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Re-Engaging the Past to Re-Envision the Future

Category: Museum Magazine
The main entrance into “The Art of Engagement” revisited March 1961 when the Tougaloo Nine became the first Mississippi students to stage a sit-in against segregation, which occurred at the public library in downtown Jackson. All photos by Mark Geil

The Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College joined creative forces to spotlight civil rights issues, past and present.

This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.

In the latest iteration of visible fights for civil rights and social equity centered on race, the tendency to judge the “other” for what has not been done can distort the power that comes from individuals connecting with one another to create a more impactful and meaningful change. Looking to institutionalize a decades-long relationship centered on the sharing of their art collections, the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) and Tougaloo College joined creative forces in 2017 to form the two-year Art & Civil Rights Initiative (ACRI).

Reference reading materials and yoga mats in “The Art of Engagement” exhibition space. A guided meditation session open to Tougaloo College students and the local community was held in the gallery.

Founded in 1869 by the American Missionary Association, Tougaloo College has a rich history of civil rights activism and an art collection born of the era. MMA, which began as an art association in 1911, is an accredited art museum that has operated in Jackson, Mississippi, since 1978. In the past 15 years, MMA has produced public programs and exhibitions that explore the seminal events of the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of visual artists.

During the 1960s, when Black citizens in Mississippi could not enter public libraries or art galleries, 51 New York activists formed the New York Art Committee for Tougaloo College. Between 1963 and 1967, they shipped works by important modern US and European artists to Tougaloo College, effectively establishing the first collection of modern art in Mississippi. According to Betsy Bradley, director of MMA, “the stories of the two art collections … contain the truths of Mississippi’s story. In a segregated city at the same time, two groups of people, largely separated by race, aspired to create cultural centers and artistic repositories that would benefit their constituencies. In addition, they each held the long-term view that the art would catalyze their communities coming together.”

A decade later, major works from the college’s collection were displayed as part of MMA’s inaugural 1978 exhibition, establishing a relationship of sharing art collections that has now, through the ACRI, expanded to include internships, curriculum, exhibitions, and staff. Components of the ACRI, which was underwritten by the Henry Luce Foundation, included a shared curator of art and civil rights, Tougaloo student paid internship program, curriculum development for a course on art and civil rights, digitization of Tougaloo’s American art collection, and a series of exhibitions and corresponding lectures at MMA and the college that focused on works from both collections.

According to Turry M. Flucker, director of Tougaloo College Art Collections, “The Art & Civil Rights Initiative was a catalyst for critical examination of the events of the 1960s and how artists were responding to those times.”

Creating an initiative centered on civil rights may have seemed historically reflective just three years ago. But it was then—and remains—intrinsically relevant in the present moment in which we witness the ongoing demand for civil rights, social justice, and racial equity.

The Exhibition and Lecture Series

The ACRI exhibition series consisted of five exhibitions between February 2018 and February 2020: the first two at Tougaloo, the third at MMA, the fourth at Tougaloo, and the fifth at MMA. Each exhibition included works from both collections in dialogue and had a companion public lecture and private student discussion forum. Because the exhibitions and programming rotated venues, stakeholders and visitors from each institution were encouraged to visit the other. For example, a “progressive opening reception” was held for one of the exhibitions in which visitors attended the reception at MMA and then went to the Tougaloo art gallery to view the exhibition.

The five exhibitions that were part of the ACRI are as follows:

  • Setting the tone of the entire series, the first exhibition, “NOW: The Call and Look of Freedom,” inspired by the 1960s rally cry “Freedom Now” and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, focused on the various modes of ongoing activism by African Americans and the persistence of urgency, Black self-determination, and Black love in their quest for civil rights.
  • “The Art of Engagement: Meditation on a Movement” positioned artwork created or acquired by a group of art enthusiasts and Tougaloo College during the 1960s and 1970s. It asked viewers to contemplate the fact that a small, private, predominately Black college was quietly establishing the first modern art collection in Mississippi and hosting people to talk about its aesthetic and political relevance, during a time of profound racial turmoil and civic unrest.
  • “A Modernist Vision: The Tradition of Modern Art at Tougaloo College” exhibited some of the most significant work by modern visual artists in the college’s collection, highlighting the profound role that Tougaloo College played in shaping Mississippi’s cultural landscape.
  • “A Tale of Two Collections” highlighted the similarities of the two institutions’ collections and the ongoing mutual commitment to collection-sharing to foster greater social unity. The exhibition focused on artists who are part of both institutions’ collections, displaying their work side by side.
  • The final exhibition of the series, “The Prize: Seven Decades of Lyrical Response to the Call for Civil Rights,” focused on a selection of artwork that captures specific images of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and how the quest for social justice inspired greater artistic expression as an act of liberation. Images were then paired with the verbal history provided by songs that spanned the decades and brought the movement—visually and vocally—to the present moment, the summer of 2020.
In a lecture associated with “The Art of Engagement,” Dr. Kheli Willetts invited the audience to view the art on display within a framework of meditation to experience a personalized understanding of the modern civil rights era.

