Round-up of American Studies Association session on curating and community

Last week I attended an American Studies Association conference session titled “Curating Community: Navigating the Terrain between the Museum World and the Communities.” I left the panel once again considering the big question that has been on my mind for some time: Who gets to be a curator? What counts as curatorial work?

The panel featured Christiaan Klieger, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, Holly Alonso, and Raymond Codrington. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for speaker bios.) The panel was among the best at the conference, and I admit my notes on it are sketchy because I was so much absorbed in the panelists’ talks that I didn’t want to miss a moment while taking too many notes.

A running theme throughout the session was how to engage meaningfully with the community during curation while still creating a high-quality exhibition. The concern was not so much that community input into an exhibition would water down or somehow sully the content–in fact, the speakers clearly felt quite the opposite was true. Rather, these leaders seemed worried that others in the museum profession didn’t share their enthusiasm for true community involvement in exhibitions or for projects that begin in the lives of community members.

As an example of such a project, Codrington spoke of how he used popular culture, in particular hip hop, to draw people who traditionally weren’t interested in museum programming to cultural events celebrating art, music, and community in Los Angeles. Alonso spoke about the necessity of welcoming children to the Peralta Hacienda because children playing on the Hacienda’s grounds may draw their families to the site’s events. LeFalle-Collins discussed her year working with the Museum of the African Diaspora, a project that, as you might imagine, required her to think very broadly about community.

In his talk, Klieger wondered aloud if it was possible for a museum to function without curators and their (to the public) mysterious ways of determining what belongs in an exhibit and how to best interpret those objects. He asked if it might be possible to use community facilitators instead. He argued that curators must learn to give up at least some, if not most, of their authority.

He asked what training qualifies a curator to serve as the sole filter for the stories of 36 million living Californians and asked that we consider who, among many possible gatekeepers, might be best qualified to decide which stories to feature in a museum. One solution he proposed was to provide stations within galleries where visitors could engage with the exhibits and each other in meaningful ways. I wasn’t sure what form Klieger was suggesting these stations take, but I agreed with Klieger’s declaration that it’s time to go beyond the visitor comment cards that curators rarely have time to read. Klieger also mentioned alternative ways visitors might engage with the museum’s exhibits, for example through audio commentaries delivered via cell phone or mp3 player.

LeFalle also spoke of her new online project, the Open Door Contemporary Art Program (ODCAP), which is set to launch any day now at Through this virtual gallery, developed using open source software, LeFalle-Collins hopes to change long-held community assumptions about artists and curators through shifting curatorial practice to an online space. It’s not clear to me–because of gaps in my notes, not because of LeFalle-Collins’s talk–whether ODCAP will involve community members as curators or whether its goal is rather to make the process of curation more transparent to the community. Regardless, I’m excited about the project, and I’m checking its URL regularly in anticipation of its launch.

A quick web search turned up bios of the session’s speakers:

Dr. Codrington “is a cultural anthropologist whose work brings popular culture into non-traditional settings by collaborating with artists, educators, museums, and community based organizations. His expertise uses hip hop and popular culture as a tool to generate new approaches to developing exhibits, research, and public programs. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and museums nationwide. Dr. Codrington is the author of numerous publications and is currently working on his forthcoming book on the globalization of hip hop culture.”

Dr. LeFalle-Collins is the owner of LeFalle Curatorial. She “is an independent scholar/art historian/curator and owner of LeFalle Curatorial a curatorial and research firm in Oakland, CA. She earned her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of California, Los Angeles with an emphasis on American Modernism. Her present research focuses on painting and assemblage art from the 1960s forward.”

Dr. Klieger is senior curator and chair of the history department at the Oakland Museum of California.

Holly Alonso is executive director of the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.


  1. great to see your review of this session. I was curious but it was scheduled against a panel on the Black Panthers and it was a tough choice. Sounds like this was a really great panel with interesting references to several panels earlier that day.

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