Artist Tia-Simone Gardner and Dr. Jeffreen Hayes of the Birmingham Museum of Art discuss the museum’s contribution to the 50 Years Forward campaign, marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
It is difficult to talk about “The ‘60s” without thinking both globally and locally. Every continent, every space, rippled with social, political, and economic waves of discord. In the United States, sites of political struggle emerged in every habitable space the country had to offer. Although Birmingham, Alabama was only one such space that seeded this struggle, it became, and remains “imprisoned in the luminous glare” of black and white images, nostalgic of violence and trauma. September 15, 2013 marks fifty years since the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and to commemorate it, the city of Birmingham has launched the 50 Years Forward campaign, a citywide collaboration between cultural institutions to dedicate time and space to reflecting on Civil Rights history. I spoke with Dr. Jeffreen Hayes, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow of African American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), about what the museum has planned for this year. In our interview we talked about the role of cultural institutions in places like Birmingham and how they facilitate, or mediate, the public’s engagement with collective histories.
Tia-Simone Gardner Could you tell me a bit about the 50 Years Forward campaign? And did you know you’d be working on it when you came into the museum as a Mellon fellow?
Jeffreen Hayes 50 Years Forward is the City of Birmingham’s theme and the museum’s tagline is “Art Speaks: 50 Years Forward.” With the conversation about the commemoration, the museum wanted art at the center in its space. The city is dealing with Civil Rights history; we (BMA) are dealing with issues of race, racism, and segregation, too. The challenge was, How does the institution contribute to the dialogue about these issues of the 1950s and 1960s, and incorporate it into what it already does? The museum is not the Civil Rights Institute and certainly not trying to infringe on the Institute. Art is our focus. The kind of art that will be presented will spark conversation; this is why “Art Speaks” is the overarching theme for the series of exhibitions and performances. It also links to the museum’s mission of wanting its audience to personally connect to art but also fostering dialogue.
During my interview for the position, I was told about the commemoration. The museum wanted to do something major, perhaps an exhibition. One idea was an exhibition using the permanent collection because, one of the Collection’s concentrations is Civil Rights history. I knew organizing a show would be part of my responsibility. With the position, I had a lot of freedom in what kinds of shows and African American art program I could develop.
TG Thelma Golden, in a TED talk, spoke about Harlem being a place that is a real place, but is often thought of as a space. That it is often thought of as the past or the future—what it was, or what it could be. And I think something similar happens with Birmingham. I wonder about your joining the museum at such a critical moment—could you talk about how you have come to see Birmingham as real place, or idea, or a history?