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Art museum commits to five years of including people of color in their exhibitions

Artists with BTreu.JPG
Freeport Art Museum
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(From left to right) Patrick Earl Hammie, Tyanna Buie, Angie Redmond and Barry Treu

Each artist chosen will be involved in the selection project for the next artist.

The acronym BIPOC stands for black, indigenous, and people of color. Last year many organizations committed to solidarity with BIPOC individuals. One northern Illinois art institution realized they needed outside help to uphold this pledge.

Barry Treu is the director of education and exhibitions at the Freeport Art Museum. He said he took an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion course as an administrator, but realized more was needed.

“All of that that happened with George Floyd and everything,” he explained, “I think it refocused the energies of museums around the world and other arts organizations towards doing more work.”

Treu said he worked with people of color in the community, but it was mostly youth. He explained that Black families were not coming to the museum.

He reached out to a downstate artist, Patrick Earl Hammie, to ask him to take part in a show, but the conversation with this Black creative extended to other things.

“And so, there are a number of issues there that we're hoping to address. And in working with Patrick, this BIPOC Initiative document evolved,” Treu said.

The BIPOC Initiative ensures that artists of color have exhibitions at the museum for the next five years. The first artist selects another artist and then that artist chooses the next one and so on.

Hammie is a visual artist and associate professor at the University of Illinois. He said he told Treu that for changes to occur, things would have to be done structurally from the top down.

“And so, one suggestion I had was like, you know, the board – ‘is there any people of color on the board?’ And the answer at the time was no,” Hammie said. “And so, you know, we halted the conversation, and a couple months went by, he got back to me and they had made movement.”

“I established a committee – a exhibitions committee, with three people of color on it. It's part of getting voices heard,” Treu explained. “And so, I guess, I took some, moved in some very practical ways and worked with those with Patrick.”

Treu said he had to take himself out of the selection process and the exhibition committee makes the final approval after the displaying artist makes their pick.

Jessica Modica, the executive director of the museum, explained that the establishment, like many others, has worked on being more inclusive over the years. Like Treu, she said recent events revealed that what was being done – including sometimes having BIPOC guest curators -- just wasn’t enough.

“And one of the areas that we continue to struggle with is that we've noticed that we don't have as many people of color that are involved in our exhibitions or submitting their work to be shown in the museum,” she said. “So that's an issue that we needed to address.”

The BIPOC Initiative was one way to tackle that problem.

In addition to Hammie working on the initiative with Treu he is also one of the first artists to take part in this year's show.

His exhibit is called “I Am Legend.” He said Black and white people have totally different outlooks on certain things and he wanted to show how what could be considered Black excellence could be something haunting for whites.

PHammie exhibition image.JPG
Freeport Art Museum
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Patrick Earl Hammie's exhibit

“And so, I'm thinking about the struggles and the efforts between the Black community and other institutionalized forces,” he said. “Whether it be governmental, police, the incarceration system, you know, there are these histories and ways that we've navigated, and they've evolved, that we're not seeing eye to eye as commonly as we could.”

He used the longstanding dance show Soul Train as one example of something that whites see differently from Blacks.

“So Soul Train becomes the embodiment of their psychic terror of what we might become of what we could achieve,” he explained. “It's an embodiment of that terror.”

He also coupled this with photographs and postcards of crowds watching different lynchings across the country.

“Most of our police systems across the nation, evolved out of many of these vigilante groups and slave patrols and night watches,” Hammie said. “So, their origins are rooted in in these histories. I wanted those two ways -- and they're the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated subject matters -- to draw together more closely.”

Hammie chose Tyanna Buie as the next artist. He didn’t know her personally but said he was in awe of her work.

“The voice that she brings is very unique and very current. She's working with students to build up career paths for the future of artists and definitely artists of color.”

Buie is an artist and educator. She’s from Chicago, but now spends her time between Detroit and Milwaukee. Buie said she was ecstatic when Hammie asked her to be a part of the initiative.

Buie’s art for the show focuses on the voice of Black women. Her exhibit is called EMBODIMENT(S).

She said her the art changed focus during the pandemic when she became engrossed in social media and came across the app Reface. She said she had to figure out a way to turn this into art.

“And I'm embodying -- in particular Black women who are giving speeches -- and there's all this controversy,” she said. “And I noticed there's a lot of controversy when a Black woman makes a stance and says, 'No.'”

Some women she represents include Maxine Waters, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

“I'm also responding to my own work that I did, where I refaced myself as Kamala Harris and Pence and had billboards up in Detroit. Really funny. And people thought it was Kamala, they’re like ‘it's a new campaign, what is happening?’”

Buie exhibition image.JPG
Freeport Art Museum
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Tyanna Buie's exhibit

She said it was her capturing the Vice President Harris when she mentioned during one of the debates, “Mr. Vice President I’m speaking, I’m speaking.”

She says the purpose of her show is to have spectators think about what she means when she asks them to listen to Black women.

A third BIPOC artist, Angie Redmond, is also showing at the museum. Redmond is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Her display is called “Who Do You See?”

Modica said in addition to the exhibitions other things are underway.

“We're already starting two programs with Tyanna and Patrick,” she said. “Both artists will be presenting a presentation, I should say, at the high school's theater. And the public is invited but we think it's very important for students to have access to hearing about how these two artists became professional artists.”

She said they will also do workshops with the students.

Hammie said he hopes that these exhibitions began a conversation.

“That many of us have already been having for a while but allows new voices in,” he explained, “that allows young people to see the now differently, through some of the echoes that have led us to some of these moments.”

The exhibitions opened last month and will continue through Feb. 12.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.