Over the past decade, and especially in the last year, many galleries, museums, craft organizations, and funding institutions have been struggling with how to address systemic racism, unconscious bias, and Euro-dominant historical narratives in their work.
As identified by the ongoing work of the African American Craft Initiative (AACI) and particularly as articulated by African American makers and craft organizations in the initiative’s recent Maker Summit and Think Tank meetings—it is essential to connect the resources of cultural heritage institutions and organizations to the Black makers and organizations they’ve historically discounted. With these insights in mind, and under the leadership of Dr. Diana N’Diaye, Lead Curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, AACI gathered representatives from museums, galleries, national craft organizations, and financial institutions to set future goals for collaborating with and supporting the Black craft community.
Between July 20 and 22, 2021, AACI hosted the Craft Institution Consortium, a set of five two-hour Zoom meetings with forty-four participants from various organizations. Led by moderators Deborah Grayson, Joanne Hyppolite, Marsha MacDowell, Sabrina Motley, and Teddy Reeves, participants discussed organizational stakeholders, past and present interactions with African American makers and maker organizations, and how their organizations and core stakeholders are responding to current social issues.
Central to the consortium meetings was envisioning change through organizational collaboration. Through conversation, participants were asked to outline a five-year timeline of outreach to African American makers and to identify long-term goals as well as potential successes and roadblocks. While some conversations were more nebulous, some participants came away with concrete goals that solidified collaboration with other organizations and makers.
Fostering Partnerships and Representation
Throughout the consortium, many organization leaders recalled the push for change during the pandemic and past year, when their respective institutions were challenged to address anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Keona Tranby, director of marketing and communications at the American Craft Council, mentioned how she works to help elevate the voices of smaller organizations, especially in organization governing bodies. In this same vein, she is working to better include the work of BIPOC people within the council’s upcoming Craft Week, an in-person and online marketplace.
Greater representation of African American makers in these national organizations was a leading aim of participants— particularly, representation that mirrors the demographics of the organization’s community. Marsha MacDowell, professor at Michigan State University and museum curator, noted that, while focusing on the importance of facilitating BIPOC people’s advancement in key organizational roles, she wonders about ways to better support marginalized communities in previously white-led spaces.
The first step to representation is partnerships between African American craft organizations and participants in these meetings. Elissa Auther of the Museum of Art and Design noted her organization’s goal to build better and longer-lasting partnerships with organizations that have similar objectives to uplift Black craft organizations and makers through exhibitions—inspired in part by their expressed needs in the Think Tank meetings. For these partnerships to be achieved and sustained, organizations must foreground trust and equity within their practices that strive to center Black crafters.
Foregrounding Needs of Black Makers
Access to resources is a core challenge of equitable exposure for African American makers, often tied to prohibitive costs or restrictions put in applications for exhibitions and artist residencies. To alleviate this, attendees noted that they must increase access, both to artists and audiences, by reducing application costs and offering free admission to museums and exhibitions that acknowledge the historical underrepresentation of Black makers.
Nick DeFord, program director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, pushed further, noting that access goes beyond education: “We should be giving employment as a resource as well.” To effectively show African American crafters that they are both welcome and well-represented in the museum and the community, Cynthia Alberto, founder of Weaving Hand, emphasized that we must show “the door is open for all!”
Mindy Tsonas, founder of the Be Seen Project, acknowledged the damaging nature of institutional display practices, which often promote single varieties of craft, removed from the context of lesser-known and historically underrecognized craft traditions. These practices are harmful and ultimately keep resources away from vital aspects of the Black craft community. Cate Andrews, associate director of Wexler Galleries, affirmed that, within exhibitions, “it’s not just what does the gallery owner like/want to see and show. It is visioning and creating collaborations with artists, their works, and how they want us to view their pieces.” Indeed, Andrews spoke to how essential it is to foreground the interests and beliefs of the Black craft community in display and exhibitions.
Providing Resources to Support the Black Craft Community
Financial and programmatic resources are essential to support the Black craft community. While many participants remarked that they foster partnerships with the African American craft community by providing the money and resources but have yet to extend these processes to be directed by the Black craft community.
The issue of financial resources is directly connected to leveraging institutional support to reach young people of color. Katrin Zimmerman, professor at Pratt Institute, observed that from the perspective of young college students, many of the roadblocks they encounter involve funding their education. As result, her organization places scholarships in the hands of BIPOC students as the makers of tomorrow. Carol Sauvion, executive director of the Craft in America project, seconded this point, remarked that many students of color come from underserved schools and communities. By focusing the programming efforts of these institutions in underserved communities, it can allow for more students to be exposed to careers in craft.
These organizations must also acknowledge limited financial resources , exhibitions, and collecting initiatives within the African American craft community, especially during times of crisis. Teddy Reeves, curator of religion at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, approached this topic by asking participants, “How are organizations helping to create accessibility, especially throughout this pandemic?”
Cornelia Cary, executive director of CERF+, “The Artists Safety Net,” responded by highlighting her organization’s work to offer emergency grants to help sustain BIPOC artists facing unique challenges during the pandemic. Other organizations noted that they need to offer financial support through programming and grants to support the Black craft community outside of times of crisis.
Next StepsThe Think Tank meetings in May 2021 and the Makers Summit in October 2020 were an opportunity to hear from African American organizations about their resources and concerns, and to learn more about the rich body of creativity, skills, and knowledge that exist within the African American crafts community writ large. Following the Craft Institution Consortium meetings, the African American Craft Initiative seeks to facilitate collaborations, partnerships, and further communication between the African American craft community and national organizations, leading to more equitable representation of Black makers within these spaces.
As we move forward, we also hope to create and strengthen our own capacity to support and present African American crafts with our own partnerships and public programs.
Emma Cieslik is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Ball State University, where she studied public history, anthropology, and biology. She has been researching African American clothing traditions, specifically elements of personal adornment closely associated with religious identity and self-expression.
Kamryn Bess is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a sophomore English major at the University of the District of Columbia. She is planning on pursuing a career in museums, specifically, as an art museum curator.