AAM: What’s the Feels?

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from: Ravon Ruffin
to: Amanda Figueroa
date: Mon, Jul 18, 2016 at 11:14 AM
subject: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

Hey,

So now that we’ve had some time to decompress, evaluate, and re-evaluate. What was your take on AAM this year?  I’ll go ahead and say, that being that it was our first AAM experience both individually, and as BGMB, I had high expectations and excitement going forward. But I’ll let you start…

 

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from: Amanda Figueroa
to: Ravon Ruffin
date: Mon, Jul 18, 2016 at 8:59 PM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

I had high expectations as well! Not only because it was our first AAM experience, but also because we had just attended the AAMD conference which was such a joy to be at.

The overall feeling I got from AAM was that we had already taken the BGMB mission of inclusion and community-building as far as it could go. I know logically that’s not true (gosh, sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how much work there is to do on these two things), but during AAM, it felt like everyone who was interested in our work, everyone who shared these goals, everyone who wanted to know more about our thoughts was someone we already knew.

Even though we did connect with a couple new faces, they were friends-of-friends in every case, so although they were new to us, their interest was not surprising. It felt like we should have known them way before, or like we didn’t really need AAM to connect us. Meanwhile, there was a whole conference going on around us of people who were just disinterested in or oblivious to the little network of people we were a part of.

Someone mentioned feeling like there were 2 AAMs, and by the end of the conference, I really felt that way too. I’ve been thinking since about whether or not my expectations for the conference were fair, really, since it was such a big event and it feels a little arrogant to expect people to care about the same things I do, but that feeling of being separate somehow from so many other attendees has really stayed with me.

 

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from: Ravon Ruffin
to: Amanda Figueroa
date: Tue, Jul 19, 2016 at 10:13 AM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

You’re right, AAMD was a different experience. I think there’s something to be said about the way art and art folks feel free to confront and dialogue, and cultural institutions and other spaces within the museum feel gridlocked to tell a certain truth. Like “that’s just the way it was [emphasis added].”

On the one hand, AAM is just huge and there’s no way around that, and that’s also not necessarily a bad thing. But, on the other, I also think resources—speakers, topics, institutions—could have been used better. Too many similarly themed topics occurred at the same time, to where I missed opportunities for really nuanced conversations elsewhere. “Diversity and inclusion” became a spectacle. And so if it had it in the title, it was chosen. Rather than allowing for the actual meaning of those words be part of larger discussions on labels, for example.

There were two AAMs—the haves and the have nots. The institutionalized and those knocking on the door. I need to work through what those feelings were exactly. Because, a challenge for me is allowing others space for revelation, HOWEVER, it is a constant struggle when your humanity is under attack daily. So patience is dwindling….

 

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from: Amanda Figueroa
to: Ravon Ruffin
date: Wed, Jul 20, 2016 at 10:07 AM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

The “D & I” spectacle, you are totally right. It became about the checkmark, being able to say you did your requisite diversity and inclusion panel, along with your skill-building workshop and your keynote. I would have liked to have seen the theme of intersectionality (instead of “D &I”) included across the spectrum of all panels, rather than cordoned off to special-interest sessions, competing with other topics so that attendees have to choose which to go to.

Diversity doesn’t work when it’s an entity unto itself, it works when it is included as an element in everything we as museum professionals do, but that doesn’t seem to be the way people want to treat it, maybe because of the emphasis on history and tradition that comes with the museum field. I don’t want to totally deconstruct this industry and restart everything (just kidding, of course I do), but as a group we need to become more comfortable with institutional change. I think being at AAM, outside of the comfortable, supportive bubble of our colleagues, really made me see how stuck-in-their-ways a lot of this field really is.

“Haves” and “have nots” is a perfect way of putting this — some people are able to get enfranchised within the industry, whether because they can afford to take the unpaid internship or because they aren’t negotiating the imbedded white privilege of the field at all times. These two groups at AAM had a lot of difficulty communicating with each other, on topics of race and access, but also even the “simpler” things like emerging professional skills and how to get that first museum job. The “haves” so to speak were very interested in preserving the status-quo that had them on the inside, while the “have nots” (of which I count myself) were trying to explain why we were left out.

