Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stephanie Cunningham: Q & A

This months cover by K.K.W,
with layout by Aleksandar Ares.  
The path to "Museum Hue": Stephanie Cunningham. Photos & interview by K.K.W 

In life we often meet many people of different walks, ways of thinking and occupations. Although its rare to encounter those who are passionate, driven with a clear desire to improve [even a little] the world in which they live. 
A Brooklyn native who at one point wanted to be an artist, or work in museums. Like many intellectuals she didn't have lots of friends, but many caring family members who would embrace her curious outlook on life, and abilities. 

With persistence she gained an internship at the Brooklyn Museum [Education, then the Curatorial Department]. She went on to graduate from Rutgers University  for art history with a focus on cultural heritage and preservation studies. She was now trained, armed and ready for active duty on the front-lines, a natural leader. Stephanie Cunningham is devoted to increasing the exhibiting, appreciation, and collecting of art by people of color. This is born not only from a vocational choice, but also a deep-rooted personal experience, of social imbalances with in the art world. Through this she co-created "Museum Hue", and this month she's in the spotlight. 

K.K.W . What was it like growing up in Brooklyn for you?

S.C:  I loved growing up in Brooklyn. As a Brooklyn native I have a deep appreciation for the vibrant cultures that thrive throughout the borough. All of NYC is diverse but in Brooklyn, the diversity is less dispersed. There are "territories" run by certain groups of people. In East Flatbush where I was born and raised it was/is a predominately Black/Caribbean neighborhood. Bed-stuy was/is Black/American-Southern. Bensonhurst/Mil Basin was/is Russian Immigrants. Sunset park has a large Chinese community. Williamsburg was primarily a Latino community but it is now majority white. In Brooklyn there are mom and pop shops galore that offer things that are unique. The Korean store that sells every food kind from the Caribbean and Mexico. Bakeries that make the best baklavas. Learning to tolerate long commutes when traveling to Manhattan is also very Brooklyn. Favorite time was the summertime of course when Mr. Softee came around and trips to Coney Island.

K.K.W:  Art seems to be everywhere in one form or another - were there early influences when you were younger?

S.C:  My love for the arts and history began in my formative years when my parents, new immigrants to the United States of America frequently took me to the Brooklyn Museum to learn about different cultures and see how they expressed themselves, their belief, and the world around them through artistic endeavors as diverse as the artists themselves.

K.K.W: For most open-minded, intelligent, cultured people it can be difficult [given the realities of NYC or anywhere else] from an early age, even when your older. Was it like this for you, or maybe still is?

S.C: Growing up I didn't have tons of friends but I was surrounded by a huge family so I didn't really miss not having friends. I had cousins who were my age that I was very close to. I think this allowed me to be me. I was always quirky/artsy and my family accepted me for me. Sometimes they would say oh Steph is weird sometimes but we still love her, she's ours. Anytime I wasn't with family, which wasn't often, I would try to impress others and not really be true to me. As I got older I realized that being myself was when I was most comfortable so I would do just that. I knew that if people didnt like me that I had my family which I realize is very unique and not everyone has that family unite as I do.

K.K.W:  At what point did you know being involved in visual art was what you wanted?

S.C: I knew that I was interested in a career in the arts since I was in high school. When I decided to seriously pursue "art", I initially didn't know what that meant. Did I want to be an artist or work in museums. There was no one from my community or family that I knew that was in the arts. As an adult, I thought of the arts in a more broader way but then I thought it meant museums, visual art, and European classical work. So I had to figure out what I wanted to do within the arts. I would go to the New York City Collage of Technology, receive an Associates degree in Art & Design, though still no clue in what I wanted to do.

Then I went off to Brooklyn college to study art and while there I had to do an internship to graduate. So I applied for an internship at my beloved Brooklyn Museum with no luck. I would get a rejection email and sometimes no response. So I decided to walk in there dressed nicely with my resume in hand. I walked right up to someone at the visitors counter and told them that I was interested in an internship and needed to talk with someone. Luckily, someone from the Education department was in ear-shot and took my information. The following week I was interviewed for an internship in the education department and a week after I started. I was in the education department for about 6 months and then I moved to the Curatorial department at the museum. Ultimately I decided that I wanted to continue to work in museums. I then went to Rutgers University and studied Art History with a focus on Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies.

K.K.W: While everyone becomes affected by social matters - along ethnic, gender, political lines, as a young African-American woman when did you become active, out-spoken?

S.C:  I always trace my activism to personal experience and the experiences of those that I love dearly. I come from a huge family, of which, the majority members are Black men that look much like the many that were murdered. Thankfully I've never lost any of them to gun violence, but they do have similar stories about their encounter with police officers. My brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews, father, and husband have shared some of their experiences with me and I have witnessed some myself.  

This is when I feel the most helpless and troubled in my spirit. They all feel violated after most encounters with officers. These men were taught that being a good American means to love education, get a good job, and marry the one they love. But their degrees, marital status, or salaries never seem to help them during police stops. These men have always been a constant in my life, and the very thought of loosing them to something so senseless, sends an uncontrollable shiver through my entire body. So I have marched, boycotted, and posted my stance on social media to stand up for the men that I love dearly. 

