‘We want the DAI to reflect the diversity and the voices of the people,’ museum director says

Michael Roediger, Dayton Art Institute CEO.  LISA POWELL / STAFF
Michael Roediger, Dayton Art Institute CEO. LISA POWELL / STAFF

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The Dayton Art Institute’s Michael Roediger reflects on the museum’s attempts to be more inclusive

Art museums throughout the country are increasing their efforts to address diversity. Though inclusivity in the museum world has been an increasingly important issue for a number of years, George Floyd’s killing has led to new emphasis on racial justice and equity.

On Nov. 19, the Dayton Art Institute announced it would be closing temporarily due to an increase in coronavirus cases locally and statewide. But if you’ve visited the museum in the past couple of years, you’ve probably been struck by changes designed to reflect our own museum’s current philosophy.

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Shortly after chief curator Jerry Smith joined the DAI staff at the end of 2017, he was challenged by director Michael Roediger to make changes to the art that greets guests when they first enter the museum’s rotunda. Smith agreed it was a great way to make an important statement.

“I thought the best way to do this was to feature portraits showing people of different ethnic heritages,” Smith explains. “We want people to see something of themselves when they look at the art on the wall. This is common in museums for white visitors, but not always so for others.”

Jo Anne Schneider (American, 1919–2017), The March, 1968, oil on canvas. Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, gift of Dr. Lois Oppenheim.
Jo Anne Schneider (American, 1919–2017), The March, 1968, oil on canvas. Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, gift of Dr. Lois Oppenheim.

Fortunately the museum already had several large-scale portraits of both women and people of color. “Now guests come in and the first art they see are images of women, of African-Americans, people of European heritage and, thanks to the loan of a large sculpture of a Bodhisattva, people of Pakistani heritage,” says Smith. “The concept, as incomplete as it is, is intended to visually express what we sincerely feel, which is that everyone is welcome at the Dayton Art Institute.”

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Smith doesn’t want the rotunda art to be static. ""We have made some changes since the initial installation," he says. "We first had work by the Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez in the rotunda, but have since incorporated his work into our Collection Galleries. We also added a recent acquisition by Jo Anne Schneider, which features demonstrators in 1968 who were protesting for civil rights. "

We chatted with Roediger about the museum’s efforts to make these and other significant changes.

Q. Why is diversity an especially important issue for art museums?

A: It is important because art has the ability and is often used to tell the stories of our history — where we have come from and where we want to go. It is important that in an encyclopedic collection like ours, people can identify with their history, their family dynamic and themselves, and that we demonstrate respectful treatment of history and show the resiliency in cultures and traditions.

It is important to acknowledge that, like most museums, we are custodians of legacies rooted in collections from wealthy donors who portray a dominant cultural group, particularly white, and that sometimes help to replicate systemic behaviors and attitudes. Over the years, the DAI has attempted to be more inclusive. But we haven’t done this before — create opportunities for open discussions and understanding of the experiences of others, place value on open dialogue and create a safe and brave space to listen and learn and find commonality in our differences.

Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à- tête was a past exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute. CONTRIBUTED
Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à- tête was a past exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute. CONTRIBUTED

Q: We understand you’ve recently held a training series with staff, boards and guides that addressed these issues?

A: Yes. The DAI’s leadership team and executive committee thought it was important to set a baseline of DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion) understanding before we officially started our journey of the important work of being an anti-racist organization. We launched our DEAI efforts with a four-part Zoom series presented by The National Conference for Community and Justice of Greater Dayton (NCCJ), led by Executive Director Adriane Miller with support from Jared Grady, a consultant recommended by the City of Dayton’s Human Relations Council.

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We have been building to this over the last several years, but struggled with having the bandwidth to do everything we wanted to do and become a civic fine art museum which places social justice as priority. Following the murder of George Floyd, and many others, we knew we had to commit to make the time for transitional change.

We have been working to create access to the museum for all people in our community. The DAI has been making a conscious effort to diversify the staff, board of trustees and associate board. This not only means creating a place at the table for people of color and other minorities, but also for women and those who have been traditionally marginalized such as the LGBTQ and some religious communities.

Dorothy Height’s Hats was a popular exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute. CONTRIBUTED
Dorothy Height’s Hats was a popular exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute. CONTRIBUTED

Q. What are some examples of what you are doing in that regard when it comes to exhibits?

A: We have been introducing focus and special exhibitions with more inclusive offerings for people and communities that have been underrepresented within the walls of the DAI. We want everyone to feel welcome, invited, included and valued.

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Recent DAI exhibits that reflect diversity include our show on African Ubuhle women and their beadwork; a major retrospective on Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick; photographs by African-American woman Mickalene Thomas; 20th century art jewelry created and worn by women and photos by Jane Reese, one of Dayton’s most famous photographers. Our exhibition about the hats worn by Dr. Dorothy Height, an icon of the civil rights movement, proved quite popular and was extended due to popular demand. Having hundreds of African-American women at the DAI to hear Johnetta B. Cole speak was certainly a great day. The exhibition brought in numerous members of the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, as well as women from the YWCA, two organizations Height was deeply involved with.

The DAI will partner with the African American Visual Artists Guild (AAVAG), Dayton to host a juried, national invitational exhibition featuring works by living artists of African heritage. Black Heritage Through Visual Rhythms runs June 26-Sept. 19, 2021. The artist who is awarded the Best in Show prize will be offered a DAI Focus Exhibition in the following year.

Mary Beth McKenzie (American, b. 1946), Couple (Bob and Richard), 2002, Oil on canvas. Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, gift of the artist.
Mary Beth McKenzie (American, b. 1946), Couple (Bob and Richard), 2002, Oil on canvas. Collection of the Dayton Art Institute, gift of the artist.

Q: Can you talk about acquiring new work and your staff and boards?

A: In November of 2019, the DAI Collections Committee presented a resolution to the board of trustees that requires that 85 percent of unrestricted art acquisition funds must be used to acquire works by minorities, women and marginalized artists and communities. This is in an effort to start to better reflect those in our community. A collection that is 100 years old will not evolve overnight, however putting the appropriate policies in place to guide our vision is moving the organization in the right direction. This commitment also informs collectors and donors of the museum’s collecting priorities so that they can help us build an equitable and inclusive collection.

The DAI Executive Committee also recently approved a resolution to approve the DEAI Committee as a standing committee composed of members from the board, associate board and staff. Stacey Lawson, the first chair of the DEAI Committee, is a board member who is vice president of human resources at Miami Valley Hospital, with expertise in DEAI.

As for the diversity of the staff, board and associate board, we are working to diversify more. Currently our leadership team of six includes two African-American women and one Jewish woman. The board of trustees is about 50 percent women with two African-American women, one Hispanic woman and two Jewish women, as well as one Jewish man and one male member of the LGBTQ community.

I served on the NCCJ Board of Trustees for nearly a decade and was the chair for two of those years. Even with that experience, I still have so much to learn and understand. This is a life journey, a listening journey. As we like to say, this isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon.

We want the DAI to evolve and reflect the diversity and the voices of the people within our collections and our community. My hope is that together, we can do our part in the work that’s required to root out bias in museums, in the arts, and within our community; that we can stand in solidarity with people and groups who traditionally have felt marginalized to help drive out racism and social injustice; and that we are an organization that elevates the importance of inclusion and uses our platform for good.

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