Art from the 2021 student exhibition “Racism as a Public Health Crisis.” Credit: Mia

By Minneapolis Institute of Art staff

Art museums are special places. They make outstanding works of art from the world’s diverse cultures accessible to their communities, while providing a wholly unique space for people to experience empathy, emotions, healing, and connection.

As a leading national encyclopedic arts museum in the United States, and one of the largest arts educators in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Institute of Art continues its legacy of impacting community and culture. A significant part of that impact is through connecting people to art itself. With more than 90,000 objects in the museum’s collection, spanning all corners of the globe from ancient to contemporary, Mia is an incredible resource for learning and exploring perspectives that visitors may not have encountered before.

The objects in Mia’s collections and exhibitions have beauty, meaning and power in themselves, and Mia’s curatorial teams are constantly innovating, expanding the boundaries of presentation and interpretation and connecting the dots across ideas and cultures.

Art as an invitation for dialogue

Arts and cultural organizations like Mia also play a critical role in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. Arts and culture richly embody societal and community diversity, and issues of equity and inclusion are present and expressed. This provides a unique opportunity for these organizations to engage with topics around diversity, equity, and inclusion and to provide opportunities and venues for communities to consider, discuss, reflect and resolve to act in ways that support progress.

Mia’s partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is one way the museum engages with those topics. For the past two years, Mia has partnered with Blue Cross to curate a public art exhibition of health equity-themed artworks created by students in the community. Over the course of six weeks, teen participants worked with artist mentors to create artwork that explored their own ideas of race and equity.

In 2021, the theme of the exhibition was “Racism as a Public Health Crisis.” Among the topics participants explored were racial disparities in maternal health, microaggressions, and issues of police brutality and safety.

Programs like this collaboration with Blue Cross provide benefits for both students and museumgoers. Sheila McGuire, Mia’s Head of Student and Teacher Learning who led the program, said the exhibition invited visitors to confront their own experiences, and how they might be similar or different to those the students face.

The second year of the partnership will similarly use art-making as a way for teens to visually communicate how racism impacts health issues they and their communities are experiencing.

“Art just opens up conversation and dialogue,” said McGuire. “It elicits feelings, emotions that we can all access and provides an entry to empathy. It’s powerful. That’s why art museums exist.”

Art from the 2021 student exhibition “Racism as a Public Health Crisis.” Photo Credit: Mia

Mia’s commitment to advancing equity

Mia’s Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Virajita Singh is engaging with those topics on multiple fronts, both internally and externally at the museum. Her role at the museum is unique. Mia’s leadership made a bold move of placing the human resources department inside the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) division she now leads, which Singh said means she can “leverage the synergy of closely integrated DEI and HR goals, process and outcomes.”

The early focus of Singh’s work at Mia has been addressing hiring practices in alignment with one of the pillars of Mia’s strategic plan: inclusion. Mia is aspiring to achieve 50 percent diversity in the finalist pools for hiring searches, a percentage the museum has already exceeded in several cases.

Another key approach, according to Singh, is to strongly connect DEI with good management efforts within the museum. She and her team have been working to equip managers at the museum with the information and tools they need to be better managers, as well as prioritize DEI goals.

Singh said she believes mindsets are critical to success in DEI work. “While the emphasis is typically on the strategic approach and tactics of DEI, mindset may be even more important,” she said. “For Mia’s DEI work, I lead with a Design Thinking mindset that supports innovation using empathy, defining the problem, ideating, prototyping and testing. A Partnership approach is also key for my work at Mia: we are in this together across divisions and departments; we support each other to reach the highest goal. My wish is to make attention and action on DEI the norm and the easy thing to do rather than the difficult thing it is made out to be.”

Mia is and aims to continue to be a beloved cultural institution. Mia’s strategic plan outlines a goal of striving to be “a place where everyone feels welcome, safe, and inspired to participate in the museum of today and tomorrow.”

Singh emphasizes that making everyone feel welcome is possible through exhibitions, engaging and relevant content, programs like the collaboration with Blue Cross, and accessible infrastructure, that the museum evaluates and evolves as needed. That said, she points out there are always issues of intention vs. impact in attempts to make everyone feel welcome. Art itself can be provocative, bringing perspectives and emotions to the fore, as can bringing together many diverse perspectives.

“As a learning organization, which is itself part of a larger society that is on a learning journey about social justice and historical inequities toward action, Mia continues to learn and engage with differences as we do the work of creating a space that is welcoming for all,” Singh said.

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