In 2022, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a membership association that creates ethical standards for museums, adopted a definition for museums that such institutions should “operat[e] ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities,” hewing closely to a concept French historian Hugues de Varine, a former ICOM director, proposed decades ago: that at the center of a museum lies “not things, but people.”
A year later, mainstream museums are still grappling with this shift, as they have indeed historically prioritized the study, display, and preservation of objects in their care, and not the communities that surround them. Exceptions to these are community museums, which arose from a desire for museums to put people and local communities first, which can take the form of building collections or organizing exhibitions together.
In the US, the foundations of these museums date back to the late 1960s, when three now prominent community museums—the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., (in 1967), the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle (1967), and El Museo del Barrio in New York (1969)—were founded as dedicated spaces for communities marginalized by mainstream institutions in their respective cities.
“You had all these social movements from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to the antiwar movement, to the Women’s movement, really challenging all kinds of American institutions, and museums were no exception to that,” Samir Meghelli, the Anacostia’s chief curator, said in 2019.
Below, a look at how these three community museums, as well as the ever-thriving National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago (founded 1987) and the recently reopened Buffalo AKG Art Museum (the sole mainstream institution discussed here), are continuing to move on the needle on the how museums can create community-centered, hyper-local programs.
Anacostia Community Museum
The Anacostia’s current exhibition, “To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.,” takes its title from a statement that grassroots organizer Dana Alston made at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. She said, in part, “The environment, for us, is where we live, where we work and where we play.” Marking the launch of the museum’s Center for Environmental Justice, the exhibition aims to address how environmental concerns should be understood through the social, racial, and economic conditions of where they lived, highlighting the work of local women of color who have sought to protect their communities.
Founded in 1967 as an addition to the Smithsonian Institution, and intiailly occupying a storefront space in the predominantly Black neighborhood that lends the museum its name, the Anacostia was conceived as a type of outreach program, a way for the Smithsonian to meet the demands of the civil rights movement for more diversity in the national museum’s programming while also encouraging Black people to visit the National Mall. The founders of the Anacostia had a different vision for it: a space to elevate Black culture alongside the local community.
In the decades since its founding, the Anacostia looked to broaden its scope beyond D.C., but since the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, it has recommitted itself to the hyperlocal, tailoring its programming to the concerns of residents of the D.C.-metro area. This focus was exemplified by the 2018–20 exhibition “Right to the City” that examined the history of gentrification in six D.C. neighborhoods. The exhibition also made sure to bring art directly to these communities, staging pop-up versions across the city, as well as a roving mobile exhibition space in a retrofitted food truck.
“We conducted around 200 oral history interviews with community members,” Meghelli told ARTnews, “to ensure that stories and perspectives on the history directly reflected the lived experiences of long-time Washingtonians. We developed what we called the D.C. storytelling system, which was a repurposed pay phone where people could listen to clips from all the histories that we had done, but also record their own story.” That format for direct community involvement was also applied to the curation of “To Live and Breathe,” where visitors were able to create quilt squares detailing a personal struggle with environmental justice that could then be added to a community quilt. Meghelli said, “We really tried to put into practice this mantra, particularly of the women leaders in the environment movement over the past 30 or so, which is: we speak for ourselves.”
Wing Luke Museum
Since its founding in a Seattle storefront, the Wing Luke Museum, which focuses on highlighting the work of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander artists, has worked to earn and maintain the trust of its community, all while growing in size and influence, including raising money for two multimillion-dollar expansions.
“Community members recognize that this museum is about and for them,” Cassie Chinn, the museum’s deputy executive director, told ARTnews by email. “Our exhibitions end up being rich, immersive places of storytelling, dialogue, and exchange, crossing over history and art.”
In an exhibition earlier this year that looked at the lasting impacts of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, artist Na Omi Judy Shintani exhibited Dream Refuge for Children (2019),consisting of 12 cots with images of incarcerated Japanese American, Indigenous, and Central American children, bridging the issue of childhood detention across time. Stories from children who survived incarceration are piped through speakers overhead. The histories of Japanese internment, Indigenous children in residential schools, and migrant children held in detention centers are still woefully undertold. In sharing her family’s lived experience, Shintani was able to connect it to how governmental policies like Japanese internment continue to impact communities of color.
“As we work in our hyper-local context, those personal, intimate stories resonate with experiences across the nation and therefore end up holding national significance too,” Chinn said.“There’s this false idea out there that ‘community-centered’ means that you sacrifice excellence, and that just isn’t true.”
El Museo del Barrio
The Wing Luke has gotten significantly bigger without drawing much controversy over its commitment to local constituents. El Museo del Barrio hasn’t been so lucky. Founded by artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz as a way to connect Nuyoricans to their culture back on the Island, the museum began expanding its scope to include artists based in Latin America several decades ago. Critics decried that this led to a lack of focus on Puerto Rican and US-based Latinx artists, which came to a head during a series of community-led protests in 2019.
