Apr 9, 2019 23 min read

Building Community Equity Through Art - with Monique Davis

Quote from Transcript.

Episode 5, 38 min listen

Can art change the way we interact with one another, build community equity? Our interview with Monique Davis from the Mississippi Museum of Art's Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) will open our minds to what art can do in our lives and for our communities.


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*If you're interested in exploring some of the artists and references from our talk, check out these links. *

Learn more about CAPE: https://www.msmuseumart.org/cape/

CAPE encourages a different way to interact with art.

Titus Kaphar:

Alternate Roots:

Adrienne Maree Brown: Emergent Strategy

Georgia O'Keefe:

Frida Kahlo:

Shirley Chisholm:

Barbara Jordan:

Dorothy Height:



View Monique's LinkedIn page



[00:00:00] This is State of Inclusion, a place where we can all come together to safely explore and share our ideas at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community.  I’m Ame Sanders, welcome. Today, I’m interviewing Monique Davis from the Mississippi Museum of Art.  Monique is the Managing Director of the Museum Center for Art and Public Exchange CAPE’s purpose is to use original artwork, exhibitions, programs, and engagements with artists to increase understanding and inspire new narratives in Mississippi.

Many folks, I hate to admit myself included, sometimes consider art as something to look at, something to admire from a distance, you know one of those things with the ropes in front of it at the museum that we’re not supposed to touch or get close to.  But, they might [00:01:00] not have ever considered all the ways that we can use art to further our journey towards equity and inclusion.

So, tell us a little bit about your work and the many ways that you are using art to make a difference in Mississippi.

-Art Can Further Equity and Inclusion

Well, I hear your question has a lot of parts.  I think art should be part of our everyday activities. So, we want to one the museum realizes that there is this unfortunate reputation that museums have as being elitist and inaccessible.  And so, the mission of the museum overall is to try to be relevant to the community and to be almost like a library.  So, we want people to feel comfortable and welcome and that and represented and that their opinions will be heard and you do not have to have a PhD in art history to appreciate something that’s beautiful and meaningful.

So, the second part of your question is how do we use [00:02:00] art to have those conversations and to be a platform? I would say one is to create the conditions where people feel like they are welcome. They won’t be talked down to and that you know from simple logistical considerations. What’s on the label.  I mean, what are people, you know, interested in seeing?  Are they interested in hearing about artists perspective in professorial artist terms? No, probably not as much.  But, are they interested in something that was meaningful to the artist or they interested in background story?  Are they interested in typical trivia items?  Are they interested maybe in what the artist ate for breakfast and how that translates to the artwork that’s on the wall?  Probably so.  I know that those are the things that I am interested in.

And then, in the social justice empathy context, how can a piece of art show you something and make [00:03:00] your brain question or think about something in a way that you didn’t think about it before you saw that piece of art.  I mean in the work that I want to do, that kind of is the sweet spot for us. It’s like how do we get you to see the shared humanity in all of our living expressions and then have a conversation and community with somebody else to even broaden that understanding that the artwork inspired.

-About CAPE

So, one of the things that I read about CAPE is that the work at CAPE is values-driven.  So, can you talk about that a minute and about the values that CAPE embraces?

There’s three core values:  transparency, equity, and truth.  I like to further kind of extrapolate the truth to further define as authenticity because I think people believe truth can [00:04:00] sometimes be subjective.  But, authenticity is not you either you are authentic, or you aren’t.

Transparency part of this journey of CAPE is to make the curatorial process transparent.  So, we have an innovation lab that lets our visitors kind of asked questions about how artworks are selected to be an exhibit. What’s written on the walls?  What do you want to know more about?  So, the first experiment we did was with Titus Kaphar one of our new acquisitions that we were able to purchase with the CAPE funding, and he recently won the MacArthur Genius Grant.  And, his style of painting is in traditional portraiture, but his twist or his Innovative practice is he paints a traditional portrait of let’s say someone like Thomas Jefferson but not Thomas Jefferson in that traditional 18th century [00:05:00] way that you know, we’re used to seeing, but he cuts that out of the canvas and then he lays the image kind of upside down and then the cut out behind that exposed canvas is the image of the person behind the person.  So, you see a portrait of a regal African American woman in her tribal garb which gets you to ask the questions. Well, who is she and how does she contribute to this story?  And so, for me, that portrait or that piece of art really expresses what CAPE wants to do with the way that we explore art and equity.

