Kamilah Rashied is dynamic, thoughtful, incisive, strategic, pointed, compassionate, talented and driven. She’s everything you’d hope to see encouraged & supported by one of our nation’s foremost cultural institutions. As the Assistant Director of Community Engagement at The Art Institute of Chicago, Kamilah produces. The events and programming she creates are part of a mix that helps grow real engagement by bringing people into the museum around accessible discussions and important perspectives.
She’s all about people and it shows.
It’s the kind of work in the art world that we love to see: making art institutions more accessible and democratic. She’s a fellow champion of art education, and our conversation is full of everything we want to see explode into the world.
Ahead we chat with Kamilah Rashied about her work, her inspiration, art, the state of the world in 2017, and the considerations needed to build Chicago’s creative future thoughtfully & collectively.
Kamilah: Evan, happy to participate, honored to be invited.
Tell our readers where you’re from, what brought you to Chicago, and what you’re up to these days.
I am originally from San Francisco. I was born there. Later my family moved to Decatur, Georgia. I grew up there for the most part. I came to Chicago for college in the summer of 1997 & I’ve been here ever since. I’ve always loved living and working here for many reasons. My favorite thing about this city is how much it embraces every kind of art. There are so many lanes for the arts to thrive. There are so many creative communities here and lots of cross-pollination, my work is really just an extension of those qualities.
As far as what’s going on these days, I recently worked on a two-part series with the Chicago Public Library for their One Book, One Chicago program. Its a great initiative they do annually that encourages reading through a selected book that cultural institutions use as context for all kinds of interdisciplinary programs across the city. This year the Art Institute is partnering with the Chicago Cultural Alliance to build a dialogue around food, culture and intersectionality.
That was on April 4 and April 6, and you can find more info about it here.
I’m also working on a another installment of a conversation series that I host at the museum called The Gathering. Our next conversation is titled: Outlaw as Hero. The conversation is all about creatives who disrupt institutions through participatory practices that leave the museum and activate the public in some way. This will be on April 27.
I also started a women’s collective that does itinerant events around town focused on the voices of women of color. The collective is called My Familiar Women’s Collective and we do monthly events that bring women from across the cultural sector together. This is a new thing I am working on.
I’m also working on producing a site for the upcoming Chicago Home Theater Festival in May. As part of the festival they are creating these Neighborhood Field Guide events at the Hyde Park Art Center every Sunday in March and April from 12:00pm to 4:00pm, leading up to the festival in May, which is city wide. Everyone should check out the festival theres something for everyone.
I’m working on some other stuff, but this will tide you over through May…
I grew up around art, so it’s hard to tell. My mother was a dancer in college and my father was a frustrated musician, so I was always surrounded by culture. I would have to think back to the first time I felt like it might be a significant part of my path in life……
I was thirteen years old and my mother was prone to giving me books that might explain womanhood. She’s cool that way. I think it was easier than talking about it directly. I could read a book and ask what I wanted to know through the characters, and she could respond in kind. It gave us a way to talk without talking. In hindsight, I have to applaud how gangster that is.
She gave me a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and it transformed forever what I understood art to be. Before that book, I thought art was only to be enjoyed, after it, I understood that art could advocate, it could heal, it could help you to process the world around, to see the very world itself, anew. I think that was the beginning for me.
I love it. You’re currently working in Community Programs for The Art Institute of Chicago. How did you approach the role & what’s your focus? How has the role changed?
Yes. That’s a big question. My job really has two strands, one is programming that is either highly collaborative with our peers that occurs within the museum or out in the community with our partners in Chicago neighborhoods; the other strand is steering across the programming wing. I am a part of the Department of Learning and Public Engagement and within the department much of my work behind the scenes is focused on shifting the culture within the programming wing. We want to deepen our relationship with the public. By this I mean more pointedly consider their preferences and expectations, and from there we can begin to use that feedback, that knowledge, to make our museum a more vibrant space that is a part of their lives, not just a place for an annual visit.
What have you found to be some of the better ways to solicit that feedback from folks? Digital or in real life?
The best ways are still the old fashioned ways. I hang around and ask people how they felt about it. I routinely hand out my business card and ask regular visitors or engaged first time visitors to send me feedback on their experience. I watch body language during activities as the program is happening. Do people look interested? Or are they bored? Its really quite simple. We do surveys on occasion, but people tend to provide prescribed answers, though they are very helpful, I do prefer to hear in real time what people think. It’s still the most powerful information I can receive about how we can improve.
How do you see the role of institutions like The Art Institute in the changing landscape of art access?
I think we have an opportunity to lead by example. Our venerable reputation provides a platform upon which we can not only advance our place in the filed through deepening our commitment to access for all, but also encourage others to do the same. I don’t know if that’s our role, but I do think our stature provides the opportunity to influence the culture of museums in Chicago and beyond.
Absolutely. And as a curator who also hosts & organizes events, I’ve seen first-hand how you’re helping lead by example. In fact, at the panel I was a part of recently we discussed the ways in which spaces have connotations, vibes, and intentions. The modern wing and the museum as a whole is epic. Do you envision other ways in which the opulence can be converted into a doorway for people who otherwise feel it to be an impediment?
I don’t find the space itself opulent. I find that people’s perception of the space is rooted in an idea of opulence based on the value placed on the objects within its confines. Add to that a series of common dogmas about what a typical museum goer might look like and there you have it. But these “impediments” are not really about tangible space. Its about the legacy of a space and how we think about it. How we edify it in real time. So when I think about possibility, what I am really thinking about is what will allow our public to think about this space (the museum) differently.
Very cool. Given the current political climate, how do you incorporate the state of the world in the way your team thinks about expanding membership and becoming relevant to residents who haven’t typically considered themselves art lovers?
I think this is another question that cannot be summed up easily. I will say this, we take our role as cultural providers very seriously. We have a lot of enthusiastic debate about how we can be responsive to world outside, but I think the current political climate poses a much larger question that challenges us all to think about our responsibility to the public, when so much of what we offer is about the history of human experience. This is something we are very much confronting right now within our confines. I would venture that every museum in the country is undergoing a similar process of self reflection. And it’s overdue.
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