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Change Agents: Kaywin Feldman and Bryan Stevenson on Embracing Empathy and Confronting American Racism in Museums

Kaywin Feldman and Bryan Stevenson in New York.

Kaywin Feldman and Bryan Stevenson in New York.

KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

Kaywin Feldman is director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. When she assumed her post this spring, as the first woman to lead the institution, she followed a nearly three-decade stint by Earl “Rusty” Powell III as the leader of a museum established in 1937 with a donation by financier and art collector Andrew W. Mellon and subsequently supported by federal and private funds. Prior to the National Gallery, Feldman served as director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where she created a Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts and presented exhibitions such as “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” a group show in 2018 inspired by the police-shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota two years earlier. She is also a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and a past chair of the American Alliance of Museums.

Bryan Stevenson is a public interest lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a socially minded advocacy organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. Last year, he and EJI established the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery with a shared purpose to tell stories of slavery and racism in America. The memorial in a six-acre park includes 800 large steel monuments, one for every county in the U.S. where a historical racial terror lynching has been reported. The museum one block away is near a dock and rail station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century. Stevenson is the author of several books, including the best-selling Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014). He also gave a talk, at Feldman’s invitation, at the “Art and Healing” exhibition in Minneapolis, as well as the keynote speech at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Feldman and Stevenson convened for a conversation at the ARTnews office in New York. —Andy Battaglia

ARTnews: What was an early museum-going experience that made a mark on you?

Kaywin Feldman: My parents always took me to museums, so it was something I felt was important early on. I grew up outside of London, and we went on a school trip to the Royal Academy to see a Pompeii exhibition. I vividly remember the plaster casts of bodies that were discovered at Pompeii and a painting of a centurion anxiously looking up to the sky. They were reminders of the people who lived in Pompeii and were impacted by the tragedy. As I reflect back, I think it was the connection to people that really resonated.

Bryan Stevenson: I didn’t have exposure to museums or cultural institutions growing up. It was only in my practice as an attorney that I began to get curious about how culture and art could influence the way we think about the issues I cared about. It wasn’t until I went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg [in 2011] that the idea that a museum could tell a story that was powerful and impactful emerged for me. Going to that museum, where you are given a ticket that requires you to go through a door marked “white” or “colored,” with three Swedish lawyers—we were all at the same human-rights conference—and watching them struggle and be uncomfortable . . . The idea that a space could actually make you feel inequality and injustice was really powerful to me. Walking through that space told a story. It was a narrative museum. When I got to the room with nooses hanging from the roof, it showed me the power of a place to create a kind of impact. And then going from there to Berlin and the Holocaust Memorial—when you go through that, you get to the end and are motivated to say, “Never again.” I felt the absence of that kind of institution and a tremendous desire to respond.

ARTnews: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice are very distinctive in their design and modes of display. How did you arrive at the aesthetic for both?

Stevenson: It was a real evolution for us. When I moved to Montgomery [in 1989], there were 59 memorials to the Confederacy and you couldn’t find the words “slave,” “slavery,” or “enslavement” anywhere. The complete refusal to acknowledge the central issue was really burdensome. We knew we wanted to be direct and compelling, but we didn’t have a clue about how to do that. So we hired a company that worked on different museums. To be honest, we got really frustrated because there seemed to be all these rules we did not want to follow.

ARTnews: What kind of rules?

Stevenson: You have got to give people space; you can’t overwhelm them; you shouldn’t be so direct. In museum culture in America, we have large spaces that very selectively place art and things to discover. There seems to be this value on room and space and “never too much”—we wanted to do the opposite. We wanted people to feel the weight of being in a place that was once a slave warehouse, where enslaved people were held. We wanted them to feel the intensity of that experience because we haven’t talked about it before. Museums have had 150 years to tell this story, and they haven’t. Historians have had 150 years to present this in a way that’s accessible. So we just took over. It felt like we had to resist the conventions.

We thought, with a 10,000-square-foot space, people would be in and out. But the average time visitors spend is well in excess of two-and-a-half hours, and we have had people coming back. We just had to have the confidence that we could present this narrative. We wanted some of the narrative to be animated so, when you go into a section with replicas of slave pens—when you get close—there is a motion sensor that will trigger a hologram of an enslaved person who recites slave narratives. It’s dark and foreboding and intense. And then we have singers in one of the pens singing spirituals. We’ve all heard spirituals sung at symphony halls and theaters, but until you hear a song like “I Wish I Had Never Been Born” sung by an enslaved woman with chains on, in a slave pen, you don’t really have the same relationship to it.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

COURTESY EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE/HUMAN PICTURES

ARTnews: What was your goal in terms of what you wanted to impart to a visitor?