So, this is a traditional image we’re used to seeing but what’s the story behind that story? Let’s have a conversation about that and those conversations typically always get into race and equity and what’s her story and the different lives [00:06:00] of the woman the enslaved woman as opposed to the slave owner.  And you know, in those conversations, art can be transformative for our visitors who aren’t used to having these conversations at all.

Just an incredible artist and an incredible way of looking at the world and helping us to look at the World.

-Growing Up an Activist Artist

When you were growing up were the people around you involved in the community and giving back to the community?  And were you maybe, surrounded by artists yourself or by activists? And, how did that impact you?  Where did you find your early role models?

I was not surrounded by artists and my parents are a little past depression babies, but very practical working-class African American folks who kind of squelched my dreams of being an artist.  They’d say you need like W2 employment.  You need to either be an accountant, a lawyer, a [00:07:00] librarian, or work for the government.  You know, because then it was like work for 20 years in a secure job and get that retirement check.

I mean, the world has changed a lot since then.  But, leading an activist artist life was not something that they had envisioned for me.  But I was a student of the Civil Rights Movement my father in middle school opened a restaurant, and he sold at a place that was kind of like an open-air Market where most of the vendors were white and he was the only black one.  And, just seeing how the ways that he was treated differently from the other vendors in the market and how they got rent negotiations and lease abatements that he didn’t get and just viewing the discrepancies and treatment from an early age just made me highly attuned.  And Ame, I wanted to share one story when I was 4 years old.  I really [00:08:00] remember my parents talking about the riots after Martin Luther King because I grew up in Washington DC after he was assassinated and how my father had to take my mother to work.  But, because she was fair complexion and he was darker, he had to put her in the back of the car and cover her up with a towel, so the police wouldn’t think that they were interracial couple and pull him out of the car and beat him.  And so, you know at an early age, I realized that my journey in life was going to be impacted by the color of my skin in a way that other people’s, you know, that weren’t.  But, because we grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, there was still a protective bubble that surrounded us.  We were highly aware of that typical adage.  Families used to say you have to work twice as hard to get half as much and you’re always [00:09:00] going to have to be better than everybody else around you to even be taken seriously.  So that was that part, you know, kind of embedded in My DNA growing up.

And the activists part. Okay. So, this is also a funny story.  When I was in junior high school, I wanted to take typing, but they had maxed out of students that could take that class.  And so, they put me in shop. So, I started a petition from my senior high school desk. Try to petition my teachers to let me take typing because it would help me advance my career.  And, while the petition didn’t work, I realized that no matter how young I was I still have a voice and, and agency.

Your first story is really a difficult story to talk with your parents about it for them to have experienced.  But then for you to learn your agency at an early age, that’s a good [00:10:00] story.  Actually, it’s really powerful for you to realize that you could try to change things, maybe not always successfully, but to find a way to change things.

-Early Role Models

So, where did you find some of your early role models in art, if it wasn’t for your parents?

I was always a Creator myself, so I was inspired by Faith Reinhold and Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe and just radical women who were fiercely independent and self-assured and recognized their value.  And so, those images and those women really inspired me.

I mean Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, all of them weren’t necessarily artists, but they were active in creating a world that they wanted to see. I mean Dorothy Height was in Washington DC, and we just had just a litany of role models that I was inspired by. [00:11:00]

Listen, those were certainly examples of strong, powerful women who made a difference in the world around them through their art, and you’re doing that now with your CAPE program.

-How CAPE Engages with Communities

Can you talk a little bit, tell our listeners a little bit about how you see CAPE affecting the communities?  Because, when we talked before, you explained that CAPE is not just inside the museum. It’s moving out into the world around the museum.  So, talk a little bit about that.

Thank you, Ame, for asking that question.

