Episode 16, 32 min listen
In this episode we discuss diversity and inclusion in art with Suzanne Thomas. Her organization, Inclusion in Art, seeks to build opportunities for artists of color in Oklahoma. My discussion with Suzanne is a reminder of how art and community culture play a role in helping us build more inclusive communities. It may be through developing and supporting diversity and emerging artists. Maybe it's building a more inclusive artistic community, or it may be in celebrating the work of our masters, those mature and diverse artists in our community. We also talk about how partnering can be used by smaller organizations to increase their impact, their reach, and even help larger and more traditional organizations become more inclusive.
You can learn more about Inclusion in Art using the following links:
Organizations and Galleries mentioned.
Illustrated by Skip Hall, one of the founders of Inclusion in Art.
If you enjoyed this episode, you will likely enjoy our previous episode: Building Community Equity Through Art - with Monique Davis.
Thomas is a professional visual artist and professor at Rose State College. Suzanne Thomas was born and raised in Spencer, Oklahoma. She received her B.F.A. at Oklahoma State University and her M.F.A. at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Thomas has been awarded several honors including NISOD (National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development) Excellence in Teaching; Who’s Who 2007 Graduated Dean Fellowship award; Roby Honoree for Academics; she was also awarded by Rose State College Phi Theta Kappa.
Video of Suzanne Thomas
Ame Sanders 00:11
This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders, welcome. Today we want to talk about art: what it means to be inclusive in art and how through our art we can help make our communities more inclusive. I’m happy today to talk with Suzanne Thomas. She is the president of the board of directors of Inclusion in Art, a nonprofit located in Oklahoma. So welcome, Suzanne.
-What Inclusion in Art Means
I want you to tell us a little bit about what inclusion in art means for you and for your organization.
Suzanne Thomas 01:02
For me, what inclusion means–especially in art–is opportunities or support for artists of color in the state of Oklahoma. We are located in Oklahoma City, but we would like to be statewide. What we mean by inclusiveness is that there are spaces available to those artists of color. Also, the other part of that–and I think this is pretty important– is that inclusive means all sorts of art, all sorts of genres, all sorts of subject matter. So when we think about art of African Americans or Native Americans there’s this, “Oh, well, they do this type of art.” The fact is, if you are an artist of color, and you love landscapes, you should be allowed to be a landscape artist. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work that speaks to your identity, per se, racially or gender-wise or orientation-wise or any of that, but that if you like painting landscapes, I think that needs to be allowed. And that needs to be celebrated as well. So inclusive means that you’re allowed to be an artist. You’re allowed to be an artist of color. You don’t need permission to be any type of artists that you want to be. It’s allowing all sorts of artists of color to show and exhibit work, but also those artists of color being allowed to show or exhibit work that may not speak to racial and cultural identity.
-About Inclusion in Art and Impact on Oklahoma
Ame Sanders 02:29
You told me that you’re a native Oklahoman. How do you feel the work of Inclusion in Art is making Oklahoma more inclusive?
Suzanne Thomas 02:38
Again, it comes back to creating opportunities for artists of color. I know Oklahoma was in the news this summer, of course, because of the Tulsa race massacre and the 100 year remembrance of it. So we want to be a part of that even though we’re based in Oklahoma City. We also learned that Oklahoma, at least at one time, had the largest number of Black townships in the Union. There’s a rich history there. A lot of people thought that Oklahoma could be a Black and Native American state. How we’re trying to be more inclusive is we want to have a statewide reach. When we say inclusive, I know I’ve been talking mostly in matters of African American art and all that, but we mean inclusive as in inclusive. So that means every person of color. We want people to know that we’re there among Latino and Hispanic artists, Asian artists, Native American artists, Middle Eastern artists, any of those artists that may be marginalized in that part of the general or the mainstream artwork. We have a rich Native American history, rich Hispanic history. We’re right above Texas for heaven’s sakes, which used to be Mexico. We do have these diverse groups of people. That’s what we mean by inclusive, if I may speak it out loud and speak it into existence. I’d like to see us do things in what we call a mountain in it go out to the panhandle toward Guymon. I mean, go further east, and just throughout to bring that type of inclusiveness. People are everywhere. Every type of people are everywhere.
