Melani N. Douglass on her new role as Director of Public Programs at the NMWA: Interview by Angela N. Carroll

Melani Douglass has long been a champion for inclusivity. The programming she curated through the Family Arts Museum while an MFA Curatorial Practice Graduate student and as a Fellow in the inaugural cohort of the Urban Arts Leadership Program, facilitated numerous collaboration between community members and local arts institutions. Douglass’s curatorial efforts have consistently explored intersections between art, race and environment.

The power of her engagements is encapsulated in the principles that found their creation: in fostering healthy and sustainable pipelines between artists, arts institutions and communities. Douglass expounds on this mission in her new role as Director of Public Programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Douglass and I talked about her position, upcoming exhibitions she is excited about, and collaborations between artists and institutions in Baltimore and DC.

AC: Congratulations on the new position! What do you hope to bring to this role?

MD: [My] primary role is to facilitate women arts and social change, connect issues that are being discussed Nationally and Internationally specific to women, and create programs. Everything that deals with the logistics side, I do.

What I love and the reason I took the job is the way I’m allowed to approach it. It’s a mix of public programming, curatorial practice and community engagement. I am heavily supported in using community organizing strategies in this public programming position. If we have an exhibition I try to connect a local artist or local maker to it.

The upcoming exhibition El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project features Mònica Mayer, an artist from Mexico City. The House of Ruth and La Clinica Del Pueblo are going to be our community partners. I also reach out to different organizations, alumni associations and make sure we always have connections with community partners. That is not something that is always done in museums, but I get to approach it in that way.

AC: How does your past work as an artist and curator lend itself to what you are doing at NMWA?

MD: [I am] Not a curator, but I am in a position to build relationships that lead to conversations happening. If I position myself as a bridge into and out of the museum, it keeps interaction, it’s a trade route. I don’t want to say a bridge, I’m not totally the only way to get in. Public programs allow you to create trade routes around the museum that allow people to enter in different ways. For my own approach, I think its important that everything is done in collaboration. If there’s room to bring someone else to the table, why not? When you enter some of these spaces there aren’t a lot of women of color, you have to be innovative when you find yourself in that space.

Within the [museum’s] collection there are all kinds of women and artists. It’s there! It’s happening! I just get to expand how different audiences engage with it.

AC: I like that you refer to collaborations as bridges or trade routes between communities. Are you interested in connecting artists outside of DC, like in Baltimore and surrounding regions with global artists featured at the museum?

MD: I think every city has its own rhythm. The rhythm determines how work gets done. I need Baltimore and I need DC. They both have a different pace. When I’m in DC or Baltimore neither one of those communities can be stopped! There are brilliant people and collaborations, [but they are] not [consistently] documented. My job allows me to do it, allows me to think of how it can be more consistent. I was born and raised in Baltimore, and came to DC in 1999. Most of my adulthood has been spent in DC. I have deep ties in both places. I’m hoping to flow with it and see how [the position] allows people to work together more, and how to create more opportunities to do so.


I’m more interested in Black women being in the arts. When it comes to leadership positions approximately 4% are women of color, with 15% women, and just a fraction of that are women of color. It would be good to see these numbers shift.


 

I think of Baltimore and DC as totally different vibes. You have to have respect for silos or peoples process. That’s also the benefit of being a national museum, even though I’m local, and I’m in DC, because its National it can cater to two cities that are completely different but close together. Hopefully people can come to use the resources. I’m open to what that’s going to look like. That’s my question, how to get amazing communities more engaged. I’m letting myself be guided by that question.

When it comes to creating a trade route between DC and Baltimore and using the museum as a center place, what I love about curation and public places, you aren’t required to be an expert, the curator has a larger question and the art brings ways of answering that question. I can call people or be in conversation, create partnerships that begin to provide answers.

AC: The Trump administration has threatened to target arts organizations with deep budget cuts. Are you concerned about how that may affect the sustainability of future collaborations?

MD: I do on a larger level, but the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is a nonprofit museum that’s had to run its course on its own for over 30 years, its survived 2008, Reaganomics, etc. I have confidence in the decisions of the leadership in how they move forward and confidence in folks supporting public programs. On a national level, even though many institutions are experiencing budget cuts, they haven’t maximized their audience, youth. The [museums] that survive will be the ones that get more innovative in expanding their audiences and reach into the community. Museums that don’t get that, I think, will have a hard time.

I’m more interested in Black women being in the arts. When it comes to leadership positions approximately 4% are women of color, with 15% women, and just a fraction of that are women of color. It would be good to see these numbers shift.

AC: What have you learned from all of the positions you have held, and all the identities you assume, that help you navigate this role, and could open up similar opportunities to others like you?

MD: it’s been a good journey. Its been an interesting one I have had to negotiate [laughs]. I think a lot of times women are told more than men that they have to be more specific about what they want to do. You will be told as a woman you have to be one thing. You’ll be told that you don’t know what you’re doing if you have multiple talents. It’s nice to be in a position where I can explore my different talents. I remember a time when I felt like, “does this makes sense?” And now it’s like this journey definitely makes sense.

Fresh Talk/Sunday Supper with Judy Chicago at NMWA

 


 

Photos courtesy of MICA and the artist.

To learn more about upcoming exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts visit https://nmwa.org/.

For more information on the inaugural FRESH TALK Forum with artist Mónica Mayer on November 12, click here.