Stevenson: Our goal was to make the connection from slavery to lynching to segregation to mass incarceration. When people were lynched in this country, the people who committed the violence could have buried their bodies and gotten away with more. But they didn’t want to bury them—they wanted to lift up those bodies. They wanted them hanging from trees and bridges and buildings to terrorize and taunt and torment people of color. We felt strongly that we needed a bunch of voices, and we had to make sure the narrative came through. That’s why we worked with different artists, like Kwame Akoto-Bamfo on a slavery sculpture and Hank Willis Thomas on a police-violence sculpture and Dana King on a sculpture of the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We kept changing things, and we ended in a place very different from where we started.

ARTnews: Kaywin, an art museum is a different entity, but what kinds of changes have you observed in terms of how exhibitions are presented?

Feldman: The biggest change in the last ten years in art museums is a greater understanding that we exist to serve the public. Art museums used to delegate responsibility for people to their education departments—“They like kids, so therefore let’s give them all the people, no matter how old they are!” Now we understand that the entire staff shares the responsibility and the joy of working to serve the public. That means people, from the moment they arrive, feeling that they are truly welcome and [being greeted with] a big smile.

It has me thinking a lot about buildings. One of the things I’ve learned from experts on empathy is that we have to be able to feel vulnerable to feel empathy for other people. Big open spaces were never designed to feel vulnerability. There are certainly noble feelings about lifting people up and offering a grand space to celebrate a community, so there is a role for the grandeur of museums. But I profoundly believe that one of the great things that art museums can do, particularly in our society today, is foster greater empathy. Scholars have shown that people are genetically predisposed toward empathy. But it can also be taught, and I think museums have a great role to play in that. At the National Gallery of Art, we have an added responsibility and opportunity because we are the nation’s art museum.

ARTnews: Museums play different roles within their local communities and beyond. How do you understand the purview of the National Gallery?

Feldman: The collection and the staff and stakeholders of the National Gallery of Art need to both reflect America and attract America. That’s something we are all going to be talking and thinking about: how that plays out at the institution and how we work with the rest of the country. There is that old museum model, when we used the term “outreach” like we were going to go [outside the institution] to do things for other people. I am happy to say we don’t use that term anymore, because there is an understanding that partnership is where true value lies. I want to look at ways we can partner across the country with great regional museums doing terrific work. There are lots of ways we can learn from them and partner through staff and scholarship as well as collections.

ARTnews: Bryan, do you think of your audience as primarily local or national?

Stevenson: We think of it as both, and the idea of truth-telling to create a new relationship to violations of human rights is a global phenomenon. People want to express their grief. In the national context, we don’t have that consciousness. But that very much is our goal. In our memorial, we have almost 900 monuments, for every county in America where lynchings took place, with replicas of each—and we challenge each community to claim its monument and take it back.

ARTnews: How successful has that campaign been?

Stevenson: When Oprah Winfrey came to do a piece for 60 Minutes, she was very enthusiastic but pulled me aside and said, “You know, this thing about counties claiming their monuments—I’m not so sure that’s going to work. You better think about what you’re going to say when nobody claims them.” But I’m really thrilled that, in less than a year, we have already had over 300 counties say they want their monument. There is variation in their readiness and preparedness, but the desire exists. We’ve been distracted by a false narrative with memorials to the Confederacy that honor people who were often the perpetrators of violence. In Alabama we have Confederate Memorial Day—all the courts are closed. Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day—we have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. The desire to create this romantic past makes it hard to get to the truth of slavery and lynching. But I have been encouraged, too. We’ve just made an arrangement where every eighth-grader within two hours of Montgomery will now come to the museum and memorial. We’ve got a funder who is going to facilitate transportation.

ARTnews: How have the memorial and museum been received in Alabama?

Stevenson: Success economically has helped. The sales-tax revenue of Montgomery is up 23 percent. Hotel occupancy is up. The airport had its best year ever. Restaurants are thriving. There are four new hotels under construction. I think people benefiting from a desire to have a place where truth-telling is a project has helped people see value they didn’t see before. There is regional energy that is responsive to this history, and it’s national and global. We want to partner with other institutions around the globe that are trying truth-telling as a way to help societies recover and evolve and become healthier when it comes to how they deal with immigrants, racial minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities. All of that can and should be a concern for cultural institutions.

ARTnews: Acknowledging a lack of diversity and working to change that is important to both of you. Bryan, as someone outside the inner circles of the “art world,” how willing and able do you find art museums to be in addressing such matters?

