- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

BALTIMORE (AP) - 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”


Information from: The Baltimore Sun, https://www.baltimoresun.com

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