 

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from: Ravon Ruffin
to: Amanda Figueroa
date: Thu, Jul 21, 2016 at 1:43 PM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

I love that–– “diversity doesn’t work when it is an entity unto itself.” This is exactly where we find museums time and time again, lodged in this space. There’s still this feeling of the need to dip the toe in the water (i.e. panels) rather than diving in. Also we’ve talked about this before, and I know we are in agreement, about how empty the language of “diversity and inclusion” feels. Intersectionality, although often used without context, at least points to multiple directions of understanding one position.

There is this veil of progress that actually prevents the museum from moving forward. We could call that veil privilege, the kind that accompanies historically white institutions. This makes it easy to “see” why many initiatives are shortsighted or sometimes oblivious.

This also gets me to a larger issue I take with privilege, that I’ve come to understand, is that we contribute it to just basic human rights. Those shouldn’t be privileges. So why does it feel good, or is it a “have,” to not include others. But this might be a larger qualm I take up with Amurrica.

So lastly, because I know we could and will keep talking about this: what ONE moment or session sticks out in your mind that you wish could have been improved? What ONE moment or session provided a positive experience? And what could AAM do to continue building upon that positive experience?

Go!

 

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from: Amanda Figueroa
to: Ravon Ruffin
date: Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 12:18 PM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

So many of the things we are identifying here about AAM are just little microcosms of the larger problems at work in American culture, you are totally right. It’s been really challenging for me to try and figure out what is the specific problem at work in museum industry, and how can we solve that first, because as much as I wish I could do the work that would cure American institutionalized racism, that’s a much bigger fight than just one conference.

One moment that I wish had gone better was one of the major diversity-focused panels. I remember looking around the very large conference room, but seeing mostly the faces of people who I already knew, and who already understood the importance of this work. It was, of course, mostly people of color. This was the first time I think I truly realized what an echo chamber our current “D&I” conversation is — the people who show up to these things are the ones who already know the mission, and the people who need most to hear it just are not interested. It was a really discouraging moment for me.

But on the other hand, one moment that went really well was a panel on latinx audience targeting. It was a tiny session late in the afternoon, and perhaps because of the small turnout, the whole panel spoke really frankly on their experiences and the work they were doing to bring in diverse people to their museums. After the demoralizing experience of the large diversity panel, seeing that some people were managing on their own to do this work despite a real lack of support was really affirming for me. This is the kind of thing that I wish AAM could spotlight more often. We don’t need more big ideological panels on why diversity is important — at this point, everyone who is going to be convinced is convinced. We need more emphasis on what action people are already taking, regardless of sweeping change across the field.

 

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from: Ravon Ruffin
to: Amanda Figueroa
date: Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 3:08 PM
subject: Re: AAM: What’s the Feels?

 

Agreed––and I also connect with the two panels you point out for the reasons you describe.

I was particularly disappointed by the panel on labels. It felt odd to be at a national conference to reiterate that labels should not be a book on a wall and attempt to accommodate various reading levels. And, if I recall correctly, bi/multilingual text panels weren’t even discussed or if so, it was very minimal. Only one person, Porchia Moore, discussed the implications of text panels to uphold societal norms such as heteronormative familial structures, was the example she used. Otherwise, she seemed out of place.

I think both of the critiques we point out speaks to the lack of intersectionality as a through line of the conference. The discussion on text panels could have been a really rich moment for people who might not have signed up for “D&I” panels to be in the room or for examples of “D&I” in action.

The panel titled “We Are Not Hard to Find” to discuss minorities in the workforce, and the panel on “community museums” were most impactful for me. The first was a really great moment to discuss what professionals in the field are doing to create pipelines for minorities and emerging professionals in the field. Unfortunately, it was already those I knew and loved in the field but it had a great and captive audience that ended with reps shouting out job openings, and created a space to connect. The second, was eye-opening on a personal level as I was especially moved to hear how smaller museums are typically on the frontlines for their communities. And even more so, got me to consider how larger institutions could take a lesson from them. Similarly, this was a panel that was lightly attended.

I’m going to put the onus on AAM conference committee, and their selection process. I find it hard to believe that creative panels, from various perspectives, weren’t submitted that would have contributed to a lot of what was lacking in terms of intersectional practices. There is potential for a proposal with “diversity” in the title to be less effective than a panel featuring folks from community museums discussing gentrification, community engagement, and intersectional exhibitions.

 

If you attended the conference or have thoughts, comment below or on the internets (@2brwngirls).

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