National Gallery of Art, Afro-Atlantic Histories
Vice President Kamala Harris touring Afro-Atlantic Histories with the Second Gentleman and curator Kanitra Fletcher; Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

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During the summer of racial reckoning, sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, organizations across the country issued public statements regarding their stances on racial equity, anti-racism work, and pledges to stand with the Black community. But actions speak louder than words. Aside from statements and black squares on Instagram, what were institutions notoriously famous for excluding Black and Brown people doing to actually achieve equity? 

In D.C., the National Gallery of Art has put its money where its mouth is. The storied institution was created as a home for the nation’s art, but it hasn’t alway reflected the nation it serves. Upon reopening to the public in the spring of 2021, after more-than-a-year-long COVID-induced closure, the museum is standing behind its call for greater representation with active measures. 

It started with a new mission statement, which now reads: “The National Gallery of Art serves the nation by welcoming all people to explore and experience art, creativity, and our shared humanity.”  

“Our first strategic priority is to reflect and attract the nation. So we’re really needing to put the ‘national’ back in National Gallery and really putting people first,” Mikka Gee Conway, the NGA’s chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer, tells City Paper. “I think that’s a new way of looking at what we have historically done.” 

Mikka Gee Conway; courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Prior to the revision, the mission statement read: “The mission of the National Gallery of Art is to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.” The change in language puts emphasis on welcoming all people to the space and acknowledges, and perhaps fosters, a shared humanity. 

The gallery took its statement to heart, developing crucial new roles and bringing in more diverse representation in leadership, including the creation of the associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic Art role, which Kanitra Fletcher filled in February 2021. According to ArtNews.com, Fletcher’s role includes overseeing how Black art is presented at the museum. Other changes in leadership include the hiring of Conway, as well as E. Carmen Ramos as the chief curator and conservation officer in August 2021, and Damon Reaves as head of education in June 2021.

For her first exhibit at the National Gallery, Fletcher led the team that brought the museum’s long-awaited Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit to fruition. But its origins in D.C. dates back to 2019, when Kaywin Feldman was named the director of the National Gallery of Art, becoming the first woman to ever lead the museum. A White woman, Feldman is often credited for helping diversify the museum’s executive officer roles. Afro-Atlantic Histories was the first exhibition she authorized.

The groundbreaking show, which opened on April 10 and closes July 17, is another tangible sign of positive change. Featuring nearly 150 works of art from South and North America as well as Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean—the area known as the “Afro-Atlantic” as defined by the transatlantic slave trade—the massive exhibition aims to tell the history of the African Diaspora from the 17th century onward. Spanning numerous rooms, the exhibit depicts the origins of the slave trade from Africa to the western world, its violence, its consequences, and its fallout across the globe. As Vice President Kamala Harris pointed out during the exhibit’s grand opening, the selected works tell both American and world history, “yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums.”

A room within Afro-Atlantic Histories; courtesy of National Gallery of Art

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The National Gallery of Art was built in 1937. According to the New York Times, in May 2021, 92 percent of the gallery’s collection was made by men, while 97 percent of the work—with a known artist—was made by White artists. The gallery’s West Building (where Afro-Atlantic Histories is on display) typically houses works from the 11th through 19th centuries, but the space is not known for featuring artists of color. The numbers are unsurprising, considering that, up until four years ago, the leadership of the National Gallery of Art was entirely White. (Today, 57 percent of the leadership are people of color, which only makes sense for a museum that claims to serve the nation as “a center of visual art, education, and culture” with works that “spans the history of Western art”—in a nation that is nearly half BIPOC.)

Across the county, art museums haven’t always been spaces where everyone was welcome. In the Jim Crow South, government funded art museums operated under state laws that deemed there be separate days when Black people could visit. Two of D.C.’s notable art educators, when bringing students to study, were barred from visiting two separate spaces due to Jim Crow. David Driskell was turned away from the Birmingham Museum of Art in the late 1950s or early 1960s while working as an assistant professor of art at Talladega College. Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, born in D.C. in 1915, was teaching at New Orleans’ Dillard University in the 1940s when she could only organize a field trip to the city’s Delgado Museum of Art when it was closed to the public, as it was deemed a “Whites only” space. 

Jim Crow laws were fully overturned in 1965. But while there are no longer state sanctioned rules on discrimination at these institutions, the people who run them remain largely homogenous—White. 

According to the Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, conducted by the Andrew Mellon Foundation in 2018, 72 percent of people leading such spaces are White. Despite revealing an increase in representation from the original study conducted in 2015, when 84 percent of museum leadership was White, it suggests alarming homogeneity is still the norm.