Stevenson: I am new to this space so don’t have the vantage that others might, but it certainly is an active conversation. People are aware that there has to be more change. There is an openness and consciousness to do more. Ultimately, it takes a commitment. There has to be a commitment to bringing in new voices, at the staff level but also in terms of creating spaces of interest. What I loved about my time in Minneapolis [for “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” the show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art after the shooting of Philando Castile] was that there was an exhibit created in response to the tragedy of police violence, and voices were lifted up in a way that made it of interest to people who had never been to the museum. That kind of work enhances diversity goals.

Because we are in the deep South, we made the decision to have a strong security presence around the sites we created, and we knew we needed people of color to occupy those roles. It would not be appropriate to have armed white security, given how that identity has been such a threat to efforts of truth-telling. I wanted visitors to see young people of color who were alert and aware and informed and articulate. That became an important part of the experience, and that could become true in a lot of other places. It’s like what we see in the academy, and what we are seeing in business and entertainment: there is so much to be gained if we open spaces up and allow new voices to be heard. The storytelling gets richer, more nuanced and complicated and enlightening. Cultural institutions that get that are the ones that are going to thrive in the coming years. The ones that don’t are going to struggle.

The interior of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The interior of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C.

ARTnews: Kaywin, how do you appraise the progress or evolution in art museums so far on issues of diversity?

Feldman: I agree that there is change happening, and I give huge credit to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for very forcefully and actively supporting the work and noting [by way of its “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” in 2018] that if we don’t have any data, we’re not going to know what success looks like. They started with a sort of benchmark and released their study showing that we have increased the diversity of staff and boards in American museums. I like that we all had a moment to celebrate—and also say “there is so much more to do.” It also keeps us focused on where the increase in diversity is—is it in positions across the institutions? There has been strong recognition that we have to work to change the pipeline in museums. Most of us have active programs with university students and offer fellowships for people of color, and foundations like Mellon and the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have been supporting the work. I remember, early on in Minneapolis, my younger staff members were always poking at me—they drove me crazy, and I was glad. They came in to see me and said we had to offer paid fellowships and not free internships. I was like, “What? I’m the product of a free internship. I interned, and look at me!” They said, “Yeah, look at you—everybody’s going to look like you if we don’t change.”

ARTnews: What kinds of policies can help the National Gallery change?

Feldman: At the National Gallery of Art there’s a real consciousness and focus on doing a better job of serving the nation broadly. As an example, we have CASVA—the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts—which is like a university within the National Gallery. We have scholars working across the globe in different areas, whether it’s images of enslaved Africans in Brazil or another scholar working on contemporary Native American artists. We have worked with Howard University on contemporary black modernism and brought scholars in. I’m thrilled that the National Gallery is already doing so much, and there is always more to be done. I’ve never forgotten: We brought Theaster Gates to Minneapolis for a lecture while I was there. He really connected with the audience; everyone was feeling very happy and pleased with themselves. And, at the end, he said: “You’re doing a good job. Good—but do more.” I have always had Theaster in my head saying, “Do more.”

Stevenson: I love that we can think about institutions as places that model the kind of expression, engagement, and openness we want in our communities. I’m not sure that, historically, there was a sense of obligation to model something for a community. What I hear is the idea that we want to model a kind of truly complete American picture, which talks about the Native American experience and the African-American experience and the immigrant experience and the experience of different people in this country. You behave differently when you accept the responsibility that you’re modeling something. Parents talk differently with their children when they are young than when they are older. I grew up around amazing people who believed in the power of storytelling, and they modeled for me the power of a story to take you from point A to point B and leave you someplace you didn’t expect to find yourself.

Feldman: So much of the origins of the museums in the Victorian age were about holding up perfection. I was thinking about the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with the most beautiful examples of metalwork so that workers could see what the pinnacle looked like. It was very much about educating people, and I think we are turning now from “we are going to educate” to “we are going to help you learn.” We can empower learning and fuel curiosity, which gives more personal agency and recognizes that we can all bring things to works of art we see or history we read. Our role as institutions is to help people find themselves—find their relevance and their interest in the works that we hold in trust.

Stevenson: And if it is done well, it can create an experience for people. We have a section where signage from the segregation era is on display. An older man came in with his grandson, and the young boy was stunned to see those signs. He turned to his grandfather and said, “Is that real?” The grandfather started to cry and said, “Yes, it was really, really hard.” The grandson said, “I’m so sorry, Grandpa.” They sat and the grandfather talked to his grandson for probably about an hour and a half. They did not move. To have the opportunity to facilitate that experience—right?

Feldman: Yes.

ARTnews: There has been controversy surrounding museums being too political or not political enough. Kaywin, in the context of the National Gallery, how are you navigating that?

