Lewis museum to focus on present in addition to past

Lewis history museum to take on present controversies in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore.

The charcoal drawings are immediately arresting, depicting the kind of gun violence that exacts its greatest toll on young black men and sent Baltimore's homicide rate to record levels last year. But it is on second glance, and with the realization of the exhibit's purposeful acronym, that "Kin Killin' Kin" truly shocks.

The gun-wielding killers look like stereotypical gang members, but instead of baseball caps, they're wearing pointed white hoods. One wears a basketball jersey bearing not the logo of the Bulls or the Knicks, but "KKK."

The drawings, by Ohio artist James Pate, are among several potentially controversial exhibits that the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture hopes to offer this year as it sets off on a new path. Rather than focus solely on the past, the museum wants to be part of the current and often raging conversations happening just beyond its doors.

"I wanted to have some things that would raise eyebrows, people saying, 'What? What are they doing?'" said Charles E. Bethea, who joined the museum in October as its chief curator and immediately began shaking up its programming.

"You may not like all of it, you may love all of it," he said. "But you will be made aware of it."

Bethea's plan to address more contemporary issues is already drawing notice, both locally and nationally, positively and negatively.

There are fears that, in the rush to embrace the present, the museum will lose its focus on the past — the rich African-American history of a city and state that played a significant role in the civil rights movement and gave birth to legendary figures such as Thurgood Marshall, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

But there is also hope that the new direction will draw younger audiences and lend relevancy to the museum's mission. The museum needs to boost attendance and fundraising — both of which have fallen short of goals in recent years.

Boosters say the museum can continue to celebrate history even as it takes on more current issues — particularly the racial, political, economic and social issues brought to the fore by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.

"The Lewis is going in the right direction," declared Devin Allen, the self-taught Baltimore photographer who chronicled the Gray protests, and whose iconic photograph of a man fleeing riot-clad police landed on the cover of Time magazine.

At 27, Allen is among the youngest artists to be featured at the Lewis museum, which is displaying his photographs in a newly configured space called Lewis Now. The gallery is open to the public without regular museum admission.

"Older people go to the Lewis Museum, but young kids and people my age don't. You forget that it's there," Allen said. "It's a beautiful space, but it's underused. It could be a hub where youth can go to have conversations about race and the problems in their community and be comfortable."

Bethea, 44, interviewed for the curator post last summer as Baltimore reeled from the unrest and rioting that followed Gray's death. The trials of six officers charged in Gray's April death were still pending, and the city's homicide rate was skyrocketing.

But rather than scare off the soft-spoken, linebacker-sized Bethea, the tension in Baltimore struck him as an issue the Lewis Museum should address head-on.

Bethea has declared 2016 "the year of the black male" at the museum, the first in a series of annual themes. This year promises to be one of transition for the museum as well, as it moves into its second decade.

Its executive director, A. Skipp Sanders, announced last week that he would retire at the end of the month. The board also is in flux — 15 of 33 members are new to the museum — and will meet as a group for the first time later this month.

The museum is required to generate $2 million — half of its annual budget — in privately raised revenue to qualify for matching funds from the state. Every year but one, the museum has fallen short, and the state has covered the shortfall.

In the most recent fiscal year, the museum drew 33,000 visitors, or about a third of its all-time high of more than 104,000 visitors.

Bethea wants to offer exhibits that speak to local concerns and interests, and generate the kind of buzz that heightens curiosity. His plans include an exhibit on Tupac Shakur, the influential rapper who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts and was killed in a drive-by shooting. That, along with his plans to bring the "Kin Killin' Kin" exhibit, promises to generate lively debate, if not controversy.

"Controversy doesn't bother me personally," Bethea said. If that's how he engages visitors and spurs dialogue, Bethea said, so be it.

Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University who has written about hip-hop's political impact, said he sees no conflict in a history museum dealing with the present.

"History is something that is living," he said.

Spence said the Lewis Museum has "always been engaged in Baltimore's past as well as its present." He pointed to a Lewis-sponsored performance in which the renowned beatboxer Shodekeh remixed the national anthem at the citywide celebration of the 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 2014.