-How Partnerships Increase Impact and Reach
Ame Sanders 04:16
You and I talked earlier and you reminded me that you were a small organization, as you just said, and that in order to make a bigger impact, partnerships were important for you. Sometimes you wonder, can I really make a difference if my organization is small? So talk a little bit about how you guys partner and how you use those partnerships to extend the impact and the reach of your organization or to help make other organizations more inclusive.
Suzanne Thomas 04:45
We’ve been around for 8-10 years. We do make connections with other organizations. We’re a small organization–small budget small group of people. We do not have an executive director; it’s a working board which just means that we do the work ourselves. Through our contacts as individual board members, we are always looking for an opportunity. I’m always looking for an opportunity. If someone says something, whether it’s at my job or at another event, I’m like, “Hey, let me tell you about inclusion and what we’re about. Sounds like something you need to talk to us about. Tell me what you have.” That’s how we kind of get out there. We just look for opportunities.
We have a pretty diverse board. Not just racially and culturally, but also what we do for our day job. Not all of us are artists. A lot of us are artists plus whatever else. We have those plugins, and I think that’s important. Part of being an artist and part of trying to be supportive of artists is finding a space to put your work somewhere. That’s easier said than done. When we had that space that made it easy, but we lost it. So we were in transition with our board and younger people came on the board and basically said, “Do we really need a dedicated space? Why don’t we partner with other organizations?” That is what happened. We would go to these venues that were interested in diversifying and be more inclusive themselves. We act like this conversation about inclusiveness and diversity is a new conversation that just happened the last few years. But the fact is, we’ve been talking about this for awhile. Inclusion in Art has been around probably about 20 years as a collective to a now-nonprofit. I think we’re now seeing the impact of all those years of working and preaching to everyone else who knew that this day was coming. And what I mean by “this day” is that this conversation was going to have an urgency to it that now I think a lot of organizations are understanding. So, we felt we can partner with these other organizations. Some of them were new spaces. These were gallery spaces. They were new spaces. They were wanting to get some artists and quality artists. We felt we were a good conduit for that because the people who were in our organization on the board were working artists who are doing work and have shown work at various levels. I consider myself a mid-career artists; some of us were emerging artists. Each one came with some sort of background, had gotten some inroad into the art world. We just knew people, so partnering with other organizations who might not have had those contacts worked really well for us. I love it.
You kind of get out of your way. You’re talking to other people. We bring our expertise; we bring our knowledge; we bring the artists. They bring the space; they bring their expertise; they bring their marketing. We bring our marketing. It really does work very well. We all know each other and we’re all wanting the same thing. Inclusion in Art partnerned back in March to do a panel discussion about inclusion and diversifying with a statewide organization that’s been a big support for us called OVAC. That stands for Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition. We’ve always had good rapport with them and have always worked with them and they’re just really a very cool organization. They do so much first day and they’re so supportive of the artists. They were like, “What can we do?” I suggested that we have a panel talking about how to diversify the board. What’s a committee? That non-sexy stuff that artists don’t want to talk about, which is the administrative side of the art organizations. Who’s your board of directors? The difference between a nonprofit, a collective, a club, all those things. I think a lot of artists, especially young, especially self-taught, kind of get into “I just need a wall and throw my work up” mindset. I really want artists, particularly artists of color, to understand it’s more than that. It’s not just, “I want to hang my work and people are going to pay thousands of dollars for it.” That’s not how this works. There’s a process and it’s helpful to understand what that is. So when you partner with other organizations, hopefully what you’re doing is sitting back and observing and learning what they did, especially if they’ve been around for a minute longer than yours. We kind of sit back and want to learn from them and see what they’re doing if what they’re doing works for you. Don’t partner with anybody you have issues with. Don’t do that. This is supposed to be pleasant. Like I said, we’re all working people outside of Inclusion in Art. Everybody is short on time and resources. Whoever you partner with, make sure that everybody is of the same enthusiasm. You may not be at the same level, but you got to be at the same enthusiasm. You got to come together and make some decisions and make sure this is what you both want. It can’t be like, “Oh, they just want us because they need to fill a quota.” Once you’re there, you let them know you can do more than just this little box that you’ve checked. That has worked for us. I think we’ve done really well.