Feldman: Of course it is very different in a federal institution representing the full nation. I don’t believe that partisan politics have any role or place at the National Gallery of Art. That doesn’t mean the exhibitions we do and the interpretation we have of works of art can’t be relevant. I think that audiences—particularly our younger audiences—are demanding that art museums be relevant in a historical exhibition, talking about histories that are acknowledged or unacknowledged and enabling works of art to produce discussions and dialogue.

Stevenson: “Political” seems to suggest it is for some people and not for others. That’s my interest in the National Gallery and places like that: there are powerful ideas, and you can experience them. Some of those may be ideas you don’t agree with or haven’t thought about before, but it is the ability to encounter them that is dynamic and exciting. That contrasts with narrative museums that have a point of view. But all of it creates the richness of our cultural environment. That kind of dynamism can create a healthier society.

ARTnews: You’ve mentioned the notion of narrative museums putting forth an argument or making a case. How successful have the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice been in those terms so far, and how successful could they be in the future?

Stevenson: We have the advantage of operating in a space that has largely been neglected. We just haven’t talked about slavery in cultural institutions and cultural spaces in a very direct way before. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian is a place where you can encounter that, but there aren’t a lot of others. We want to talk about the slave trade. We want to show you how it worked and how it felt and what it looked like. We want to show you slave auction catalogues and have you read those words. We want to show you ads that emancipated people placed in newspapers because they were desperately trying to find their loved ones. We feel like we can help people discover aspects of the American experience they have never had exposure to before.

In that respect, it has been easy to get to people. Almost everybody says, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know that people were lynched because they stood too close to a white woman or because they didn’t call a police officer ‘sir.’ I didn’t know we actually had laws that did not allow black and white people to play checkers together.” When you have not been allowed to say something for a long time, people fear there must be a reason—that if you say it, something bad will happen. But I am committed to the idea that truth will actually set you free. You can’t live with a conspiracy of lies and be healthy. I’ve been pleased that so many people have found the courage to come into spaces that I was worried they would never come.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo's sculpture Nkyikim at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.<

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture Nkyikim at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

COURTESY EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE/HUMAN PICTURES

ARTnews: Kaywin, have you observed a push for more storytelling and case-making within the context of art museums?

Feldman: I absolutely do think that there is a demand for greater narrative thrust. People who go to museums have become more sophisticated. I’m very conscious of younger audiences demanding relevance from museums and wanting museums to acknowledge unacknowledged histories. The accountability that younger people in America are demanding of institutions now is very different from what it used to be. There are waters to navigate, and lots of untold stories. Museums are a safe place to be able to tell those stories.

Stevenson: If we don’t allow visitors to understand by structuring and contextualizing in some narrative way, we undermine the power of the art. I read Russian literature a lot while I was in college and was influenced by the way that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote in reaction to challenges and persecution they were living through. It manifested in powerful stories about what it means to forgive, what it means to struggle, and what it means to love. If you don’t understand the larger context, you are not going to read Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov the same way. I think the same is true for many of our artists. When we just align artworks by their visual similarity from different eras with no attention to context or narrative, we don’t permit the same kind of experience.

Feldman: When I was in Minneapolis, we had in the museum’s collection a painting by Kehinde Wiley of two Afro-Brazilian youths mimicking the pose from a fountain in Brazil. It’s a large painting, and the two boys are in this pose lying on the ground, looking up. We installed it in the gallery where we had our Italian Baroque 17th-century paintings, and it was fascinating to watch visitors respond. It was one of those galleries that a lot of people just walk through, in part because the Biblical stories depicted are too remote for a lot of the 21st-century audience. With the Wiley painting, they would stop and really look—and what stopped them was that they knew we had done something different. They knew something was going on, and they wanted to understand.

We had a comment book, and about 70 percent of people really liked it and 30 percent hated it. It was passionate on both sides, and I was good with both. I want people to care, and it was a reminder of the job we need to do in museums to help people see all that they could see in art. A lot of my research in museums has been around what happens when we experience wonder. You can feel wonder in lots of different ways—in nature, speech, art—and social scientists have proven that when we experience wonder, we become less narcissistic. We’re less worried about ourselves, our iPhone, our schedule, and we feel like we are connected to something bigger—connected to humanity. That is something museums can offer every day.

Stevenson: I don’t think our society—our nation—will survive, endure, grow, and advance if we don’t pay more attention to our cultural lives and our relationship to truth-telling, our relationship to history, our relationship to beauty, our relationship to what it means to be human. Museums and cultural institutions are the curators of that experience. We have a huge obligation and responsibility to make sure we are tending to our communities by being thoughtful, strategic, and creative about how we open doors to places that allow us to think and feel and learn and love in ways that are critical to how we survive.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Kaywin Feldman & Bryan Stevenson.”

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