I have also given time and resources to individuals and organizations doing work to fight police repression (stop-and-frisk; racial profiling; and the school-to-prison pipeline). I realize that in order to see real change in the "system",  I need to take on a more active full-time role, and not just be a part time activist. Also, I believe that the type of activism people choose to do, should match their skills / talents / interest's, etc. That's why my activist work focuses on changing museums. I have been in the field for about 10 years and I am very passionate about museums.  Museums play a role in defining and reproducing social relationships through their policies, and narrative practices. We use cultural practices generally to interact with each other and to transform ourselves and our groups. Museums reinforce social and class distinctions.

K.K.W: Those of African descent have been creating art in America for a long time, and with major reductions of racism, that art [in many forms] has been shown & collected in various ways. Do you feel its still minimal?

S.C:  The art of Black artist's is not as highly regarded as their white counter parts, to this day. Yes, there has been more Black artists work on display than in the past. As the country’s demographics have shifted towards a so-called majority-minority, the art world has begun featuring more works of black artists. But there is still major inequality in the art world. Many museums will highlight one black artist every 2 years and have a slew of white artists shown (the Guggenheim and Whitney museums). Pursuing becoming an artist is also very expensive and there is a clear economic gap that is present. See  

K.K.W:  What lead you to co-create "Museum Hue"?

S.C:  I co-created Museum Hue because I felt left out in a field that I love. I worked hard, paid my dews, but was still rejected; and In rejection I mean no promotions or job offerings. I thought is it me, maybe its me, but maybe its also the highering practices and racism. I didn't see much people of color in many positions in the museum outside of the maintenance and security departments. I spoke with some of my colleauges in the field who identify as a person of color (Black, Asian, Latino, etc) and they were having the same frustrations as I was. 

So many people of color who are interested and qualified to work in the museum field are jobless, or are ready to leave the field, because they can not get pass the entry level position they are in. I decided that I would speak up and form an organization that holds these truths up to museums. Proof that cultural institutions do not want to allow a more culturally diverse museum environment. Museums have a particular place within our society; they are respected, valued, and highly regarded for their practice of housing cultural representation. Museums represent a specialized and defined category of cultural institutions. They are institutions, which collects, exhibits, and interprets material evidence (artwork, artifacts, and archives) of many cultures to display to the public. 

Many exhibitions are made up of objects that represent a fascination with the “creativity” of other cultures, or subculture within a culture. The people who created these artwork/artifacts are often non-white, and their artwork/artifacts, are made to be a stand-in for their absence. Often these items were plundered during war and colonialization. They were initially taken as curiosities by Europeans and placed in ethnographic museums and showcased as simple/primitive cultures, opposite from, complex/modern European societies. Only in the recent century did museums begin to embrace the peculiar aesthetic properties of these works, as art, but still lesser than European works. There is still a hierarchical ordering in museums with European art and culture at the top. Overwhelmingly, museum staff and visitors are white. 

White people exhibit and define, the meaning of the artwork/artifacts that belong to nonwhite people and culture. They visit and form conversations around the artwork/artifacts. Studies show that the majority of museum visitors are white with a higher than average income. 

Museums are surrounded by diverse groups today and, its staff and visitors should reflect that. Because the population surrounding museums is made up of diverse people, its staff and visitors should also reflect that. People who represent the cultures on display should have the opportunity to create the content of exhibitions. Museum Hue is here to hold these truths up to museum leaders and show them why real cultural diversity, and inclusion, is needed and necessary. We are a collective of museum professionals who are qualified, capable of holding positions within museums, will help create a more embracing, and inclusive space within these institutions. The future of museums relies on how diverse they are, as the population gets browner. We also would like to lead cultural competency workshops within museums that encourage multiculturalism, and inclusion. Museums offer so many different opportunities: Educators, ethnographers, professors, curators, anthropologists, heritage workers, cultural workers, gallerists, performing artists, visual artists, multimedia artists, museum professionals, arts administrators. We deserve a right to these opportunities and we deserve access to museums in meaningful ways.

K.K.W:  What is it about art that moves you?

S.C: I love the arts for its ability to move your soul unlike anything else. It speaks to the importance of culture and legacy; it connects you to people in an amazing way. It allows you freedom from the everyday, is an outlet, an escape. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. It shows that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

K.K.W: Had you ever considered yourself a role-model for other young women?

S.C: I was blessed to have role models in my family, as well as my community, that I looked up to and had the privilege of interacting with. I would be honored to be seen as a role model. I like to think that I've gone through all that I have not for my own benefit, but for people to see that despite all my challenges, I pushed forward and thrived. For them to see that what sometimes appears as impossible, is very well possible. I would like people to be so inspired by my story, my fight, truly, and see that they too can create a voice for themselves and others. Whether in the arts or elsewhere. I want to be that spark, a small fiery particle. I don't believe in being a speck. A spark and a speck are both very small but a speck can be swept up and discarded. A spark has the ability to set something ablaze, start a massive fire. That spreading fire to me, is community coming together, lifting up others, being bold and brave. That fire that will continuously spread and almost impossible to extinguish.

Clearly Stephanie Cunningham is a passionate, and determined individual on a mission. And like many others, am quite glad to work with her. 
If you would like to know more about "Museum Hue", go , or: . 'Art is the reason, art is the way'

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