Ame Sanders 11:23
So in the comments that you just made there were several things that I want to revisit and bring out. So one, partnering was important for you guys as a small organization to extend your impact and your reach. Even though you’re a maturing organization, as a younger organization, to learn from organizations that have more experience, have a bigger breadth of experience, perhaps, but maybe also a longer experience than you have. But you reminded us that it’s important to choose someone who shares your goals and your enthusiasm for the work that you’re doing. Maybe you’re not at the same level of capability or the level of funding or there may be a lot of differences in how you approach your work, but you want to be sure that you share your enthusiasm and share your goals. The other thing that I think I heard you say, but I know this from partnering myself, is that it’s important that each of you benefit from the partnership. You need to get something from the partnership and the people that you’re partnering with need to get something as well. Otherwise, it’s not really a partnership. So, you want to find that shared benefit for both of you.
-Finding Shared Benefits with Partners
Suzanne Thomas 12:36
Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to be the quota filler. But on the other hand, you get there and then you basically let them know I’m not a monolith. If they’re reaching out to you, then you want to make sure that everybody’s on the same page. What is the goal of this partnership? When we partnered with this small gallery called Art Hall in Oklahoma City, we reached out to them, and they said it would be great. They had the space and we had artists who were interested in showing their work. So it’s as simple as that. They would get more people to go through their space. It was attached to some retail stores and restaurants. So if you get an opening, you got people coming down. They’re going to see what else is available. That artist knows that their work is going to get stared at because this retail space. It is as simple as that. It doesn’t have to be this hard thing. You want to make sure the work is safe and that we understand the fee system and the commission system and all that. But in the end, what the Art Hall got and what Inclusion in Art got was the same thing. They wanted an audience and traffic. That’s our goal as an organization. We want to we want to create opportunities. We want to support opportunities for artists, particularly artists of color, to have their work shown, possibly sold. You know, we don’t take a commission at this moment.
-Mentoring and Supporting Diverse Artists
Ame Sanders 14:27
That’s a good point. One of the things that I know you feel passionately about, and it links to what we were just talking about, is this notion of developing artists and emerging artists and people of color who may be entering the world of professional art. Your organization helps to develop those artists either through mentoring or different kinds of programs. Let’s talk about that a minute, because that’s so important. If you can’t find someone who you know or you relate to, this question of social capital and connection to people who can help you be more successful, than it limits what your potential is. Finding those connections can be really important for anyone, but particularly for an artist.
Suzanne Thomas 15:12
Well, we have a mentorship program called Emerged. The gist of the program is twofold. First, we look at the artist’s work. We do critiques with them actually looking at the work and talking about their development. The other part is that professional development. We’ll meet you where you are. Some of them are fresh out of college. Some of them have never gone through formal training. They’ve been kind of stumbling and doing it on their own. Usually those who are coming out of college have a little bit more understanding of that resume/CV and taking images as opposed to the ones who did not go through that formal education. But both of them, we do want to look at your artist statement. We do want to look at your resume. Taking quality images is a big part of it. We encourage them to write small educational and professional development grants. So we encourage them to apply for one of those grants, particularly the personal development to help with framing.
At the end of our mentorship process, the artist ends up having a solo show. For a lot of them, this is their first solo show ever. We find a space. We’ve worked with one gallery called Little D. This will be our second time working with them and it’s a small space. It’s a perfect space. We’ve worked with Oklahoma Contemporary and Paseo Plunge. We want to work with other spaces as well. But the mentorship program has been real fun for us because you get to look at all these young emerging artists and work with them and talk to them. The big thing, especially if they’ve been in a school setting, is they don’t have that automatic feedback anymore with my work. I know we all have social media now, but there’s something to be said about being in a studio setting with a whole bunch of other people around you who are doing the same thing you’re doing. So that’s important. They get to hear other artists, especially people they don’t really know that well, look at their work. So that mentorship is is twofold. It’s helping them with their professional development and the other part is helping them with their actual work. Whatever romanticized idea you have about being an artist, I need you to not do that. No one is trying to take your creativity away from you, but we need you to understand this is a profession. You as the artist have to be serious about it. If you want everyone else to take you seriously, then you have to be serious about it. That means being a professional. What that means is you keep your word, you show up on time, you have the product done, if you don’t you communicate what’s happening. That’s all part of the professionalism of artists.