We are getting ready to launch our artist-in-residence program, and I am really excited about this part of the programming of CAPE because last summer we did a series of listening sessions in six communities throughout the state of Mississippi.  And so, the listening sessions asked community members what their hopes were, their aspirations, their challenges, you know how they envision their community like 20 years [00:12:00] down the road.  And then from this, we constructed a source document that artists could create proposals to address.  And so out of probably about 15 proposals, we selected three that most closely reflected CAPEs values and what the community wanted to see, and we will be making an announcement soon about who those projects are.  But I’ll share it with your listeners to give you a peek sneak peek.  So, it’s Hancock County, Utica, and Oxford.  And, all of those are going to be dealing with issues of memory and co-collaboration with the community.  That’s going to be participatory elements and of course a lot of conversation and dialogue.  And so, this residency program really extends CAPE beyond just in the museum, because we are the Mississippi Museum of Art.  So, we represent the state, and we want to be reflective of other communities in the state. And you know, those stories of [00:13:00] each community are so different, based on geography, industries that are there, industries that have left.  Utica is definitely a lot more agriculture centered, while Oxford has the University, and Hancock County has the proximity to water and the coast.  And so, just seeing how those elements of geography kind of infuse each proposal with different elements is really fascinating, but the artist will be here tomorrow to get their first chunk of money, sign the contract, and we’ll be rolling.

So, the deadline is, it has to be completed by December.  But, there’ll be lots of documentation on the website.  Listeners can take the journey along with us and see how the projects evolve.  It is really exciting work.  Can’t wait.  And also, I get to live vicariously through these artists, so that’s always fun, too.

-Impact vs Finding What is Worth Doing

So, [00:14:00] I’m very excited about what you just described because I’m going to go.  I use the word impacted by but when I listen to you describe the work.  It’s not that at all.  It’s really the community engaging with the artist from the very beginning.  You were asking them what were their hopes and dreams and then bringing the artists and embracing the artists into the fold of their community and partnering with them as they go forward.  And, this just sounds like a wonderful project because small communities struggle to have the kind of resources or maybe even sometimes the kind of vision to have that kind of partnership or that kind of experience or create that kind of experience for themselves.  But what you’ve done is taken a statewide resource, and you’ve given some of the small communities an opportunity to work with you to extend their vision for their own community and to become something more than they were able to do by themselves, which is really powerful.

[00:15:00] You’re also nurturing artists to develop their own voice in a different way than they might have before and to see different stakeholders and the work that they do.  So, thank you for that.  That’s going to be exciting, and I have to follow what you guys are doing.

You’ve talked about how you’re working with the communities, how you kind of assess and track what the results of this will be.  How you. kind of measure the impact that CAPE is having with the broader work that you’re doing.  Can you talk a little bit about that for our listeners?

You know, that is really an experiment for us on how to evaluate impact.  I mean, we’ve had a group of dedicated museum members kind of journal their journey, after they attended programming any events.  And, we [00:16:00] find that we probably need to retool that a little bit.  We need to get to some deeper qualitative measures.  And so, you know to be transparent, which is one of our values, we haven’t quite figured that out yet. Probably what’s going to end up happening is it’s going to be based on interviews and one-on-one interactions with people after they attend programs.  And so, we’ll probably reboot and relaunch the evaluation piece in a couple of months and take it through the end of the year.

I also think that’s an interesting question. Just based on nonprofit, you know, sometimes I call the nonprofit industrial complex, just based on how you measure impact and is that always the right question?

I mean can initiatives be funded [00:17:00] just based on the idea that is a good thing to do?   Can’t we just, maybe evolve to that at some point that the work is worth doing and that it is part of the public good for people to be exposed to art.  That’s a higher philosophical question, but I am torn by the need to always have to create data that fits into some box to prove that what you’re doing is worthwhile.  Now, of course, if there are grant requirements, and I realize that we have to do that, but I’m also challenging the industry to figure out some other different ways to do that.  Or, isn’t something just worth doing because in the doing of it you’ll be better.

