By Alexander Foy
Sports & Opinion Editor
The Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont took steps towards racial diversity and inclusion by featuring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists in the “Storytelling Salon,” “Learning Studio” and “Abstraction” exhibitions for its reopening on Sept. 21. This push for change was fueled by 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings following the death of George Floyd, said Janie Cohen, Director of the Fleming Museum.
In the early stages, the Museum’s staff members spent a lot of time learning and unlearning what they knew about the layouts of their galleries, said Cynthia Cagle, guest services coordinator at the Fleming Museum.
This has been done with the help of Ferene Paris Meyer, the founder of All Heart Inspirations, who works to create spaces for community dialogue, Cohen said.
Paired with transparency and communication to the public, the Museum plans to create a space of inclusivity, said Chris Dissinger, associate director of the Fleming Museum.
“Our intention is to always have listening sessions, opportunities for our audience, all aspects of our audience, all members, to feel comfortable in the museum and to share their stories, their interests and concerns,” Dissinger said.
While trying to become more inclusive, Dissinger said that the Fleming Museum has considered hosting meetings with other colleges in the region, like St. Michael’s College.
These meetings could be an opportunity for members of the St. Michael’s community to share their opinions about the Fleming’s reimagining, he said.
“I think that museums need to be used more for [community gatherings] and be more open to a lot of different public functions,” said Brian Collier, associate professor of fine arts at St. Michael’s.
For the Fleming Museum of Art, this isn’t a new topic of discussion. “Many years ago we said we are going to make expanding our BIPOC artist collection, but we didn’t really direct resources towards it,” said Museum Director Janie Cohen. “We didn’t make it a priority that would make a difference,” she said.
However, with new and significant acquisition resources, they can.
The bulk of new acquisition resources is expected to be used for acquiring contemporary art created by BIPOC artists. With this new fund, paired with the build-up of other unused funds, Cohen and her staff plan to move the museum into a more culturally sensitive direction. The Museum has already made this push with their newest exhibitions, “Storytelling Salon,” “Learning Studio” and “Abstraction,” with nearly half of the artists who premiered are BIPOC artists.
Beyond the addition of the acquisition fund, Dissinger said the Fleming Museum is committed to building a two-way street of communication with the community. The Museum recently implemented a feedback form on their website that allows people to communicate ideas about how the space can be more inclusive.
“We are going to have regular staff sessions where we will share that feedback and help that guide our values and priorities moving forward,” Dissinger said. The Museum is also restructuring its membership system to allow all members of the community to experience the exhibitions, he explained. The previous membership structure of the museum functioned like a hierarchy, where visitors received more benefits based on the amount of money they paid.
However, this system is expected to change.
That system is being replaced by the Fleming Community Circle, available free of charge. This allows the museum to send community updates about upcoming exhibitions and events.
Upcoming events are expected to serve as opportunities to discuss a variety of topics ranging from meanings and interpretations of art to incorporating diversity and inclusion in the Museum. These meetings are expected to occur every few weeks.
“When we are open to the public, we will have six panels up in the museum referencing either art that has been removed or galleries that have been closed. [For] instance, there is one gallery — our African and Egyptian gallery — that is currently under complete renovation and we don’t know if it’s going to reopen as that,” Dissinger said. Fleming plans to continue reviewing art displays, which may result in a second round of removals, he explained.
“It’s exciting after all the work we have put in to see some of the early response of people coming in,” said Cynthia Cagle, guest services coordinator. Cagle described initial reactions as positive.
The Fleming Museum of Art is not alone in this effort towards its inclusion efforts in the museum. A number of museums around the world, like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, are working towards decolonizing their exhibits, Cohen said.
“I would have thought that university museums would have been out ahead of everybody else and interestingly not. Some of the real leaders are major museums,” she said.
“We are deeply committed to it as a staff and we’re not being timid about it,” Cohen said.