Supporting its nearly 100-year history as the oldest and largest art museum in Kentucky, the Speed Art Museum of Louisville is on a mission to create opportunities for the entire community to connect deeply and personally to art. My colleagues and I believe that to be truly inclusive, museums must represent their communities holistically and engage directly with the issues most important to the people they serve.
In March 2020, when the tragedy and injustice of the murder of Breonna Taylor in a raid by the Louisville Metro Police Department shook the community and ignited a spark across the country, the museum (edited by my predecessor, Stephen Reily) knew it was time for law. The question was not “Should we react at this time?” or “How do we react at this time?” but rather “What do we think we can offer the community right now, and what’s the best way to do it?” Amy Sherald’s generous offer to exhibit her portrait of Taylor sowed the seeds of Promise, testimony, remembrance, Speed’s 2021 exhibit reflecting Taylor’s life, death and the year of protests that followed. The goal was to use art to provide a timely platform and resources for open discussion, deep personal reflection, and community healing.
Curated by Allison Glenn, the exhibition was guided by a national advisory committee supporting the curatorial process; a research committee to collect public comments; and a local steering committee of Bipoc residents (black, indigenous and people of color), brought together by Toya Northington, Speed’s community engagement strategist, to ensure the exhibit and programming reflect the perspectives of members of the local community. Taylor’s family, especially her mother, was integrally involved in every decision; the museum could not have won the trust of the community without first gaining its blessing and support. The confluence of these groups helped take the exhibit from idea to reality within months and represented the next extension of Speed’s leadership and engagement model, demonstrating that adopting an iterative process and the openness of the very functioning of the institution allows an effective and real-time response to the needs of the community.
Promise, testimony, remembrance resonated deeply with the Louisville community and with audiences across the country, creating opportunities for conversation and catharsis that drew connections between very personal experiences with gun violence and the national outcry against racial injustice. But Taylor’s wrongful murder was far from an isolated incident; in 2021 alone, Kentucky has seen nearly 400 dead of gun violence, disproportionately affecting black residents, and the state continues to face stark racial and class disparities in education, housing, policing and incarceration, health outcomes and other key indicators of systemic inequality that impact the Louisville community.
When I arrived at Speed in September 2021, shortly after the exhibition closed, I knew we had to be committed to continuing these lessons on the power of listening and engagement, incorporating them more deeply at the institutional level. By taking a community-driven approach and building on people’s existing strengths and capacities, the Speed has transformed its programming to reflect the needs and voices of its audience, expanding its audience and adapting continuously to new entries and opportunities.
One of the cornerstones of Speed’s public programming is Community Connections, a series of workshops that creates a platform for marginalized members of the community to explore new modes of self-expression and collective reflection through artistic creation and discussion. Launched in 2018, the program partners with existing community groups to facilitate opportunities that address a persistent need or issue.
A recent project, The promise, is a direct extension of that commitment to directly address the issues facing Louisville’s black community. Led by multimedia artist Roberto Visani, the three-month program brought together members of the black community who have been affected by gun violence to explore the history of guns in the United States, learn about artists whose work involves firearms and creating their own new works, currently on view at Speed (until October 23). Crucially, The promise is structured as a participatory action research project, using a deeply intentional framework and methodology to help community members capture their own experiences in a way that emphasizes ownership, agency and advocacy for social change.
Since Promise, testimony, remembrance, we expanded the local steering committee to an institutional level, advising on initiatives ranging from programming and exhibits to hiring and external communications. The research committee also continued, ensuring that the museum serves the community effectively. We have developed relationships with local organizations deeply rooted in the Black community, creating lasting partnerships that maximize shared resources and reach. This summer, we also created two new roles to continue this crucial work, with Northington becoming our first Director of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging and Fari Nzinga leading new intersectional education initiatives as as Curator of Academic Engagement and Special Projects.
The goal of Speed’s approach is to make the museum a better neighbor for its community – an institution that measures success not by how many people it gets in but by how it gets its people out. resources ; an institution that engages directly with current issues, elevates local voices and uses art as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation. Becoming a truly responsive museum means responding to community needs and priorities as they evolve. This is only possible when museums are willing to embrace the rich and rewarding mess of an iterative and collaborative process: sharing power, seeking and internalizing feedback, and measuring impact on the community’s own terms.
- Raphaela Platow is the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville Kentucky