So I’m a super data geek, as [00:18:00] people who might visit my website will figure out pretty quickly. I think you asked a really good question, which is how do you measure change that happens in your heart?  And should you even try?  Is it better just to spend your effort trying to continue and do more work?  And, I think it’s a great philosophical question.  Especially for those of us who are, you know, sort of wrapped up in data for most of our days.  How can we think about the work that’s going on around us, and maybe a different way?  I will tell you that I am intrigued by some of the things that you do the journaling and the interviews.  I think those are very interesting because I think it can, you know, even beyond measuring, I think it can help guide you in terms of what really resonates with people and can touch them in a deeper way.  So, you can learn as well about what your next steps or directions should be,

-Strong Support for CAPE

And that leads to my next question [00:19:00] which is, so in all of this, and as you talk to people, do you find that some of this work is threatening to people, or do you find that some people feel like, you know, some of this is too much, or take things a little bit too far?

Well, you know that is an interesting question because I don’t know if your listeners know based on my voice that I am African-American woman doing this work.  And so to be honest with you Ame, I don’t know if I asked them. I don’t know if they would share that with me unless I asked them specifically:  were you threatened by this?  Because I do think that the south is a very polite, a warm inhospitable place and so people will default to politeness if they’re challenged.  And maybe it’s a conversation they would have with somebody who was a white colleague, that they might feel [00:20:00] more comfortable with than having that with me.

So, that hasn’t been my personal experience, but I will share with you that based on results of a survey that we recently did at the museum, that while most of our membership are interested in seeing the work go forward, they don’t want to do this at the sacrifice of not being able to see art and pretty things that just for art’s sake ,like a like a Monet, or you know, some traditional landscapes and pretty flowers, or Georgia O’Keefe.  And so of course, this is never an either-or conversation.  This is a both-and conversation.  Yeah, so I hope that answers your question, but I have not had the opportunity to hear negative feedback.  Doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist though.

Okay. Well, that’s kind of what I was asking, because I would have imagined if you had push back, you would have heard it from your board or people [00:21:00] in the broader community.  It would have found its way back to you.  Whether they would have made that directly to you or not, is a different question.  I think you would have heard about it.  And that’s great, because that says that your communities are ready for this.  Even though they still want it to be in addition to all the things that they had before.  That has a message about funding and about balance of funding, I guess, but it’s still it’s a powerful message in Mississippi.

Yeah, I’m really excited that we have the support of our board and our executive director Betsy Bradley is fully committed to the mission of CAPE and was one of the architects of the grant. She wrote a lot of the mission and purpose, and the goals and the strategies.  So, I have full institutional support that I’m very grateful for.  It’s just a tension of do you give people what they want or what [00:22:00] they need?  It’s so do you give people the spinach or do you give them a donut?

-Personal Impact

I’d like to get back to you for a minute. We’ve talked about how all this work has affected the communities, but how does it affect you?  How has doing this work and being able to do this work at CAPE, how has that affected you personally?

I would say that it has reinforced my belief in the beauty of the human spirit and that there is a spark of the Divine in every person. There’s no such thing as a disposable human being. Throughout stories, whether they be challenging or not, there’s always something that people can connect about, and for me, one of those something’s is art.  One of those some things can be music, one of those some things can be the person who cared about you, and [00:23:00] finding out other people’s something’s is really inspirational and energizing for me.  And then, being surrounded by art in a beautiful place in Mississippi is one of the, I don’t know, I think it’s a hidden, one of the Hidden jewels of the United States.

-Moving Mississippi Forward

I mean, while it’s my adaptation of a Rumi quote,

“and where the greatest hurt is, the greatest healing can be.”  

And, I just think Mississippi is ripe for that healing, and we could be leaders in the field and to contribute to that.  I mean, it’s just you know makes my hair stand on end.  It’s what gets me up in the morning every day.  I just, I feel like this is my vocation. I’m just so grateful to be doing this work and am honored to see that the board had enough faith in me to charge me with this task. Yeah.

Wow, that’s really [00:24:00] inspiring. And I’ll tell you that my last interview was with Dr. Susan Glisson and about the work that she’s been doing.  And that was born in Mississippi as well, even though now she’s working on a broader basis across the country.  But in talking with the both of you, I am so impressed with what is going on in Mississippi today and the changes that are taking place and the leadership that is there.  And, I find it inspiring to talk to both of you guys and to think about, you know, I’m in South Carolina and we’re just not that far away.  And, we have many of the same challenges and I think there’re, you know, other places in the U.S. where we have the same challenges, and we have a lot to learn from the work that you guys are doing and Mississippi and in particular the work that you’re doing with art because it’s something that we maybe don’t all think about as a way to approach these great challenges [00:25:00] we face.