While the exhibitions provided visual reference to the past, the lecture series sparked dialogue about how the 1960s Civil Rights Movement planted seeds of resistance that have blossomed into civil society today. The lectures also offered a collective understanding of the influence of social causes on artists and of artists on historical events.

For example, the lecture “Black Bodies in Public Space Now,” presented by artist Nona Faustine, discussed the disconnect often associated with Black people as human beings during civic discourse. “Reflections on Creative Activism: Living a Civil Life during the Quest for Civil Rights,” presented by Dr. Kheli R. Willetts, senior program officer of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, discussed nontraditional representations of civil rights imagery, and a vibrant cultural life lived against a backdrop of protest, violence, and aggression, which was a revolutionary act within itself. The lecture “Telling the Tale of Two Collections,” presented by Turry M. Flucker, director of the Tougaloo College Art Collections, provided historic context for the art collection at Tougaloo College and how art brought a variety of people onto the campus to discuss beauty and brutality. In the lecture “Shooting the Enemy: My Life in Pictures with the People Who Became Public Enemy,” hip-hop activist and photojournalist Harry Allen addressed the direct connections between verbal protest in 1980s hip-hop, particularly the rap lyrics of Public Enemy, referred to at the time as the Black CNN, and the creative activism of their parents and other civil rights activists.

Curriculum and Internship Inspired by the Collections

The ACRI also brought the museum and the college together for other collaborations. MMA and Tougaloo created the college course “The Art of Civic Engagement” to explore the cultural context and creative activism in works of art acquired by both Tougaloo and MMA during the Civil Rights Movement.

And the two institutions worked together on a paid internship program. Six semester-long internships were awarded from fall 2018 to spring 2020 to students at Tougaloo. The interns participated in collections management training; staffed the art gallery and conducted gallery tours; assisted with the digitization project for the college’s collection; attended public program activities at MMA; conducted “small talks,” in which interns chose a piece of art, researched the work, and made a 15-minute public presentation in the college’s art gallery; and completed academic modules designed to summarize information and review skills gained each month. The interns were exceptional students and ambassadors to their peers, which has boosted attendance to the campus gallery and student interest in internships working with the art collections.

The four other exhibitions that were part of the ACRI, from left to right: “NOW: The Call and Look of Freedom,” “A Modernist Vision,” “The Prize,” and “A Tale of Two Collections.”

Moving Forward

As a result of the ACRI, Tougaloo digitized its American art collection, creating opportunities for cross-institutional and public access to its collection for research, exhibition loans, and publications. The college also received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will enable expanded on-campus internships for collections management and art gallery work. And the director of Tougaloo College Art Collections, Turry M. Flucker, was selected as a 2020 Center for Curatorial Leadership fellow, an intensive program that trains curators to become visionary leaders of art museums.

At MMA, a new Department of Academic Affairs launched in January 2020. This new initiative, intended to increase opportunities for local graduates to pursue museum industry jobs here in Mississippi, is funded by the Mellon Foundation for three years—and came about in no small part due to the success of the ACRI. In observing ACRI, Mellon found that MMA and Tougaloo’s longtime partnership has proved greater than the sum of their institutional parts.

The department will guide the expansion of local academic partnerships in addition to the one with Tougaloo College. The museum will now also offer paid internship opportunities for students at Belhaven University, Jackson State University, and Millsaps College. It will develop individual projects with Belhaven and Jackson State and will create a shared curatorial/professorship position with Millsaps.

These internships will provide specialized academic curriculum with practical museum work experience to recent undergraduates interested in pursuing careers in the arts and museum fields. They will, among other things, fill existing academic and experiential gaps for undergraduates and recent graduates interested in an art museum profession. Additionally, they will create a pipeline of diverse, native museum employees through mentorships and deepened relationships with local undergraduate students preparing for graduate studies. This partnership model bridges the gap between those who gain experience by interning and then taking a series of positions in museums with progressive responsibility and those who select a primarily academic route, which includes academic training through a museum studies or an art history program.

Partnerships are relationships that require regular assessment and recommitment. The Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College have built on their collective strengths in sharing artwork from the past to foster community understanding about the importance of civil rights in the present. Moving forward, both institutions and their communities will continue to reap the rewards of this transformative collaboration.


Art & Civil Rights Initiative Catalogue

Redell R. Hearn, PhD, is director of academic affairs for the Mississippi Museum of Art, a lecturer for the M.A. in museum studies program at Johns Hopkins University, and a Fulbright specialist in museum studies.

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