This year, we introduced a new program called Emerge Curate. We have a traditional artist, but we’re also working with someone who will do the curate portion of this artist. They’re going to work together. They’ve been communicating. That’s also something I’m passionate about–putting people of color who are interested in the art world in positions of decision making. A curator makes a decision. There are a lot of artists who are organizing their own shows. They find the space. They don’t need us. They find the space and get a couple of their buddies together and they put on a very good show. But when we talk about curating in a position where you want to be known as a curator on a national level or local level, then there’s a little bit more to it in the sense that you want to understand what it exactly means to be a curator within the art world. There’s more to it than finding and hanging up pictures. There’s something to be said when it’s a curator who’s seen a lot and has said, “Yep, I like that.” Then they ask you questions. That’s the other thing about being a professional artist. I need you to talk to people and to know how to communicate what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Believe it or not, people like to hear that. The other side is that you engage those viewers and you connect with them and then sometimes they’ll buy your work. At first they looked at it and they thought it was okay, but then you started talking about nature and all of a sudden they bought something of yours because something you said really put the nail in that for them. So, you want to learn to communicate. Some people have this idea that their work speaks for itself. Maybe, but you want to talk about what you’re doing, because people really want to know that you have put thought, energy, and time in. That you’re passionate about it. That has a tendency to be very transferable. Your passion can be transferred to the other individual. We want people to pay money for what we do.
-How Has The Work Of Inclusion in Art Affected You [Suzanne]?
Ame Sanders 21:02
You’ve talked about how Inclusion in Art affects the community and the state. How has this work that you’ve been doing for a number of years impacted you personally?
Suzanne Thomas 21:15
I think it’s made me more aware. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve always been very proud. I had parents who did a great job with their children of teaching them their history, having those books around, encouraging us to learn not just about who we are as Black people in America and Africa, but also other people. My father worked at FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, and I would come home and he would have students from all over the world–I had students from Japan, I had students from the Middle East, all sorts of people. I come home from school and there’s this person who I’ve never seen before sitting in my house. So, that’s been my experience and it just kind of reinforces those things I’ve been taught by my parents that I have come to observe it. What I do personally as an artist is that I do African American female images. I don’t do anything else. I am that artist. I do it, because if I don’t do it, who will?
The other part of that is, I also teach and I’m a professor. I love what I do. I think it’s important for my students, of all colors and all the things to see this woman with this brown face with her locked hair, talking about art to them. It just makes me think this is important to deal with all sorts of different students just as important as it is for them to deal with all sorts of different individuals in positions of authority who are in in their lives and that they see what we do. So for me personally, working with Inclusion affirms what I’m doing. I just love what I do and I love what we do at Inclusion, because I think it’s positive.
Nothing we’re doing is hurting anybody. We need to make that abundantly clear. This is hurting no one. Not at all. This is one of those very few times where you have literally nothing to lose. This is not going to hurt anybody. I know some people think it will. It really won’t. It doesn’t hurt anybody to be inclusive and diverse. Really, it just makes you stronger.
-Reaching Out Beyond the Artists
Ame Sanders 24:09
Suzanne, thank you for sharing that. And I want to celebrate the work that you guys and your organization are doing, your commitment to it over the long haul–because it’s not a short-term thing. It requires some professionalism and discipline and commitment. So, we’ve talked about some of the programs that you guys have, but you’ve mentioned to me that you have another program called Diverse-City, which goes beyond just working with artists. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you make that work?
Suzanne Thomas 24:40
Diverse-City is something that we were doing two or three times a year. We wanted to invite stakeholders–different people involved in different aspects of community, either as marketing people or business people or whatever– who are interested in art. They’re interested in supporting the arts in general. It was a really informal thing that we did. People would come and drink and connect with each other. Anybody could come. It was such an informal thing, two or three hours. But we called it Diverse-City.