You told me that you’d been at a conference, and I know you do this naturally anyway, what are some of the things outside of your work that really excite you and inspire you that maybe we should all take a look at, as well, and people that you really like to follow, in addition to doing this work at CAPE.

-Monique's Work Beyond CAPE

The other organization that gets a lot of my time is Alternate Roots, and Alternate Roots is an artist service organization that serves artists in the southern region.  It supports artists at the intersection of arts and social justice, and I am the board chair of that organization.  And, that organization is filled with revolutionaries and community activists and people doing inspiring and imaginative and sometimes dangerous things to push [00:26:00] our evolution forward using art practice, dance, music as a way to open people’s eyes and change perspectives and build bridges of empathy.

I get a lot of inspiration from being involved in that organization.  And, these two vocations or passions of mine feed each other, because things that I learned from Alternate Roots I can bring to the museum and then resources that I have at the museum that artists might be able to benefit from then I can channel back to Alternate Roots.

Actually, we have some artists in South Carolina doing some work around the She Said Project around women’s stories and reacting to the Me Too Movement. We have artists in San Antonio that are doing dances on the border.  There is such an abundance of art and music and interdisciplinary [00:27:00] social justice activities.  I mean, I could talk about it for hours, but I would encourage people to go to AlternateRoots.org to find out more, consider joining if you feel so led.  The artists are members and weary grant funding to support these projects that organization also continues to inspire me.

-Finding Inspiration

That’s what I wanted to have you do for us is broaden our Horizon a little bit.  We’re excited about all the things that you’re doing in Mississippi, but let’s raise up our heads a minute and say to think what else inspires you and where else do you look and put your gaze because those are places that we might find interesting, as well. So, Alternate Roots is one of them.  Is there anything else that you want to mention or share with us?

There’s this really good book called emergent strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown that talks about how we move together in collective and how we [00:28:00] reimagine what our future is going to be.  And, she was an Octavia Butler scholar. Octavia Butler was African American science fiction author who kind of looks like the pre-generation before this new Afro-futurism.  She might be the mother of Afro-futurism, as far as I’m concerned.

This book talks about how we flock and move, and there’s not necessarily one leader, but how we move in community, how we do deep listening. So, it was kind of just repackaged community organizing but is really relevant in this field because we don’t realize how much social media and all these platforms kind of impact the way we organize.  The thing I like about this book is that it still values that one-on-one connection. That people still need you, still need to be in the room with other people.  As I often tell my children when they’re trying to convey difficult messages through text.  I mean, there’s some things you have to [00:29:00] pick up the phone and the more difficult a conversation, the closer you need to be to the person you’re having this conversation with.  So, there’s such value in that intimate, you know one on one connection that this book kind of reflects.

So that’s kind of currently what I’m reading, now.  And the other thing is that there’s this new emerging research about epigenetics about genetic impact of sustained trauma. There have been some studies done on the children of Holocaust Survivors, but the implications for that on people that were born from enslaved people or people that are children or generations later of indigenous folks. It just has some interesting implications about how we react to certain stressors and how to heal from [00:30:00] that. So those are kind of the things that I think we should start paying attention to that.

In addition to there being inequities in terms of wealth there’s also severe inequities in health outcomes and how our bodies are impacted by this until we make a conscious effort to heal.  So, the last thing I’ll say is, you know, for my white brothers and sisters that there is also some psychic damage done to them as being inheritors of this legacy of slavery, too.  And while our path to healing might be different, the healing still needs to happen and so to start having conversations about that as well as something we need to do.

Those are several great ideas.  So, you’re the second person to recommend the Emergent Strategies book.  So, it will be laying on my desk in a few days, because I think that it sounds like a wonderful book to read and to be inspired in [00:31:00] how communities work because that’s so important and we’re all part of so many different communities and.

