Sometimes mistakes happen and people try to fix them quickly and quietly, in order to move on. Other times, lessons are learned, conversations are had and a new culture emerges. Shortly after Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle opened in January to a weekend of free programming around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a conversation began at PEM that has us asking questions and digging deeper into the way things are done.
The dialogue began in the pages of our guest book. Comments kept coming about our panel of staff photos at the end of the exhibition, meant to give credit to those who worked on the project. Comments like:
The exhibit is well-done but not a single person of color (African American) on such a large Jacob Lawrence team…
Comments have also included: “Where are the black employees?” – “Great show. Very interesting to see the staff poster at the end – how few people of color appear to work at the PEM.” – “Astute observation: what perspectives could have been added if there was diversity on the team?”
The American Alliance of Museums has partnered with the Mellon Foundation to survey museums and have found that we’re all in a similar boat when it comes to striving for more staff diversity. We at PEM are no different. We are a staff of creative, arts loving people who crave multiculturalism. But we look a lot alike.
What to do when we are openly called out for it? Do we take down the staff photos at the end of the exhibition? Do we not undertake racially charged exhibition topics in the first place? Jacob Lawrence was the most prominent 20th-century black artist in America whose 30-painting Struggle series told the founding of our democracy through the words and actions of not only America’s founding fathers, but enslaved people, women and Native Americans.
My co-producer and co-host Chip Van Dyke and I made a podcast about it. This episode features an interview with Lev McClain, PEM's Associate Director of Security, who recently shared at an all-staff meeting recent findings and recommendations from our Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. McClain also shared how he started at PEM 15 years ago with a paid internship just as we strive to make this a sustainable program going forward.
Lev McClain sharing at the listening tour during the opening weekend of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
We know Jacob Lawrence's Struggle series is having a profound effect on people. During a Listening Tour in the gallery, Felicia Pearce from the North Shore Community Development Coalition, read a letter she wrote to Jacob Lawrence about how he is the first artist who made her care about art and see herself in his work.
Felicia Pierce reading during the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle opening day listening tour. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
For the PEMcast, we also talk with our Chief Financial Officer Nathalie Apchin who previously managed the finances for an agency that helps low-income families. Apchin is part of PEM’s ongoing strategic planning to make PEM more inclusive for all.
PEM Chief Financial Officer Nathalie Apchin. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
We also feature two artists who lend a contemporary voice to the Lawrence exhibition. Bethany Collins and Derrick Adams are thinking about the biggest struggles in America today, evidenced in their work that examines both harmonious music and dissonant voices.
Contemporary artist Bethany Collins. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Contemporary artist Derrick Adams. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Often there is so much more than meets the eye or can be seen in a staff photo. Doris from our education department shared during a recent staff Bias Training Session that they pass as white, female and heterosexual … though they don't identify as any of those things.
We hope you enjoy this episode, as well as our recent blog post from McClain, which examines this story from his perspective. While you’re at it, see this page on our website for more on how PEM is working to be more inclusive.
During February School Vacation Week, we captured the sound of a hip hop collective as they reacted in real time to Lawrence’s paintings and his theme of struggle. Enjoy the words and music from Wreck Shop Movement.
Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
“Thank you Jacob Lawrence” Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggleis the first museum exhibition of the series of paintings Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) by the best known black American artist of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Reunited for the first time in more than sixty years, the paintings revive Lawrence's way of reimagining American history as shared history and, as he wrote, “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” The exhibition is on view at PEM through April 26, 2020. Share your impressions with us on social media using #AmericanStruggle and #peabodyessex.
NATIONAL TOUR Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
Peabody Essex Museum January 18–April 26, 2020
The Metropolitan Museum of Art June 2–September 7, 2020
Birmingham Museum of Art October 17, 2020–January 10, 2021
Seattle Art Museum February 11–May 23, 2021
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. June 26–September 19, 2021