Amidst a global pandemic and associated recession, and widespread protests decrying the racial injustice that permeates all aspects of life in the United States, I have been inspired to reconsider the possibilities of public engagement and programs in the digital age. For me, as the Associate Curator of Programs at the Yale University Art Gallery, programs have always been about accessibility and engagement: They amplify a diversity of voices, perspectives, and approaches; provide space for the exchange of knowledge and ideas; construct interdisciplinary narratives; and connect our multiple audiences around art and art practices in relevant, important, and sometimes difficult conversations. But before March of 2020, programs were centered on an in-person encounter with an original work of art. While our present moment forecloses the possibility of a shared encounter with an original work, it opens up other opportunities. A digital public engagement and programs strategy allows space for experimentation with multimedia resources, such as short videos narrated by students and live virtual programs with curators in dialogue with participants, as well as downloadable online content, including a step-by-step drawing exercise. While in-person programs tend to be ephemeral and require specific choices about content and form in order to create an archive, digital programs are archivable by their very nature. These new digital formats allow us to interrogate ideas about authority and expertise, follow up on conversations and ideas, and more seamlessly integrate assessment and reflection.
Accessibility is a focus in both the physical and the digital spheres. As we move our work online, the Gallery has been pressed to develop accessibility standards, committing to provide closed captioning for all digital programs. At the same time, the digital turn has excluded many without access to a device or Internet connection. Also, as with so much online programming from museums around the world, how do we work to stay accountable and relevant to our local community? We can develop partnerships and co-create resources with our New Haven neighbors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, especially local artists and art collectives, area schools, youth coalitions, and activist organizations. These relationships need to be developed in non-extractive, reciprocal ways, and the museum has the responsibility to compensate partners, collaboratively gather feedback from the community, and adjust processes and goals along the way. As much as our digital communities are increasingly global, we need to continue to hold space for our local relationships.
Can museum programs help build capacity for dialogue and understanding that leads to policy and action? And how do we measure our impact and our failures? And speaking for myself, how do I acknowledge my own complicity with systemic racism? I believe that public engagement and programs can help cultivate an environment where issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility are addressed thoughtfully and sensitively, where encounters with art—whether live, virtual, or in reproduction—can help bring communities together and begin conversations, and that by foregrounding the voices and work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color artists and individuals we can join in a collective reckoning with our present moment.
Associate Curator of Programs, Yale University Art GalleryView Bio
Molleen Theodore is the Associate Curator of Programs at the Yale University Art Gallery. Her responsibilities include developing a wide range of engagement opportunities, including in-gallery artist talks, studio workshops, performances, readings, film screenings, conversations, and scholarly lectures. She also builds relationships and collaborations across the museum, the University, and the community to enhance visitor engagement.
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