I think your points about the epigenetics and also about the fact that this is work that we all need it is not work for some people it is work for all of us and something that we should all remain focused and diligent to help move forward because it will benefit all of us. We’re all on our own Journey.  It’s a unique Journey.  We may travel different path, as you said, but we all have a journey to take with this to move our country forward and to move our homes and our communities forward.  So, thank you for reminding us of that.

-What's Next for CAPE?

What are the next things that you dream about for CAPE?  Where do you see CAPE going?  You know you told us some of the things that are going on, and they have a certain timeline, and I get that. But when you look out further, what are some of the things that you dream about for CAPE?

I [00:32:00] hope that CAPE becomes just a part of what the Mississippi Museum of Art.  Is and so I hope it becomes dissolved into the genetics of the institution.  I want the way that we think about programming in art, and the questions that we’re asking each other, to be like breathing air, it just becomes second nature to us. It becomes part of our culture and that this bug of CAPE can start to impact and affect other institutions.  And so that we can, you know, say hey you want to start this program we can show you how to do it and then help other institutions begin to reflect who they really want to be and should be and start to address this issue, these issues of equity.

Because in the REAL conference that I just attended which [00:33:00] stands for racial equity and arts leadership. I mean now this, you would like this Ame, because this is based in data and Is that only maybe 5% of Arts institutions are led by people of color and or women and mean so and that includes symphonies, dance companies, and museums.  I mean just the culture sector, in general, is under-represented by women and people of color.  So, how do we fix that? How do we change that and having these conversations is one way to do it.

-Community Advice

So, let’s say I’m sitting in a small community and I want to do something for my own community, and I want to use art to make a difference, and I think that it could, where do I start? What do I do? [00:34:00] I would say the first thing to do is to put an open call to your community and to listen and say buy some pizza go to someplace for you.  Hey, I want to have a I’m interested in doing something to create change in the community. Let’s talk about what that looks like.  So, I would say you have to start with listening.  Your idea will only be improved and amplified by the people that live with you.  You never want to go in and impose what you think a community wants based on your one idea. You need to get feedback, you know, that’s generative and inspirational, but you have to listen, and I would say just start a conversation.  It can be that simple, and you know and get the people that you know will support you first.  You always want to have that kind of grounding of support [00:35:00] before you go out and start asking for people that might not support you, but you could convince.  But, you definitely start always start with listening.

Well, that advice, that’s good in everything, but it’s particularly good here.  But it’s good everywhere, which is start with listening.  That’s great.  Thank you for sharing that.  We’re about to wrap up.  Is there anything else that you want to say, or you want to add that I didn’t ask you about?

I would say that in addition to all these wonderful questions and these lofty issues that we’ve been discussing that this is also fun work, too.  And so, if we could think of ways to inject moments of fun and brightness and glitter sparkle unicorn love and we have to find a way to infuse joy into all of our journeys.   And so, don’t forget to make it fun.  And one of the ways that [00:36:00] I like to make things fun is to have singing.  At the beginning of meetings, especially when you’re in community, because singing makes people have to listen to each other to sing really well.  And most people think they can’t sing, but when everybody’s uncomfortable, then everyone’s comfortable.  And so, it is just one of the things that I like to do. I think it just breaks the energy of the room and you’d be so surprised that once people sing together some conversations happen a lot more naturally than they would if you just go right into brain work.  So, try to do more heart work less brain work.

More heart work, less head work and singing.  

So, that’s probably a good place to wrap up.

-Monique Wraps Up with a Song

So, one more thing.  So, in addition to that, now you can keep this or not Ame, but since we said singing, I feel [00:37:00] compelled, compelled to sing something to you as an exit.

Okay. All right.

Thank you for this time Ame

Thank you for this time

Thank you for this time Ame

Thank you for this time

This healing, this healing, this healing time

This healing, this healing, this healing time.

And Ms. Monique Davis, this is the best close I have ever had.  Thank you so much for your time today and for that beautiful singing at the end.  Best wishes with all of your good work that you’re doing at CAPE and I hope that we’re able to spread some of these ideas to other folks in other parts of the country.

Thank you, and I’m sure we’ll be back in touch.


Guest: Monique Davis

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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