June 8, 2020
Black Lives Matter. Woodmere stands united in grief and anger over the unjust loss of life and acts of violence against Black and Brown Americans.
The Museum’s staff, board, volunteers, and extended community of artists and friends believe in the healing power of art and in its role to pose questions. At this moment in our history, when speaking out and taking action is an imperative, Woodmere commits to self-examination, to increased accessibility and inclusion, to exhibitions and programs that advance equality and justice, to institutional accountability, and to listening, learning, and holding ourselves to the highest standards. We will assess our past in order to do more in the future.
I spent time this week reflecting on my ten years as Woodmere’s director. Now is not the time to describe successes or failures. But I am proud that the museum has served as a platform for the explorations of ideas that contribute to the character of our social contract. Art comments on the living issues of our times and can make us aware of our strengths and our shortcomings.
Over the past weeks, we have been using our social media channels to showcase the art that currently hangs on the walls of our closed galleries in Africa in the Arts of Philadelphia: Bullock, Searles and Twins Seven-Seven. In general, exhibitions offer an experience that results from bringing works of art together and establishing relationships between them. Our intent with this particular exhibition is to invoke a dialogue about race, heritage, and identity that not only grows from deep, painful facts of American history, but also manifests itself in the upheavals of the present moment. We hope that the outcome of presenting Africa in the Arts of Philadelphia—and all of Woodmere’s activities—is experiences that lead to greater consciousness, which in turn has a positive impact on life.
We have also been revisiting the ongoing conversation about art and social issues as recorded in our podcast, Diving Board. I have been energized by the voices gathered there. Our partner in producing the podcast is Stephanie Marudas of Kouvenda Media, an organization dedicated to creating narratives for social change. Going forward we will be redirecting Diving Board’s focus and seeking out new voices. We will also reach back to past conversations and ask some of our speakers: What happened? What has remained the same and what has changed since our interview? And importantly, what is the museum’s role in helping to achieve racial justice and equality? How do we all participate in building a better future? Please subscribe and join our conversations over the coming months. Our intent is that the dialogue will help us all confront biases, understand and dismantle the imbalances of privilege, and contribute to social change.
Woodmere’s history is filled with figures whose actions would fall on different sides of the ethical standards of today. But let me offer a few words about Violet Oakley, one of the artists most deeply embedded in our collection and our institutional history. The more I learn about Oakley, the more she inspires me. She was a bold activist for world peace as well as gender and racial equality. Born in the aftermath of the Civil War, she lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. She would not accept the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, subjugation anywhere on the basis of race, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, Fascist authoritarianism, or the horrors of the Holocaust. She knew good fortune and financial ruin, and experienced both the fulfillment of love and more than her fair share of personal tragedy. Steadfast in her faith that art makes the world a better place, she maintained that if we believe in the idea of a “golden age,” we should not seek it in the past. Instead, she challenged her contemporaries with the proposition that the golden age is yet to come and that we all share a responsibility in striving to attain it. We will include an audio clip of Oakley in our next episode of Diving Board.
I join Violet Oakley in embracing hope for the future. I promise that I, personally, and Woodmere, as an institution, will listen and respond as we redouble our efforts to achieve a more fair and just society.
With all best regards,
William R. Valerio, PhD
The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO