The most newsworthy aspect of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s involvement in this year’s city-wide Juneteenth festival is not just its participation. Rather, it is the thoughtfulness that went into the museum’s planning of a day-long Juneteenth celebration centered on artistic expression.
Traditionally, Juneteenth festivals have been more common in the South than other parts of the country. The Juneteenth holiday began in Texas, but it has developed into a national festival celebrating the emancipation of enslaved Africans. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective January 1, 1863, but a number of slave owners in Texas retained their slaves. Juneteenth commemorates July 19, 1865, the date that General Order No. 3 informing Texas that “all slaves are free” was read aloud by the Union Army’s Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, effectively ending slavery in the United States.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art wanted to participate in Juneteenth celebrations in 2016, but on the advice of artist and American Jazz Museum Visiting Curator Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, officials decided to wait until 2017. Thompson-Ruffin suggested that the extra year would enable the museum to form more complete partnerships instead of rushing into an expedient arrangement.
Accordingly, the lead partner in this year’s initiative is Makeda Peterson, who has been organizing Juneteenth events in the 18th and Vine neighborhood for the past seven years. Peterson’s father, Horace M. Peterson III (1945-1992), was the founder of the Black Archives of Mid-America and brought the celebration of Juneteenth to Kansas City in 1980. As part of that initial celebration, the Emancipation Proclamation was displayed at the Nelson-Atkins for ten days, which, according to museum officials, was the first time it was shown outside of Washington, D.C.
During a recent meeting, Peterson was quick to point out that she sees a relationship with the museum as an equal footing, win-win partnership. “The long-term goal (of the Juneteenth festival) is to be connected with the Nelson-Atkins. We are celebrating the fact that this institution wants to be delivering educational information to the community and has the resources to do so.”
To be sure, the Nelson-Atkins stands to gain a great deal from the relationship also. At the meeting between Peterson and museum officials, discussion ensued that many African Americans still see the museum as an isolated and intimidating temple for art on the hill, even though the museum has made a concerted effort to improve diversity and inclusion in recent years.
Over the past 15 years, the museum has acquired over 20 works by prominent African American artists, including major works by Radcliffe Bailey, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Charles White, and a promised gift of a Kehinde Wiley painting. Just as importantly, the Nelson-Atkins is one of only five U.S. museums to participate in the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, which “aims to make a critical impact on American art museums by expanding the diversity of their curatorial staff.”
The Juneteenth celebration marks another step forward in building a meaningful relationship with Kansas City’s African American community and in educating the entire community about an important event in American history.
The free Juneteenth celebration will be held June 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the museum. Highlights include a special reading by performance poet Glenn North inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation. The event will include stories of the African American experience by professional storyteller Tracy Milsap and musical performances by the Kansas City Boys Choir/Kansas City Girls Choir and Charlotte Fletcher of The Divas. Gullah basket weavers from South Carolina and locally-based artists NedRa Bonds and Michael Toombs will give presentations along with Brooklyn-based Kansas City Art Institute alum Paul Anthony Smith, artist in residence at the museum from June 1 to 15.
For more information about the Juneteenth celebration, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.
Above: Kansas City artist Michael Toombs works on a 3 x 4-foot painting based on the coloring page he designed for Juneteenth celebrations at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Featuring images of illustrious figures including Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Emanuel Cleaver and Barack and Michelle Obama, the painting will be displayed at the June 10 event. Photo by Jim Barcus