6/3/20 - Ongoing
July 1, 2020

Dear friends,

This letter follows our message of May 31, 2020, in which we expressed our solidarity with all who are working for racial justice and our unqualified condemnation of racism in all its forms. In this historic moment, we, the staff of the Williams College Museum of Art, are taking a renewed look at both the current state and the vital potential of the museum in light of our values, our teaching mission, and our staunch commitment to anti-racism. Black lives matter and we pledge to ourselves, our community, and our audiences to continue or to newly pursue the following actions:

Recruit and hire applicants of color for staff positions and seek greater diversity in museum advisory roles: We will continue to actively recruit applicants of color through widespread and proactive outreach, contracting consultant recruiters, and strategic advertisements of job openings in media that attract diverse audiences. We place a personal commitment to supporting the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at the heart of every role at the museum, making it a prerequisite for any appointment. 

Implement increased, new, and recurring staff training: We commit to the implementation of required and repeated staff workshops in implicit bias, anti-racism, inclusion, and allyship. We will avail ourselves of the excellent resources on the Williams College campus as well as bring in talented educators and facilitators to help us in this work. We understand that the national conversation around police brutality and increased surveillance of communities of color also impinges upon museums, where people of color visitors often feel surveilled or made uncomfortable by security staff monitoring the galleries. We are resolved to continue the training around diverse audiences among all museum staff to ensure that our consistent invitation to open-ended dialogue and discovery around works of art is commensurate with the authentic, welcoming, and intentional ethos of our programming. We recognize that the work of anti-racism is a shared responsibility not restricted to public-facing staff members and that this work has vital importance to all of our relationships, both internal and external to the museum. Accordingly, we commit to making our workplace and the campus community a more welcoming space for colleagues of color.

Establish a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Committee: In concert with the museum’s strategic planning, we are forming a standing committee to actively address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the museum, from both a programmatic and staffing point of view. Special focus will be given to improving visitor experience, in person and online, as well as specific efforts to be more inclusive of the Black community. We will invest time and resources into research of our existing and potential audiences, analysis of various barriers to people’s engagement with the museum, and work to eliminate these barriers. Our goal is to welcome all into the WCMA community through museum experiences in our Williamstown building and through virtual engagement. 

Create professional development/career network:  We commit to building an ever more active network of museum “alumni” and arts professionals who are part of the worldwide WCMA community with the following goals:  supporting the careers of young professionals; fostering an increasingly diverse and welcoming museum community; and both bringing more people of color into the museum field and continuing to support their development throughout their careers. Our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded curatorial internship offers college graduates of color the opportunity to explore a museum career. 

Acquire art by Black makers: Over the last several years, we have been fortunate to expand our collection with works by many artists of underrepresented groups with emphasis on acquiring work by Black artists. On our Featured Acquisitions webpage you can see and learn about art by John Anansa Thomas Biggers, Robert Duncanson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sam Gilliam, Maren Hassinger, Titus Kaphar, Edmonia Lewis, Zanele Muholi, Lorraine O’Grady, James van der Zee, and Kehinde Wiley, and others. Our active collecting of work by Black artists continues, in part due to the generosity of donors who are passionate about this diversification of the collection, notably a recent, very generous gift from Clarence Otis and Jacqui Bradley. Many such acquisitions in recent years have been proposed by students in the Williams College course Acquiring Art, supported by the Fulkerson Fund, and thereby reflect a shared, intergenerational desire to see and to study a more inclusive and representative collection at this college art museum.

Lift up voices of Black scholars, artists, leaders, thinkers through programming and exhibitions: Our commitment to lifting up the voices of unheard or underheard peoples of all backgrounds is ongoing and we will redouble our work in this area. We are very much looking forward to the installation of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s exhibition, delayed due to the pandemic, in the near future. Listen to Yale professor Clifton Granby’s talk on social, racial, and environmental justice on our YouTube channel. Granby’s lecture was delivered in February 2020, in concert with the Landmarks photography survey exhibition. Also on YouTube, watch Kenturah Davis—an artist working between Los Angeles, New Haven, and Accra (Ghana)—deliver the Fall 2019 Plonsker Family Lecture about her work and practice. 

Mount exhibitions that explore themes of justice and equality & prompt deep engagement: We commit to addressing anti-Black racism more directly through our curatorial practice and the museum program. We will intentionally and thoughtfully create space for this work in our exhibition planning and schedule. WCMA has a long history of presenting exhibitions that question, challenge, and address critical contemporary issues, including recent presentations like Landmarks {organized by Horace Ballard}, Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. {co-organized by C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz} and possible selves: queer foto vernaculars {organized by Horace Ballard}. 