Ame Sanders 25:24
I just want to say that sounds like a very interesting crowd to be at a mixer with–people who are committed to inclusion and diversity and who care about art. That’s bound to be a fun group of people to be interacting with. And it’s a way to connect those people and network them together so that they can exchange ideas, and just face to face each other and realize that there are more people like them who care about those same things in the community. That’s a wonderful program. It sounds like it’s a lot of fun, too. So you have some other programs. So can you tell me about some of the other things that you guys do?
-History of Artists of Color: Spirit of Color
Suzanne Thomas 26:01
Last year, we did an exhibition, one of those collaborative moments, called Spirit of Color. One of our younger board members said “I really don’t know the history about artists of color in Oklahoma who’ve been working in the arts for 50+ years. Who are those artists who’ve been here and who’ve been doing art in Oklahoma for literally 50 some odd years? That would be a great exhibition.” So, we worked with Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the E.K. Gaylord Museum. We were able to get a space and it’s a historical thing. We ended up choosing five artists. We talked to them, we interviewed them, we went to their space, we looked at their work, and we spent time with them and talking to them about their history in Oklahoma and what they’ve been doing. Then we ended up having this that opened February 1, 2020. We had a great opening and it was wonderful. We got a catalog. We were able to secure funds. This is probably the biggest thing Inclusion has ever done it. It was so satisfying because really this opportunity to sit down with these artists who’ve been teaching and with us, I’d say again for 50 years. They’ve been doing this for a long time. I got to interview my professor from Oklahoma State and it was a good range of artists. It was good to look at all this different work that they’ve done. That’s what we’re talking about–the beauty of collaboration. Us as a small little organization, there’s no way we could have pulled that off without partners stepping in and the E.K. Gaylord Museum and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. That’s very well-established museum and space. We reached out and they said this sounds good and it met their mission as well. That’s the other thing. If you’re looking to do stuff like this, you have to make sure it’s in their mission. It’s called the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and these were artists who are from Oklahoma who were working in Oklahoma, so it met their mission. We weren’t reinventing the wheel at all. This is one of those situations where everything just worked so well together. Even though it opened February 2020 when the world shut down. The museum did a really good job. I think they did some live streaming and talking. We did the artist talks. Albert Bostick was one of the artists we talked to. That catalog was sent to all the public high schools in Oklahoma. So, there’s that component. And then of course, we have some ourselves and we gave our artists their catalogs to give out. It was very exciting. It was a lot of work myself. I wasn’t the president at the time. The president at the time was a fellow named Brian Purdue, who was very young and very focused. We would travel and go talk to these people for hours. For me personally, I felt like I was like, “Teach me your wisdom.” It was just the coolest thing to sit there and listen to them talk about their work and their life and what brought them to this point and how they’ve been doing things and what the process is and what they have to deal with. That’s probably our most impressive, satisfying programs we had. Everyone was just floored by it. Who knew that we had this talent here, all this time? I’m glad we were able to bring these people and give them that space and that honor to show that this has always been here.
Ame Sanders 30:15
I think it is remarkable that you reach out and celebrate your masters, if you will, and then also at the same time, help bring forward that new generation of emerging artists. It was interesting to hear you talk about gaining wisdom from these artists and how it impacted you. The other piece is that the work that you do is of Oklahoma. It is your history. It’s your people. It’s your culture. It’s the challenges that your communities have faced, but also the things that your communities are doing. When we recognize the value of our own community and our own place. So thank you for sharing that with us. Suzanne, this was a good conversation. You guys are doing some great work.
Suzanne Thomas 31:10
Ame Sanders 31:14
On my website, I’ve outlined a framework for helping to build more inclusive communities. My discussion with Suzanne is a reminder of how art and community culture play a role in helping us build more inclusive communities. It may be through developing and supporting diversity and emerging artists. Maybe it’s building a more inclusive artistic community or it may be in celebrating the work of our masters, those mature and diverse artists in our community. We also had a good conversation about how partnering can be used by smaller organizations like hers, to increase their impact, their reach, and even maybe help make larger and more traditional organizations more inclusive. As we often do, we reminded ourselves that doing this work of helping our communities become more inclusive and equitable doesn’t just change our communities and our community culture, but it also changes
Guest: Suzanne Thomas
Host: Ame Sanders
Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson
Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski
Sound: FAROUT Media