Photo: Courtesy of WASC
Photo: Courtesy of WASC

NMWA’s Fresh Talks Attempt a Fresh Take on Arts and Activism

In 2017, effective activism and social engagement demand the shrinking of silos and breaking of barriers between and among disparate groups and movements. The National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA) is attempting to do just that through its Women, Arts and Social Change (WASC) initiative, now in its second year. Fresh Talk, the cornerstone of WASC, is a series featuring “curated conversations by women from a range of disciplines – people whose socially conscious ideas are reshaping lives, economies and communities.”

This past Sunday evening, a packed audience filled the fifth floor auditorium at the NMWA for this season’s penultimate Fresh Talk: “How can the arts inspire environmental advocacy?” Examples of past conversation topics include “How can the arts advance body politics?” and “How can makers change the world?” By my estimate, at least 100 attendees gathered to participate in the session, which featured an impressive lineup of panelists including Amy Lipton, director and curator of Ecoartspace; Miranda Massie, director of New York’s forthcoming Climate Museum; Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program; and Laura Turner Seydel, chairperson for the Captain Planet Foundation; along with DC-based environmental justice advocate and new media journalist Kari Fulton, who moderated the post-presentation Q&A.

The conversation had a promising opening, with a video welcome from Mary Robinson in which the former president of Ireland and current president of the foundation/chair of the board of trustees of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice read aloud Jane Hirschfield’s compelling poem “On the Fifth Day” (“On the fifth day/the scientists who studied the rivers/were forbidden to speak or to study the rivers…”) What followed were four 10-minute slideshows in which each panelist covered a topic significant to her work, including plastic waste campaigns, a new museum dedicated to studying climate, rap songs about food desserts and a retrospective of 20 years of environmental art.

Provocative points were made to be sure, like considering the ways in which “artists have always been first responders,” and the idea that museums can be catalysts for change because they are perceived as trustworthy establishments. They provide the physical, social and emotional space to create conversations and facilitate learning and understanding about the vast, making it palpable, personal and tangible. But the slideshows did not fully complement one another, and without time to really talk through connections, missed the mark on creating a cohesive thread of discussion. The Q&A opened up the dialogue a bit more, but where I think the event really came alive was in the post-presentation “Sunday Supper.”

Sitting side-by-side at long tables set with white cloth in the museum’s main hall, we strangers became new acquaintances over a lovely meal, joined in breaking bread by our mutual desire and interest in understanding how art can and does catalyze change, especially in regard to a changing climate. I had hesitated to stay for this portion of the evening, and surely would have left much less inspired had I not.

The last Fresh Talk of the 2017 season, “Who are the new superwomen of the universe?” (Wednesday, June 14) will explore a “new wave of superheroines entering the comic universe, leading the fight for justice and dispelling traditional stereotypes in fiction and beyond.” Go. And stay for Catalyst, a cocktail hour with a topic and a twist.

Learn more about Fresh Talk here.

National Museum of Women and the Arts: 1250 New York Ave. NW, DC; 202-783-5000; www.nmwa.org

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.