San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) Expands International Focus Since Pandemic Shutdown
The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is one of very few museums worldwide focused exclusively on contemporary art of the Diaspora of Black people worldwide. They are an esteemed Smithsonian Affiliate and modern art museum focused on uplifting Black art and culture and inspiring learning through the global lens of the African diaspora.
Their CEO, Monetta White, a native San Franciscan, is a career-long community advocate and devoted champion of preserving African American culture.
With a background in civic engagement, production, and entrepreneurship, and over 20 years of development experience in public programs and local business, White has collaborated with hundreds of nonprofits, donors, corporations, and creators.
Before coming to the MoAD, White launched two restaurants, served as managing partner of the hospitality consortium Fillmore Food Group, and was credited with leading the revival of San Francisco’s Black jazz district.
White’s connection to MoAD began over 15 years ago, in 2004, at its inception as an avid partner and donor. She has since led MoAD to alliances with institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Perez Art Museum of Miami; and the African American Art and Cultural Complex. She has also pioneered the U.S. debut of global and internationally regarded Black artists and curators such as Chanell Stone, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Larry Ossei-Mensah, Ekow Eshun, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Billie Zangewa, and Amoako Boafo.
International Contemporary Work On Exhibition
Recently, the MoAD presented the first solo museum exhibitions of two highly recognized contemporary artists from Africa: Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo in The Soul of Black Folks and Malawian artist Billie Zangewa’s silk collages in Threads of a Web.
White also highlights new artists they’ve been able to showcase through their Emerging Artist Program. “We have an impressive record of identifying exciting artists ready to step into a full-fledged career as professional, international artists.
This year, we have featured Cynthia Aurora Brannvall, Richard-Jonathon Nelson, Trina Michelle Robinson, and Ashley Ross. Last year we had Sydney Cain! In the past, we presented Chanell Stone. The list goes on. So many exciting new artists.”
A current exhibit, The New Black Vanguard, curated by Antwaun Sargent, explores the intersection of fashion and contemporary art through the work of over 15 photographers. These include professional photographers focused on fashion and contemporary artists integrating fashion into their work.
“These artists are pushing boundaries while focusing fashion front and center,” says White.
To highlight three of the included artists, Tyler Mitchell was the first photographer to shoot a Vogue cover – in 2018. Quil Lemons explores representations of Black masculinity. Arielle Bobb-Willis, an artist who speaks openly about her experience with depression, explores the visible and the invisible through fashion.
An upcoming exhibition of which the MoAD is quite proud will be Black Venus.
“Black Venus is a powerful exhibition, including eighteen artists whose work focuses on the legacy of Black women in visual culture, curated by a powerful woman, Andrea Emilife. The exhibition is a celebration of Black beauty, the many faces of Black femininity, and the shaping of Black women in the public consciousness then and now,” says White.
Pandemic-Inspired Global Focus
The pandemic was an extreme challenge for the MoAD and all cultural institutions. Closed to in-person visitors for 18 months, they had to furlough staff, cancel exhibitions, switch their fundraising strategy, and do whatever they could to make sure they would survive.
They pivoted from in-person programs to digital programs, including In the Artist’s Studio, Art as We See It, the African Book Club, and more. Their digital programs were quite successful, bringing art and artists into people’s homes.
“We continue to have lots of engagement with our digital programs, so we’ve kept them going even though we’ve been open again for over a year. Our digital following has grown a lot over the past six months along with our membership,” says White.
Everyone at the MoAD agrees that it has been challenging to get up and running again after Covid and wants to focus on strategies to get visitors back into the museum.
However, they are still quite optimistic about visitors’ returning.
“It is amazing to see art back on the walls and to see people coming through our doors and wandering our galleries again. We are seeing more and more long-time friends visiting and new friends arriving,” White says.
As an art museum, they are focused on in-person experiences. But the virtual technology of the Covid shutdowns also opened new doors for the MoAD.
“The ‘globalness’ of the African Diaspora emerged through a forced digital experience. As a non-collecting institution, we benefit from more flexibility in programming, and so we quickly adapted to virtual engagement with artists and audiences. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, we had new members dialing in from countries across Africa, South America, and Europe in numbers we had never seen in person,” explains White.
They now seek to maintain the Digital Diaspora while also encouraging in-person visitors at the MoAD.
Community and Learning
“In addition to being a museum for contemporary art, MoAD is equally a space for community and for learning,” White explains.
The MoAD is home to a signature program, the Chef-In-Residence, which focuses on food as creative practice, activism, and a source of well-being. It is an exploration of food, art, and culture and how these intersect throughout the African Diaspora.
MoAD is excited to welcome a new Chef-in-Residence, Jocelyn Jackson, who has taken over from Chef Bryant Terry.
They also host an African Book Club, an African Diaspora Film Club, poetry readings, and other public community events, over 200 a year.
New Chief of Curatorial Affairs and Public Programs
MoAD CEO Monetta White and the rest of the museum leadership recently decided to create a new position on their board, the Chief of Curatorial Affairs and Public Programs.
“The vision for this position is that it will define and strengthen MoAD’s curatorial narrative and contributions to the global contemporary art conversation, propelling the museum as the global thought leader of contemporary art of the African Diaspora. The need for this position and the impact it will have is demonstrated by the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund this role,” says White.
For this position, which began in January 2023, they have chosen Key Jo Lee, who comes to them from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Lee’s expertise is in American art history, histories and theories of photography, and African American studies, as well as museum education. She has been responsible for curatorial and publication projects that highlight the intersection of scholarly work and public audiences and that illuminate works by artists of the Black Diaspora.
Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University. She also holds a B.A. in Art History from Douglass College at Rutgers University and a dual M.A. in History of Art and African American Studies from Yale.
“What excites me about seeing Key Jo Lee occupy this new position is a matter of scale,” says Ashley James, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. “How, on the one hand, she can articulate the big picture, high-level stakes of Black art and its multiple narratives, while at the same time attending to the details and specificities, even the very physics of art. Hers is an enthusiasm for artists and artworks that extends from the macro to the molecular level. MoAD is lucky to have a leader who not only sees these multi-levels but cultivates them with great skill, care, and possibility.”
Lee will oversee the design of a strategic direction for the Museum’s exhibitions and programs, lead globally in identifying and promoting emerging artists from the African Diaspora, and expand MoAD’s reach and influence locally, nationally, and internationally.
“It took us a year to find the right person for this role, and it was so worth the wait. With her bold vision, insightful scholarship, wide-ranging museum experience, and can-do attitude, Key Jo Lee is not only a perfect fit for MoAD but will be a game changer. We are thankful to the Mellon Foundation for the opportunity,” says White.
TROORA MAGAZINE | MAY 2023
WRITTEN BY CRISTINA DEPTULA
PHOTOS COURTESY OF The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)