Regarding Black representation in art museum leadership and the Mellon Foundation findings, Conway tells City Paper, “I wish I could say that museum leadership had gone from 4 percent Black to 11 percent Black in those years, but I read it to say that the actual percent didn’t go up as much.” She continues, “Most of the gains were made in curatorial and education, which are still very important fields, but not what we would think of as leadership.”

Conway was recruited as the National Gallery of Art’s chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer in 2020, a first for the museum. Previously, she worked as legal counsel at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. At the NGA, her job is to create inclusion strategies. As part of her role, Conway plans to look at the recruitment process for hiring museum employees, including considering if job notices are placed in the best places to attract the widest applicant pool, whether requested qualifications are validating, and whether the application is putting artificial barriers in place. 

“We’re also operating in the federal context. There’s a lot of rules around federal hiring, which are actually at the root. A lot of them are designed to increase the pool and reduce barriers,” Conway says.

Kanitra Fletcher; courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Formerly the associate curator at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Fletcher arrived at the NGA in early 2021. Though she curated Afro-Atlantic Histories for the National Gallery, she originally put on the exhibit at Houston’s MFA after learning about the 2018 exhibition Histórias Afro-Atlânticas at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil. (During an April panel discussion on the exhibit, Feldman joked that she fought to bring Fletcher to D.C.) 

Reaves was hired last year as the museum’s head of education, which provides direction and support for adult, school, and family-centered community programs. Before joining the NGA, he previously oversaw Community Engagement and Access at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are not members of the senior leadership team, but both Fletcher and Reaves play integral roles in communicating with the public. 

Hopefully, the hiring of world-class professionals such as Fletcher, Reaves, and Conway will inspire greater change in every aspect of the museum. As more exhibits begin to focus on often marginalized or overlooked people and cultures, as Afro-Atlantic Histories has done, audiences, too, will change. Over time, such exhibitions—and educational programs—will cultivate a broader, more complete audience for the museum. In the past 18 months, the gallery has sought out and acquired numerous works by Black artists, including the February acquisition of Driskell’s painting, “Current Forms: Yoruba Circle, 1969.”  

“For visitors coming in, [diversity] increases our relevance with more people,” Reaves says. “I think it really benefits the institution when you think about expanding who has access and who feels welcomed and engaged in the spaces.”

Diversity is a vague term to describe the work the National Gallery of Art is doing to serve the multiplicity that is D.C. and the U.S. Studies have shown that innovation and productivity thrive in workplaces with colleagues of various races and cultures. But it’s not just diverse leadership and staff that’s important, but also the visitors, who, in a perfect world, vary in age, gender, ability, race, culture, sexuality, and nationality. The goal of attracting such visitors has been cemented by the Gallery’s new vision statement: “Of the nation for all the people.” It’s worth noting that, before Feldman joined the National Gallery of Art  in 2019, there was no such statement. 

While some museums have sections dedicated to African, Native American, and/or Asian art, the National Gallery of Art does not have a collection that spans all of art history’s contributions from non-White artists they can lean on to promote diversity. Some museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, have decided to sell some of their White male American art in order to expand their collections to include more works by women and BIPOC artists.

But not everyone thinks that’s necessary. Reinterpreting its current collection of art, including its historical, largely White European art, could make NGA’s works relevant to a wider audience. Fletcher notes that looking at familiar art in new ways—from a feminist perspective or cultural view or to consider how Black people are represented in European art—can allow more people to connect with the piece in ways they hadn’t previously. “Part of it relates to new interpretations and new approaches for thinking about art and covering those histories and those relationships that inform the artists and their making of the work that perhaps hasn’t been discussed in the past,” says Fletcher. In general, it’s about asking different questions of these European, White men artists than have traditionally been asked.

Damon Reaves, courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Though strides are being made to make all feel welcome and represented at the NGA, real change takes time. True representation at an art museum means that the multitude is being considered with each newly acquired artwork and with each exhibition. The interpretive voices will be varied and their perspectives wide-ranging. There will be opportunities to discuss the artwork in the galleries with an assortment  of experts from varied backgrounds. The community programs and educational resources centered around Afro-Atlantic Histories is evidence of an olive branch signaling all are welcome. 

“That’s the beautiful thing about art,” Reaves says. “You can use it to spark these very rich conversations that maybe don’t get resolved but bring people into a space to be in dialogue, to be in community together.”