The topic of cultural inclusivity is top of mind for communities around the world at the moment. From neighborhoods, to businesses, to schools, there is a stronger movement towards embracing people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs. We’re seeing it in TV commercials, in job positions… there is a broadranging effort underway to be more supportive of each other, regardless of heritage, religion, sex, color, etc. But this new stepped up movement is still in its infancy, and is fragile.
To that end, the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) has embraced the State University of New York system and SUNY Buffalo State College’s commitment to become “the most inclusive higher education system in the country.” It will do this by rolling out a series of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement – the movement that has prompted a country to look at itself in the mirror in a way that his has not done previously.
“The reality is that if we truly want to fulfill our missions as museums, the directors, staffs, boards of directors and supporters of American museums must begin by acknowledging a historic reality: that museums in America arose from a desire to assimilate immigrants of all types by telling specific stories to validate the dominant culture. Stories that highlighted western art over the art of all other cultures,” said Burchfield Penney executive director Dennis Kois. “Stories that presented art history as a march from ‘primitive’ art to refined art in the western tradition. And stories which excluded or minimized art that did not support these narratives. Museums do have a race problem, and despite our field paying lip service to diversity in museums over the past 40 years, real change has been sluggish. While the Burchfield Penney has done a better job than many American art museums presenting and collecting the voices and creativity of diverse communities, there is a lot further to go. The moment is now to advance our work and build a more equitable institution from top to bottom.”
Since Kois’s arrival in 2018, the BPAC board has become exponentially more diverse, which in turn helps to accentuate diversity in its programming. It is these types of efforts and actions that must be instilled, by BPAC and other cultural institutions, in order for this city as a whole to excel – to achieve its utmost potential. “We see this as a positive step forward but remain committed to leading the way toward a Board that fully reflects our region,” said Kois, who affirmed that the BPAC board has doubled its BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] members since his arrival.
Kois’s commitment to a more diverse BPAC has now been amplified by the formation of a permanent standing committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
“The formation of a DEI board committee will help ensure our diversity goals and values will have a clear and strong voice at the highest level of the organization,” notes Burchfield Penney board chair Shelley Drake, Western New York regional president of M&T Bank. “As René F. Jones, M&T Bank chairman and CEO and also a Burchfield Penney Trustee has said, ‘As a company, we embrace diversity and believe in the power of inclusion,’” said Drake. “Social justice isn’t the responsibility of any one person or company—it’s a goal for the world and we’re on a journey to make sure we do our part to celebrate all of the people that make up our communities.”
Buffalo State College President Katherine Conway-Turner added, “The Burchfield Penney’s initiatives represent a laudable dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion and reflect Buffalo State’s longstanding and ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as our efforts this year to create more opportunities to expand programs and projects that celebrate social justice.
“Recently, I assembled a working group that will lead us in the process of developing a permanent social justice outdoor space—a landmark dedicated to the ideals of social justice and Buffalo State’s perpetual commitment to it,” Conway-Turner said. “This project will dovetail nicely with the art center’s DEI initiatives. The time has come to capitalize on our collective desire to make all parts of the campus as diverse and welcoming as possible.”
Burchfield Penney joins 9 other Buffalo cultural institutions that have applied for funding, seeking to implement comprehensive cross-organizational DEI training. That measure will ultimately have an impact on 300+ seats in our community.
These amplified efforts will doubtlessly change the curatorial landscape of WNY. At BPAC, we can expect to see immediate changes that include:
- An installation on the exterior of the building will present work in direct response to the ongoing national discussion of race and privilege.
- A new exhibition opening this winter co-curated by a diverse group of young working artists in the community.
- The Center’s recent launch of a new Under-Represented Artist Fund (URAF) to seed projects, exhibitions, commissions, and acquisitions.
“In addition to regional support for creating institutional change, we’re actively engaged in national-level, competitive grants to further our efforts,” said Scott Propeack, Burchfield Penney deputy director. “Diversity of voices in all areas of our programmatic activity is the ultimate fulfilment of our mission. Representation of the art and artists of our region is only achieved when we reflect the work of a broad range of artists and include the voices of curators from the communities we serve. Our goal is to reflect and celebrate culture by being of the community…not just in it.”
“We understand that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work is challenging. It is ongoing. It requires uncomfortable conversations for institutions and their leadership,” believes Kois. “We pledge to learn and grow, and will hold ourselves accountable to its success.”