In Their Own Words
Through its partnership with Art Bridges, the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, in Tampa Bay, Florida sought to engage local and diverse communities by highlighting artworks by artists who have been historically underrepresented in museums. By borrowing five paintings from the Art Bridges collection, the MFA St. Petersburg aimed to expand upon traditional art historical narratives and deepen conversations on race, gender, and regional identity by featuring works by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women artists.
The paintings included:
With their Learning & Engagement project, the museum built programs and experiences that encouraged dialogue about social inequities and marginalization in the 20th and 21st centuries. They accomplished this, in part, by creating an in-gallery audio offering, In Their Own Words: Artist’s Letters.
With this interpretive feature, visitors enjoyed voice actors read archival materials from Lee-Smith, Krasner, Lawrence, Lewis, and Hartley.
The recorded performances played alongside each artwork, breathing new life into the lived experiences of the featured artists.
Audio selections included:
- Correspondence between Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz
- A condolence letter from Mark Rothko to Lee Krasner on the death of Jackson Pollock
- A reading of Hughie Lee-Smith’s artist credo written while he was serving in the Navy
- A letter from Jacob Lawrence to Romare Bearden
- A letter from Norman Lewis to Eleanor Roosevelt
This immersive element deepened visitor experience by encouraging slow looking and listening.
An educator from the museum reflected: “Visitor engagement with the recordings was often coupled with delight, and docents reporting seeing visitors routinely pulling friends and family over to share the experience.”
Our Walls: Real and Imagined
In the program Our Walls: Real and Imagined, the MFA St. Petersburg encouraged its audiences to consider the physical and psychological barriers that real and imagined walls can create. Using The Walls by Lee-Smith as inspiration, the museum installed an informational outdoor display about the artist and painting in its front plaza.
Over the course of a week, visitors participated in the community art installation by responding to the following prompts on individual lawn signs:
Walls are… ______________
Walls are not… ______________
Walls can… ______________
Walls should not… ______________
The completed signs were then displayed throughout the museum’s grounds providing participants with an avenue to express their unique perspectives at their museum. By contemplating central themes to Lee-Smith’s work including hope, isolation and identity, participants made connections to their own lives while taking part in a collective making experience that was particularly impactful due to ongoing pandemic challenges.
Connecting Through Art
To better connect with underserved youth audiences in the region, the museum created and assembled 500 art kits inspired by Lewis, Krasner, and Lawrence’s artworks. Distributed in partnership with several community organizations the museum was able to reach young people in neighborhoods from which it typically receives low attendance.
This new mode of distribution emphasized the importance of reaching out to new audiences by meeting people where they are and being responsive to their needs and interests. The program also emphasized the evolving role of the community-led museum and the many possibilities of expanding engagement offsite.
The Future is Female
The museum also staged The Future is Female, a piano performance inspired by Krasner’s Re-Echo. As part of the show, pianist Sarah Cahill performed over sixty compositions by women composers worldwide over the course of 5 hours.
The program began with a listening session that challenged perceptions about gender in music and creative production. As a complement to the performance, the museum showed a video featuring work by women artists in its collection.
In this way, the museum highlighted the breadth and depth of women artists excelling in performance and visual arts. A complete list of featured composers and pieces can be found here.
Spiral Full Circle
This interdisciplinary exploration continued with Spiral Full Circle, a multi-genre evening of performances honoring the legacy of Spiral, a collective of Black artists including Norman Lewis formed in the mid-1960s. Focusing their mission on balancing activism with one’s personal artistic practice, these artists sought ways to engage with the Civil Rights Movement while negotiating individual aesthetic choices.
The group’s ethos inspired performing artist and author Tenea D. Johnson’s speculative fiction, actor Cranstan Cumberbatch’s performance, and musician Butch Thomas’ Lewis-inspired musical suite. Through this program, the museum introduced the vital, but often overlooked contributions of the Spiral Group and supported Black artist outputs. Enjoy a recording of the event here.
Why We Love this Project
We love that this innovative, multilayered project has transformed the ways artist and community perspectives are reflected at the MFA St. Petersburg. The museum’s programming suite successfully amplified the contributions of the local community and encouraged audiences to connect and empathize with artists and their contributions in new ways.
Published September 26, 2022