In the four years since, the museum has been relatively successful at responding to these concerns, as seen through its current collection hang, “Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección.” Unfolding over two rotations to display some 500 objects from its holdings, the show doubles as a proof of concept: striking a balance between focusing on US-based Latinx artists and Latin American artists, with an aim to do away with the hierarchies that traditionally separate the two.
“Research for the project was informed by a series of private convenings with invited scholars, community members, artists, and others with expertise around six thematic categories: Urban Experiences; Women Artists; Graphics Expanded; African and Indigenous Heritages; Craft Intersections; and Representing Latinx,” curator Susanna Temkin recently told ARTnews by email about the show. These categories served as the entry points to reconsidering the collection as a whole.
The inaugural rotation included a section spotlighting art and ephemera from more than a century of life in El Barrio (East Harlem). Another section in the first rotation focused on Puerto Rican printmaking, while one in the second rotation looked at how depictions of political figureheads have been essential to Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence.
One site-specific artist commission is by Puerto Rican artist Glendalys Medina, who drew inspiration from a sacred Taino initiation ritual called Cohoba. Artifacts from the Island’s Indigenous Taino culture are some of the earliest pieces that El Museo collected. Medina’s pieces, including white-and-gold door handles, open up the gallery that puts the artifacts in dialogue with works, from the 1960s to today, by several contemporary artists.
El Museo’s far-reaching presentation is reliant on an anti-colonialist framework that reconnects the institution to one of its earliest tenets: that the institution’s social agenda is just as important as its visual one.
“‘Reframing La Colección’ is a several-year umbrella project initiated by El Museo in 2021 with the objective of looking deeply at its collection and sharing the result of this reconsideration with our audiences,” chief curator Rodrigo Moura told ARTnews by email. “The main aspect to be considered here is how El Museo can sustainably continue to carry and reinterpret its mission and legacies.”
National Museum of Mexican Art
Maria Gaspar, whose striking photographs documenting the recent demolition of a prison in Cook County was commissioned by El Museo for “Something Beautiful,” is a Chicago native, who returned to her hometown after college around 20 years ago. A formative experience in her early career was working as an arts instructor at Yollocalli, a youth program at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Earlier this year, the museum organized an exhibition, titled “Giving Shape,” to celebrate the legacy and influence of the Yollocalli initiative on Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village communities, serving as a local hub for artmaking.
The show included a video of a project Gaspar worked on with Yollocalli participants in 2014 to make what she calls “reverse graffiti” on the walls and sidewalk surrounding the Cook County Jail. By “reverse,” she means they chose to power wash—rather than spray paint—phrases like “What’s your role?” and “Do you see me?” onto these public-facing surfaces. “The youth wore uniforms and spent the day power washing the perimeter,” Gaspar told ARTnews by email. “The text lasted for several weeks.”
Carlos Tortolero, the museum’s founder, has long believed that a museum like this one should differ from the norm: “I strongly believe museums should be agents of social change. Many in the museum world consider this ludicrous,” he wrote in 1991. Though the museum maintains a robust exhibition program, showcasing Mexican art from both sides of the border, it places a significant emphasis on its education programs. That lets artists, like Gaspar, learn from the museum as much as the museum learns from them. In giving the local community access to arts education, the museum has made it their mission to meet the community where it is.
Buffalo AKG Art Museum
Fast forward two decades and mainstream institutions are now looking to community museums to figure out how to be more welcoming to their local audiences.
Like other mainstream institutions, the Buffalo AKG (formerly the Albright Knox Gallery) fostered community engagement through after-school programs and a public art initiative with local governments. But when embarking on its recent three-year, multi-million expansion project, the museum used the opportunity to ensure that residents knew the new, reimagined space would be for them, too. When the community expressed concerns about the original renovation plan, the architect for the project scrapped it, flying in for more than a dozen meetings with residents to come up with another one. That was just one part of the museum’s overall community engagement for its reimagining.
“Through hundreds of meetings, focus groups, and survey responses, the museum heard a call for a space in which the cultural life of our region could unfold in a more informal capacity,” deputy director Jillian Jones told ARTnews.
The result of those conversations is the museum’s new town square that is meant to double as a gathering space for the community, offering more interactive pieces, family-friendly events, and performances by local artists—and it will have free admission. This programming will be done in partnership with the recently established Community Advisory Council, which “provides guidance and feedback about programs, exhibitions, and initiatives as they are being designed,” according to Jones.
In this massive redesign, officially unveiled earlier this year, the Buffalo AKG used strategies straight from a community museum’s playbook, making the people, not things, an integral part of what the institution could—and should—stand for.