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First Lady’s Message to the Art Mafia

First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama was a featured speaker at the recent opening of the new, Renzo Piano-designed building at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Whitney Dedication Ceremony, as pictured on the Whitney's website

Whitney Dedication Ceremony, as pictured on the Whitney’s website

In her remarks, she suggested that art museums like the Whitney have done too little in the past to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.  And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.

Mrs. Obama also praised the inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney building, America is Hard to See, for inviting broad participation:

[W]ith this inaugural exhibition, the Whitney is telling [all young people] that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen.  And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here.  You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.
One of those young people said this about the Whitney — and this is a quote we pulled — said, “Having gone through the program, I’ve felt like the museum is home to me.  Even if I’ve never been to a particular museum before, I just know how to be in [that] space.”

Another young person going through one of the programs said, “I could rise above the negativity I saw around me every day within my community.”  Because of the work that you do here, that’s the impact you’re having on kids every day.

I think that every cultural institution in this country should be doing this kind of outreach and engagement with our young people every single day.

Although the Whitney’s top curators are not (to my knowledge) Ephs, Mrs. Obama’s praise does highlight the work of its Chair of Education, Kathryn Potts ’89 and Coordinator of Public Programs, Emily Arensman (M.A. 2010).  Congratulations to Kathryn and Emily — and other Ephs at the Whitney, including Brianna Lowndes ’05 (Director of Membership and Annual Fund — and photographer, see here).

(Mrs. Obama’s remarks have stirred some debate.  Here, a New York NPR reporter considers “Museums as White Spaces.” Political writer Jon Gabriel and philosophy professor Rachel Lu question that conclusion here and here).