Exploring ideas and issues impacting the arts and cultural sector. www.devonakmon.com | Twitter: @DevonAkmon
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Image Source: @OpenYourLobby Twitter account.

Red Doors: Museums as Sanctuaries During Civil Unrest

Over the past year, protests have erupted in cities across the nation. Demands have ranged from calls for greater social justice to the lifting of pandemic restrictions. In several instances, protests have led to property damage and/or the intimidation of people with opposing views. As we head into a major election, more and more businesses in urban areas are contemplating measures to protect their assets, namely buildings, from further civic unrest. In fact, a recent NY Times article described how many retail brands were boarding up store windows as one safety precaution. I’ve heard several museum directors contemplate similar actions. While I appreciate the magnitude of these decisions, I’m concerned that boarding up museums may be a disservice to the public. …


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Source: University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA)

The global pandemic has not been kind to museums. By now you’ve probably heard of the mass layoffs of museum professionals and the possibility of approximately 1/3 of museums closing due to the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic. For some, a combination of emergency grants and the Paycheck Protection Program served as a vital lifeline. However, many of those resources have now been depleted and, as the American Alliance of Museums points out, things will become more dire without additional federal relief.

Despite these challenges, museums continue to serve their communities in important ways. Many museums have created virtual programs to keep audiences engaged, informed, and entertained; provided lesson plans and other educational content to teachers and parents; and some are already collecting pandemic-related stories and ephemera to document this historic moment in time. Further, in many places across the nation and around the world, museums have begun to reopen under strict guidelines and safety measures (albeit, with limited success). …


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It’s been over seven months since the global coronavirus pandemic took root here in the United States. Arts and cultural organizations, similar to other types of businesses, are struggling to navigate the myriad challenges brought on by the pandemic. Theatres, concert halls, and other performing arts venues remain closed in most cities. Many museums and galleries are open, but with strict limitations on visitation. These ongoing disruptions have had a huge financial impact on organizations both big and small. Earned and contributed sources of income are down and many organizations are depleting razor thin capital reserves. According to a 2018 report from National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University, arts and cultural organizations in the United States had an average of five months working capital. However, the report also warned that “the majority of organizations had considerably less reserves as the results were skewed by the fact that working capital was concentrated in larger organizations and especially art museums.”¹ With staff reductions, limited revenues, and dwindling reserves, many arts and cultural leaders are contemplating how to keep their organizations afloat. …


This past Saturday, Dharma and I travelled to Grand Rapids for the opening weekend of ArtPrize10. It’s remarkable to think this experimental, citywide art competition has been in existence for a decade. For those unfamiliar with ArtPrize, it is a three-week art competition that takes place throughout the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Artworks, including 2D, 3D, Installation, and Time-Based, are exhibited in a variety of settings ranging from major cultural institutions to local bars, cafes, and hotels. According to ArtPrize, “1,260+ works created by 1,400+ artists from 41 states and 40 countries will be exhibited in 165+ venues” comprise the 2018 program. ArtPrize is organized though a unique crowdsourced fashion: both artists and venues register for the competition and “then find each other through an online connections process.” Each venue is independently organized and ArtPrize, as an institution, does not participate in the selection of the work. Through this approach, ArtPrize has positioned itself as a “radical idea” that sought to disrupt “the traditional top-down art contest.” …


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2017 Forum on Community, Culture & Race at the Arab American National Museum

Independence Day #242. On this day, our nation celebrates the founding of our democratic experiment — the United States of America — with fireworks, parades, and barbecues. It’s meant to be a festive occasion, yet I can’t help but feel a sense of deep concern. As imperfect as our nation has been, it still serves as a model democracy for many throughout the world. Yet, it appears that our democracy, and the important public institutions that support it, are currently threatened and facing profound challenges. Our media, institutions of higher learning, and public spaces — all vital pillars for accessing information, assembling, and exercising our collective freedoms — are under attack. Now, more than ever, our nation’s cultural institutions must engage with audiences to provide space for dialogue, inquiry, and reflection. …


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As part of our capstone for the 2016–17 American Express NGen Fellows program with Independent Sector, our crew created a series of podcasts and blogs on emerging issues in the nonprofit sector. The first blog post, which I had the privilege to write, and the corresponding podcast by three of my talented colleagues, are now live. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of American Express or Independent Sector.

As I reflect on the insightful commentary expressed in my conversation with American Express NGen colleagues Kashif Shaikh, Lisa Fasolo Frishman, and Paul Daugherty for the first episode of NGen Speaks, I am reminded of the myriad challenges and the historical power imbalances we must work to remedy as a nonprofit sector. As leaders, we have a profound amount of privilege to access resources and set institutional agendas that affect millions of lives. However, if history has taught us one thing, it’s that power and privilege have not always been used in a manner that makes our society more just and equitable. …


On March 16, President Donald J. Trump put forth his budget proposal and it calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), among other governmental agencies. These vital government programs have been pillars of cultural and intellectual production throughout our nation. Thousands of museums, libraries, and cultural institutions will be significantly impacted if these programs are eliminated.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act. This important piece of legislation established both the NEA and the NEH. Since their inception, these Endowments have played an essential role in helping cultural institutions make the arts and the humanities more accessible to all Americans. This includes giving voice and visibility to marginalized and underrepresented communities throughout our nation. The Arab American National Museum (AANM), our nation’s singular museum dedicated to the Arab American experience, has been one of the thousands of museums, libraries, and cultural institutions to benefit from this support. …


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I’m immensely excited to be in Miami for CityLab 2016. Over the next few days, attendees will explore both challenges and innovative approaches to creating more sustainable and vibrant cities. I have the honor of serving on a breakout session on Monday, October 24 called Community Building with Arts and Culture. Moderated by Sammy Hoi, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, the panel will also include Franklin Sirmans, director of the Perez Art Museum Miami; and Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, founders and artistic directors of The Good Chance Theatre. …


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On October 1, 2016, the Arab American National Museum proudly opened the exhibition Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy at our nation’s most storied institution on immigration, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. This exhibition presents the rich history of the earliest concentrated Arab immigrant community in the USA, placing the Arab American experience in context with the greater American immigrant narrative. I cannot think of a better time, or a better location, for this exhibition.

Nothing tells the “American story” like Ellis Island, and nothing tells the Arab immigrant story like Little Syria. At the time the Little Syria neighborhood was thriving in New York, “Greater Syria” itself consisted of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine — and newly arrived Arab immigrants to New York exemplified this diversity. Choosing to exhibit Little Syria, NY in New York City, on the island where so many Arab immigrants first stepped foot on American soil, demonstrates a commitment and appreciation to our rich and contributory heritage. …


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How do museums and libraries catalyze communities? More specifically, how do they serve as “enablers of community vitality and co-creators of positive community change?” These are fundamental questions the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is asking as part of the Community Catalyst Initiative. IMLS launched the initiative, in partnership with the William Penn Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund, in July 2016. On September 8–9, IMLS hosted around 70 museum and library professionals for a two-day Community Catalysts Town Hall in Philadelphia. …

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