus on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) innovators and people who have made change happen.

“Like all organizations, we are trying to get back to normal or have some sense of normalcy, but I can say that this focus on DEI is going to be a part of our normal going forward,” Stempien said. “It is going to be a very big part of what we’ll do here.”

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