“Community Curation: Opening Process and Building Programming Together,” presented at the 2023 College Art Association Annual Conference, Feb. 18, 2023
One of the main audience-centered goals for the exhibition—”Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas” (May 26, 2022—May 23, 2023), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—was to engage and speak directly to the Black Boston community. Like many museums, the MFA seeks to be a place of inclusion and belonging. How do we bring these principles into the very heart of the museum’s operations? In the case of this exhibition, the curatorial process was broken down and driven by a collaboration between institutional staff and community-based individuals—specifically, the art historian Chenoa Baker, scholar Kyrah Malika Daniels, and artists Napoleon Jones-Henderson and Stephen Hamilton—whose role was much more than an advisory group. They were co-organizers of the show and, therefore, had a genuine stake in its outcome.
This presentation provides details of this collaboration; how to extend an invitation to work together and to make space for the community-generated input, how to divide labor and leverage outside expertise, and ultimately, how the institution needs to be accountable for the work done together, the resulting programming, and how it is received by the broader community. Throughout the exhibition planning, the team met three times to discuss the exhibition concept and audience goals, consider the gallery space and the show’s layout, and the importance of language in interpretation. Values of care, radical transparency, and careful listening drove this process from start to finish. The outcome sets a precedent for implementing community-led curatorial practice and museum programming.