Connected Learning

“Museums Are Not Neutral”

YPAR Class Examines Power and Positionality with Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (moCa)

Located in the urban center of Cleveland, moCa is a non-collecting art institution and seeks to advance the visual art of our time. moCa is the region’s only contemporary art museum. moCa was one of the six community partners who contributed to the Educator Innovator proposal. CIHS students took part in a powerful and illuminating session with two community partners, LaTanya Autry and Melissa Kansky, from moCa. LaTayna and Melissa shared critical and timely perspectives with students about the wide range of roles that exist within a museum as well as how the decisions that are made by the individuals in the various roles shape and inform the specific art that is selected, how and where art is displayed, and what themes are reflected in a museum’s exhibits.

moCa was a natural choice to invite to the Zoom room for two reasons. First, they were a partner in this work during the previous academic year. Second, one of the 2020-21 YPAR groups had formed around an interest in understanding, in their words, “the role of Black artists at this time.” By “time”, the students were cuing a historical moment that included greater attention to racial justice, rising concern around persistent racial inequities, and growing momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement. The 9th grade students in this group wanted to know and better understand the role and work and possibilities of Black artists in this era. Not surprisingly, moCa came to mind immediately as a hopeful guest to the YPAR class. What was surprising, however, was the focus and content of our ultimate conversation. This was due in large part to the fact that, in addition to Melissa, director of education, LaTanya, a fellow at moCa, joined the conversation.

LaTayna’s role and experience within museums informed the conversation in a powerful way. At this point in their YPAR process, the CIHS youth in the “Black artists” group had focused their attention largely on Black artists as individuals. They were looking at what Black artists were creating, how they were positioning themselves, and what art as activism could or might look like in the Black Lives Matter era. The conversation with moCa, given the connection to an institutional context and the professional and personal perspectives and identities of the guests from moCa, took all of us into a much broader conversation about art, art collections, and artists. Instead of looking solely at the artist, this interaction allowed us to enter into a conversation about art as an industry, including a critical and thought-provoking conversation about how decisions are made within the museum world. Specifically, we discussed who has the power to make different kinds of decisions in museums. Moreover, what are the range of backgrounds, including class, race, language, and culture backgrounds of those who tend to be in decision making positions within museums and the art industry at large. The live conversation was dynamic and powerful, yet, as we learned several times during remote teaching and learning via Zoom, so was the chat. The conversation was fueled by a series of reactions, questions, and comments that students and teachers were able to share in text form that surfaced important questions about art and art museums in particular.

Our conversation engaged the ideas and beliefs that rest at the core of the Museums are Not Neutral initiative. A movement and a social media hashtag, #museumsarenotneutral aims to “expose the myth of museum neutrality and demand equity-based transformation across institutions”. This initiative is built on the belief that museums can and should be agents of social change, yet it requires active community engagement and participation to make that happen. According to co-founder LaTayna, “Our initiative spotlights actions for change and exposes how the claim of neutrality fosters unequal power relations, and Museums Are Not Neutral became my way to inform people that I reject the status quo. It’s one of my tools for improving the museum field, and it is now a global community.

This conversation was a powerful case for cultivating meaningful community partnerships, specifically for their potential to evolve and expand over time. In the case of moCa, the partnership was largely forged in an effort to introduce students to the museum and to experience the museum. We also built the partnership with an explicit hope that students would critically read the space and think about who felt welcome and included in this space and who might not feel welcome or included in the space. With LaTayna as a guest speaker, the conversation naturally turned to thinking about museums as institutions and, specifically, how decisions are made, and by whom, about the art that is collected and how the art is curated.

LaTayna and Melisssa also took time to share with students some of the nuances of moCa’s mission. For example, they highlighted how moCa works to push the boundaries of creativity, exploration, and innovation, aims to represent a diverse group of artists and art, and hopes to welcome and engage a diverse audience. In this way, moCa intends to resist some of the taken-for-granted ideas of who museums are for and guest expectations of the artists and artwork included in the space. Part of moCa’s work is to convey how the medium of art supports individuals and communities to push the boundaries of learning and seek ways to promote social change and activism through creative expression. LaTayna and Melissa supported students to see how art museums can be spaces that foster and cultivate collaborative and interactive engagement, problem-solving, and curiosity, yet much of that depends on who works in the museum and what kinds of decisions are made by those in power.

This session surfaced as a case of how the kinds of partnerships that are fostered during the course of YPAR allows students to encounter and work with previously unexplored and unexamined topics, allowing students to consider their research question and research interest in a new way.

If you want to learn more about moCa, please visit their website here.

This post is part of the Co-Creating Virtual Learning Spaces for School-Based YPAR collection.