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Op-Ed: Museums – Overcoming the barriers that prevent access to culture (Includes interview)

Nancy Ewart is an art critic living in San Francisco, California. As a young woman, she came to San Francisco to study art and ended up making the city by the Golden Gate her home. Until two years ago, she had her own studio, focusing on watercolors and calligraphy.

Art critic Nancy Ewart is well known for her interest in all the arts.

Art critic Nancy Ewart is well known for her interest in all the arts.
Nancy Ewart

Ewart now spends her time walking the halls and galleries of San Francisco’s many museums, galleries, and art shows, as well as going across the bay to Oakland and the surrounding area, bringing the latest news on shows, exhibits and openings to the public.

I have always enjoyed my “armchair travels” to the art galleries on the west coast from the comfort of my recliner chair here in Virginia. I have visited not only the Oakland Art Museum, but San Francisco’s de Young and the Asian Art Museum, to name just a few. Nancy always has insightful opinions on whatever showing or exhibit she is critiquing, and this is one of the things I and other readers always find thought-provoking.

A visit to the Oakland Art Museum
But back to the reason I am writing about the art museum and the resulting discussion with Nancy. Ewart wrote a critique on the latest exhibit showing at the Oakland Art Museum the other day. The exhibit is entitled “Pacific Worlds,” and the museum asks the question, “What does the Pacific mean to most of us?”

Tapa cloths  part of  Pacific Worlds  at the Oakland Art Museum. (Courtesy of Oakland Art Museum).

Tapa cloths, part of ‘Pacific Worlds’ at the Oakland Art Museum. (Courtesy of Oakland Art Museum).
Nancy Ewart/

According to Nancy, Suzanne Fischer, the lead curator of “Pacific Worlds” and the museum’s associate curator of contemporary history and trends said, “there was a sense that this Pacific Island collection didn’t have anything to do with California. Now there’s a scholarly and activist move to think of the Pacific as a unified place with its own history, and that story includes California.”

In her story posted in Examiner on June 4, Ewart detailed the over 300 rarely seen artifacts in the exhibit, from everyday fishhooks to a necklace of porpoise teeth, as well as beautiful and intricate Tapa cloths. Panels close by each exhibit described the cultural artifacts, written by local Pacific Islanders.

The start of the conversation on engaging our youth
Nancy told me, “I got so annoyed with the lecturing tone of the panels that I was probably sharper than I would have otherwise been. I also realized that the panels were written with info from our local Pacific Islander community – which, like many communities of color has felt ignored. But I also thought – how do you get people to listen? SHOUT at those who are already on your side about how evil their ancestors were? Or explain, enlighten, make others share in your delight in your culture so that we all work to protect what’s left.”

I share her same feelings on sharing, and learning from a culture that is different from ours. But how do you enlighten young people, how do you get them to listen and look past their own surroundings? Nancy talked about a group of students from a local school district who were visiting the exhibit the day she was there.

Nancy wrote to me, “There were hordes of teenagers in the Museums. Oakland is mostly black and brown and very much lower and working class so there were no privileged whites in the mix. The kids were not the least bit interested in the exhibit – except for the weapons of war. I would have walked past them except for the boys clustered around the war clubs, getting all excited at the potential damage they could have done.”

Nancy also commented on a visit to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco she went to the day before. “Yesterday I went to a press preview of contemporary Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum. Afterward, I walked through the museum which was full of kids from SF schools, busy writing school assignments about the art they were seeing. They were mostly white or Asian, fairly well behaved and from their speech, worlds away from the black, brown, lower class students that were at the Oakland Art Museum. ”

What does this say about the cultural divide among the youth of today? We could apply this same scenario to any city in the nation. It tells me that we need to go back to the basic premise that young people have minds that are blank pieces of paper, ready to be written on, but with the right kind of messages, not words of hate, exclusion and cultural and color bias.

Adelante School s Visit to San Jose Museum of Art on Dec. 11  2013.

Adelante School’s Visit to San Jose Museum of Art on Dec. 11, 2013.
San Jose Museum of Art

The minds of our youth are open to challenges, that when done in a positive context, can lead to a better understanding between the economic, racial and cultural strata that makes up so much of America. In the book, “Testing the Water: Young People and Galleries,” written by Naomi Horlock, Toby Jackson, David Anderson, the authors say, museums can serve a function to the education and ultimate participation of the youth of today.

But notice it still goes back to the word, education. Art was taken out of the teaching curriculum in most schools, particularly when the emphasis changed over to rote learning of “common core” subjects. Very few young people know who Picasso, Chagall or Andy Warhol were. They know even less about the early cultures that roamed the Earth centuries ago.

Is this kind of information important? I believe it is, for a number of reasons. It tells us who we are today, it adds context to the knowledge we have of present day events and their colorful and sometimes troubling past. Art and museums also give us a picture, or a visual look into the past, the cultures and even the everyday lives of people living years and years ago. It should be more than the weapons of war, although they are necessary parts of the past.We need to let the youth of today know and understand that there is more to life than war, hatred and cultural divisions.

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Written By

We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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