It has been months since my visit to MoAD and I’ve been slightly preoccupied with this museum ever since. It wasn’t necessarily the gripping portrayals of the unimaginable horrors of the middle passage portrayed in the “Slavery Passage Gallery”. Nor was it the beautifully imposing glass encased portrait of a young African child greeting visitors from 3rd Street as you approach MoAD. I left the museum wondering why there wasn’t more. The task of distilling an immensely complex subject such as the African Diaspora into comprehensive and cohesive topics is a daunting one at best, however upon leaving MoAD I had more questions than answers. MoAD has so much potential; what’s missing here? Outreach? Budget? Lagging funding? The Curatorial Staff? Perception? I now realize that part of the problem was my own expectation of what MoAD was prior to my stepping foot in the space. I was expecting an Art Museum; instead I was introduced to an experience.
MoAD’s mission is to be a “first voice” museum connecting all people to the culture and history of the African diaspora through universal themes of “origins, movement, adaptation and transformation”. The diaspora represents the forced and unforced scattering of Africans throughout the world and their influence in culture, music, art and food. MoAD’s permanent collection educates visitors on these subjects and more. The entire museum is 20,000 square feet with a small fraction of the space dedicated to their permanent collection which includes interactive multimedia exhibits with the most powerful being the Slavery Passage Gallery. Here visitors enter a dark room and sit on benches and written accounts of slavery come to life told in first person narratives. These stories provide emotionally rivoting accounts of individuals stripped of their lives, families, culture and dignity.
Equally impressive is the two story child’s portrait at the museum’s entrance. The portrait is a photograph by Chester Higgins, Jr. Upon closer view of the work you’ll see that the portrait is comprised of a mosaic of over 2,000 photographs of families and individuals. This piece celebrates the African Diaspora in all its diverse forms. For more on this beautiful piece, click on the “Photographs of the African Diaspora” link.
Their temporary exhibit features crafts, textiles and photography of various themes. There is also a Heritage and Cultural center equipped with computers where visitors can sit and further their learning on the Diaspora. The room is fairly hidden and the hours for the Cultural Center are quite limited. Again this cements some of the challenges MoAD faces as it vies for visitors to the Yerba Buena Cultural Center. I think the museum has struggled to hone a cohesive curatorial point of view that bridges the small permanent multi-media collection and the temporary collection. The most successful museum exhibits I have visited achieve two things : they tell a linear story for visitors who want a comprehensive overview of the topic or artist, and they also provide an engaging, fulfilling experience for the casual visitor taking a free form approach to their visit.
I see a bigger issue looming with MoAD: funding.
Background: The museum and the St. Regis Hotel are housed in the beautifully restored 1907 Williams Building, a vacant historic site that had been damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. The building was owned by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency who partnered with a developer responsible for the building’s restoration. As part of the sale in 1999, the developer of the hotel had to commit 20,000 square feet to cultural uses and a gallery; subsequently MoAD was chosen to lease the space. The SF Redevelopment Agency provided funding for Improvements and Betterments, Programming and Concept Planning through 2013. In turn, the developer leased the space to MoAD at no cost. The SF Redevelopment Agency has contributed approximately $16M in funds to subsidize the operating costs of the museum. This amount includes a $1M bailout given to the museum in 2007. Funding is reported to continue through 2016 but that consists of an annual operating costs grant of $500,000. The museum’s budget is at least $2M annually. I’m sure that managing the upkeep of the building to match the opulence of the St. Regis is hard for a museum of this size. This brings me to MoAD’s challenge.
I imagine that Capital Campaign efforts have been lagging as the state continues to suffer in this economy. As endowments shrink due to diminishing contributions, directors are forced to slash budgets; these cuts impact the ability to sponsor temporary exhibits and keep the museum alive and relevant to audiences. Despite these dire circumstances that could inevitably lead to MoAD’s future financial challenges, I think there are some steps they could take to manage a lean budget while infusing new creativity and content.
Given the fact that MoAD is right in the middle of the museum triangle, I’d like to see them capitalize on the synergies that exist between fellow cultural institutions. Are there parallel subjects relating to the African Diaspora and the Jewish Diaspora that could be addressed in a joint exhibit with the Contemporary Jewish Museum? The Museum of Craft and Folk Art partnered with MoAD in February 2010 for collaborative study of folk art from Mali. These partnerships allow both institutions to capitalize on and share limited resources. I would really like to see the museum continue to grow and reflect the richness of the Diaspora.