Convene regular conversations on racial justice: We commit to serve students, faculty and staff, our regional arts community, the community of college and university art museums, and art museums generally, by convening regular and important conversations about racism and as an active partner in anti-racism work. In 2016–17, the exhibition Getting a Read On: Basquiat and Black Lives Matter {organized by Chaédria LaBouvier} placed Basquiat’s painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) at the center of a series of conversations about police brutality, Black identity, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In both our internal conversations as well as those that engage the public, we pledge to use discussion as a tool that leads to actions.

Research and reinterpret the collection: Research on our global collection continues and reinterpretations that honor individual histories, cultures, and identities are a priority for our scholarship and presentations moving forward.  The ongoing exhibition SHIFT: New Interpretations in American and European Art {co-organized by Kevin Murphy and Horace Ballard}—which debuted in 2019—begins the critical work of reassessing our permanent collection with the understanding that collections that have been shaped by the Western canon undeniably present an incomplete history of artistic achievement that often obscures the contributions of women, queer folk, persons of color, artistic collectives, and makers we cannot identify. SHIFT asks how we can activate historic collections to address the issues and values of our contemporary society

Interrogate institutional history and museum collecting practices: Our work to interrogate the museum’s history and collecting practices is ongoing. These themes were recently explored this past academic year in the Michael Rakowitz exhibition The invisible enemy should not exist (Room Z, Northwest Palace of Nimrud) {organized by Lisa Dorin} and its attendant programming {organized by Nina Pelaez}. The 2018 study led by Williams College mathematics professor Chad Topaz and co-authored by several others including WCMA curator Kevin Murphy, analyzed the diversity of artists in 18 major museum collections, discovering that on average the sampled collections were composed of works by artists who were 85% white and 87% male. This type of study and interrogation extends into the classroom, too, with Uncovering Williams, a Williams College course co-taught by Kevin Murphy and American Studies professor Dorothy Wang. The course examines the history of the College through its visual and material culture, applying theories and methods of American studies, art history, critical race theory, gender studies, material cultures studies, and eco-criticism. 

This list is a beginning, and we invite you to join us in this work, whether through participating in a program, visiting an exhibition, referring a friend to an open position, sharing your resources, or simply staying in touch. We welcome you to subscribe to our newsletter and stay up to date on our mission at work and how you can get involved. We encourage you to visit the Williams College Davis Center and the Williams College alumni websites for lists of resources, invitations to join the conversation, and ways to take action for racial justice. We are fortunate to belong to a campus community that is committed to this work. Join us! We want to hear from you, knowing that we can only be successful in these actions through unity, collaboration, and common purpose. Email us at [email protected] with your thoughts, ideas, and questions.

In solidarity for justice,

The Williams College Museum of Art staff

May 31, 2020

Dear friends,

Many people have been quoting Dr. Martin Luther King’s comments about riots as the language of the unheard. Below is the excerpt transcribed from a video shared by The King Center in Atlanta:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. So, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

We stand in solidarity with the Williams College community and those across the nation who condemn racism and violence in all its forms. We grieve for the loss of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of racialized violence throughout this country’s stained history. We are deeply saddened that Dr. King’s words of a half century ago remain relevant and essential today.

We believe that our responsibility includes giving voice to the unheard through the choices we make as individuals and as an institution. Listening to the unheard means inviting their stories, collecting their art, and honoring their presence in and vital contributions to the American narrative. Museums can be agents for social justice and progress and these values are central to our mission. We will continue to make space for difficult conversations and the most critical issues of our time; study and collect work by artists from underrepresented, marginalized, and oppressed communities; and invite discourse around art and artists who push for progress and fight for freedom.

Earlier today, Williams College President Maud Mandel sent a letter to community members stating: “In the absence of our ability to lift our collective voices in person, I am writing this letter to state unequivocally that Williams condemns racism, violence, and injustice and will continue using its resources to help students—and society writ large—better understand these forces so we can continue to fight them.”

We are grateful for President Mandel’s leadership, giving voice to the pain felt by so many at this time and resolving to commit ever more fully and deeply to fighting inequality and injustice. We encourage you to read the full letter here.

Yours in solidarity and hope,

Pamela Franks
Class of 1956 Director

IMAGE: James H. Karales (1930–2002), Selma Marchers Approaching Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. Silver print. © Estate of the Artist. Featured in the exhibition Landmarks