Community as Contributors: Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

For decades, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute has engaged with its local community through exhibitions and programming. Its latest exhibition Call & Response: Collecting African American Art pulls back the curtain on how the museum has acquired work by Black artists over the past 30 years. The exhibition is about making connections between works of art and the artists who created them. To offer visitors new perspectives, the museum invited eight community contributors who shared their interpretations of the exhibited work using music, personal history, and comparative works of art.

Inside Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in the Philip Johnson Building. The Museum has close to 12,000 items in its collection, predominantly American art.

Long-standing Community Relationship

Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is a multifaceted arts organization located in Utica, New York, a city with a large refugee population. There are more than 40 languages spoken in the school district. “It’s really a dynamic, diverse city and we have one of the largest per capita refugee communities,” said Anna D’Ambrosio, President and CEO of Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. The Museum has a long-standing relationship with dozens of organizations throughout the community including a program to help refugees to the area transition and settle through programs and activities using art. Munson-Williams-Proctor began working with the refugee and immigrant community in the late 1990s and gathered momentum in the mid-2000’s. “It’s included running special tours and programs with the refugee community and running National Endowment for the Arts funded programs that use the collections and exhibitions for English language learners from recent adult refugees,” said D’Ambrosio.

In 2019, Munson-Williams-Proctor unveiled its long-range initiative, “MWP 2025” –its strategic plan to lead its programming into the future. As the plan was developed, the museum held a series of focus groups to help gather valuable community input.

African American Community Partners

Formed in September 2019, the African American Community Partners (AACP) advisory panel is made up of 12 members of the Black community from Utica who meet monthly. “The panel was originally created in conjunction with an Allan Rohan Crite exhibition scheduled to open in February 2022,” said D’Ambrosio. “From that, they’ve grown to help the museum in so many respects from marketing to program ideas. They’re great meetings and it’s become a model of what we can do with other types of focus groups going forward with how they can help with other aspects of the institute.”

Among the advisory panel participants are Freddie Hamilton, a 5th Ward Councilwoman in Utica and the area’s first Black woman to hold public office, and Patrick Johnson, a Utica native who has taught hundreds of Mohawk Valley residents at racism awareness seminars.

“Working with the AACP has been a great experience,” said D’Ambrosio. “Part of their formation came out of the groundwork that we did for our strategic plan when we did community focus groups and really listened to what people said about their feelings about the organization as a whole or their experiences at the museum. It reinforced something that we kind of thought but had no hard data on. The AACP is one of the outgrowth of our community engagement efforts.”

Munson-Williams-Proctor approached the panel for guidance for Call and Response to help select community contributors as part of its interpretation.

Community Contributors

“Part of this program that we’re doing is called ‘Coming Into View’ and it offers visitors new ways to explore works of art and the artists who created them. For Call and Response, eight African American members of the community contributed their responses to artwork in the exhibition through a variety of media including video, other related artwork, photos they’ve submitted, text, and audio conversations we’ve had with them,” said Education Director April Oswald. Two college students, a health professor, a professor of sociology, a minister, a professor of art, a medical professional, and a Utica City administrator each recorded their comments on three different works of art. “It’s an opportunity to bring in different perspectives on our collections and exhibitions. It’s something that we’ve been working on doing for a while but this is new in that it’s really a chance for us to get away from how museum people see things and to get how other people see it. It’s an opportunity for more informed culturally shared experiences and insights that we don’t have.”

One community contributor Tracy Latty interpreted Counting by Lorna Simpson (left)–a photogravure with screen print on paper. The art is quite large, almost 6 feet in height and is composed of three images; the neckline of a woman, a circular brick building often found in the South for curing meats, and an overhead photo of a woman’s braids. “This work suggests associations with the history of African hair braiding traditions in addition to aesthetics and social status,” said Latty. “Some cite the lore that seeds were woven into braids, others say that braids may have been designed as maps for those fleeing enslavement. This South Carolina smokehouse is the product of the work of the slaves who produced the bricks.”

Munson-Williams-Proctor provided some comments around the artwork but just enough to provide some context. “For each community contributor we went through the objects with them and had a VTS (visual thinking strategies) conversation with them, a learner centered, inquiry-based way of looking at works of art,” said Oswald.

“‘Coming Into View’ interests me because of the demographics the Museum is engaging. On walks around Munson-Williams admiring the beauty of the grounds, I consider this a wonderful opportunity to join such a platform that’s transitioning to a new way for the community to interact with the Museum,” said Latty. “This is a way to engage in dialogue with people in our own community, as well as a change for Africans living in America to expand their awareness of each other.”

Another community contributor Marques Phillips, Codes Commissioner and Director of Utica City Initiatives, interpreted Bob Thompson’s Stagedoom, (1962) and compared it to Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos, no. 2. Phillips uses Thompson’s fascination with Goya’s Los Caprichos series after Thompson’s year in Ibiza, Spain in 1961. “At the time Bob Thompson was painting, as today, there was debate about Black culture and what that should mean,” said Phillips. “Should Blacks merely imitate European culture, play classical music, write in European prose or paint the way it was done in the Renaissance?”

Continuing Community Engagement

D’Ambrosio hopes to continue to engage the community. “For me the challenge remains getting people to make it a habit to come all the time, not just the special exhibitions. The community needs to be welcomed and feel part of the organization so that they come back to the next exhibition to learn more about a topic that they might be far removed from.” Oswald says that the museum plans to continue the “Coming Into View” initiative with future exhibitions and include more community contributors. “I hope that the outcome of what we’re doing is to keep people coming back to have the opportunity to see what’s happening in other communities.”

Future Plans

In 2021, Governor Cuomo announced 16 transformational projects for Utica as part of the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award, including Muson-Williams-Proctor. The Museum is expected to receive $819,500 to create a large public-access park on underutilized institute land in the Oneida Square neighborhood with arts and cultural programming.

“We want to really activate that part of our campus because it is so central to the neighborhood and make it a real community hub for concerts and festivals, things we already do at Munson-Williams-Proctor,” said D’Ambrosio. “We want to have more partnerships and make sure that everyone feels comfortable and participates at the museum. For Munson-Williams-Proctor, the real strength of the institution is that it can bring all aspects together around a topic to create huge community impact.”

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Museum Association of New York

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