"He took 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' and he reinterpreted it in real time using a number of different performers," Spence said. "It was a way of rethinking our history in the present. That's what I think modern museums should be doing."

But there are those like Helena Hicks, a longtime civil rights activist, who want more rather than less history at the Lewis.

"A museum is where people go to see what happened in the past, not what was in last week's paper," said Hicks, best known for helping to desegregate the old Read's drugstores in the 1950s.

She has had issues with the Lewis Museum in the past — she was denied entry in 2014 after she protested the inclusion of former Black Panther Eddie Conway on a panel to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Hicks objected because Conway and the Panthers rejected the nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

Hicks doesn't consider the Gray case "history," at least not yet.

"It's still in the legal system," Hicks said. "The final quarter is being played out in the courts. There is no end to the story.

"The feeling with Freddie Gray — I don't know — people are kind of sick of it," she said.

Bethea said the museum will continue to preserve the past. He points to three acquisitions he's made since arriving: a reward poster put out by the family of Maryland's first governor, Thomas Johnson, for the capture of runaway slaves; a carte-de-visite, or small photograph, of Frederick Douglass; and the doors of the Freedom House, a one-time NAACP office visited by King and Eleanor Roosevelt. The building was recently razed by its owner, the Bethel AME Church.

Bethea was a month into his tenure at the museum when he learned of the Freedom House demolition plans, and "rushed right out there and got them to donate the doors to us," said Sanders, the museum director.

Lou Fields, who offers African-American-themed bus tours in the Baltimore area, said the museum needs to more aggressively market itself to attract more visitors.

"You've got to get people through the doors," Fields said.

Fields can see both sides of the debate over exhibits on contemporary history. "Sometimes museums have to test those subjects, because who else will?" Fields said. "But people may say, 'We see it every day on the news, is this something we want to see in a museum?'"

Most cultural institutions have struggled to draw younger visitors. But museums with a minority focus face additional challenges. African-Americans have less of a museum-going tradition, as their history and art were largely excluded from the walls of many institutions in the past, experts said. During segregation, they weren't even welcome as visitors.

Black museums also have to contend with "a wealth gap," said Diane Bell-McKoy, CEO of Associated Black Charities. Many African-Americans don't have the resources to go to museums regularly or support them as donors, she said.

General admission to the Lewis is $8, with discounts available. During Black History Month in February, Verizon sponsors a free open house.

Bell-McKoy credits the Lewis Museum for trying edgier programming as a way of attracting more visitors. "It's worth a shot," she said.

Arts administrators have long known that whether people visit museums as a child is the best predictor of becoming a regular patron.

Bethea is proof of that: As a boy growing up in Prince George's County, he and his older brother, Calvin, would hop on the Metro to go to the museums on the National Mall in Washington. It was his way of tagging after his brother, who would grow up to become an artist and now teaches the subject at Edmondson-Westside High School.

Competition for visitors will get tougher this fall, when the Smithsonian opens its National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

"The Lewis needed to do something," said Samuel W. Black, president of the Association of African American Museums. "Millions of people will be on the ground in the region, whether they are local or come from outside. And, it's just a short train ride from Washington to Baltimore."

Deray McKesson, an activist who spoke on a panel about systemic racism at the Lewis Museum last July, said the institution is ideally suited to participate in the current discourse.

"There's a national conversation about race that's happening in 2016," he said, "and Baltimore is an important part of the conversation.

"Art pushes us to reflect and imagine. It can be transformative. Exhibits and spaces that are relevant to people's lives help us to think of what the future can be and to fight for it."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

mary.mcauley@baltsun.com

Charles E. Bethea

Age: 44

Hometown: Bladensburg, Md.

Title: Chief Curator/Director of Collections & Exhibitions, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

Previous positions: Chief Curator, Director of Curatorial Services, DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; Executive Director, Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond

Education: Bachelor's degree in studio art and art history, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, 1993; master's degree in museum studies and administration, Hampton University in Virginia, 1995; graduate of Getty Institute of Leadership, 2012

Family: Wife, Ashanti Bethea; two sons, 12 and 8 years old

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