Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Charlena Wynn
In the last decade or so, displaying Black art has become in vogue, highlighted by a desire to appear as a post-racial society while simultaneously witnessing Black death online and in real life. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder (and many others across genders), many organizations were forced to grapple with the lack of racial and gender diversity within staffing and their social media presence as well as the racist work cultures. This spread to museums and galleries as well. Black artists, curators, and museum professionals called out these cultural institutions for their complicated histories – past and presently.
Where do Black museums fit into this narrative?
There are about 109 museums across the United States with a focus on Black and/or African culture. Of those, most focus on the history of Black Americans and other African Diasporic people rather than art. One of the few museums dedicated to contemporary African Diasporic art is in San Francisco, California. In 1999, the City of San Francisco wanted to create an African American cultural presence in Yerba Buena Gardens as San Francisco’s Black population was decreasing.
In 2005, the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) opened its doors and in recent years, MoAD has rebranded as a contemporary art museum focused on sharing the art of those throughout the continent of Africa and the diaspora such as the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe. MoAD is an essential part of the fabric of San Francisco and the Bay Area but also the United States and the globe as it is a space to curate, share, and document African Diaspora art and literature.
What sets MoAD apart from other museums besides its focus on contemporary Black art, is the bookstore. Since September of 2021, I have served as the Visitor Experience (VEX) Manager and manage the bookstore as well as the front desk. MoAD houses the last Black store in San Francisco with a goal to share the works of Black authors in fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, art books, and cookbooks. The number of Black bookstores has decreased over the years. They are essential pillars in communities, as they often serve as spaces for less known Black authors to sell their books, community members to convene and share ideas, and share resources.
The work my team and I do at the bookstore is underscored by MoAD’s mission which celebrates Black cultures, engages in critical conversations, and inspires learning through the global lens of the African diaspora. We are constantly purchasing new titles as well as classic Black literature including sharing the books of local Bay Area authors such as self-published works via consignment. Some of those include Blatant Zine, a local Zine, and Umber, a themed graphic journal, as well as BPP Digest (the Black & Brown Perspective), a smaller version of Umber. Consignment, much like the Emerging Artists Program which shares the talent of Bay Area artists with MoAD members and guests, works similarly to expose the literary works of Black authors to everyone who enters the doors.
MoAD bookstore recognizes the diversity of Black experiences within the US and across the Diaspora and strives to ensure the titles reflect that. As VEX Manager, I have been privileged to share new works highlighting Black LGBTQ and disabled perspectives as well as a range of African descent artists in the realm of fiction and nonfiction alongside the Public Program’s African Book Club and MoAD’s partnership with Noname Book Club in which those participating in either or both clubs can purchase from a local bookstore rather than a huge corporation. I am in the beginning phases of expanding our Children’s and Young Adult section around visual arts
While MoAD is a contemporary art space this extends beyond visual arts. We recognize the importance of being the last Black bookstore in San Francisco and what that means for our communities. As the Black community decreases in San Francisco, we hope to continue to be a central figure for the remaining Black communities in the area and a presence in the Yerba Buena Arts District. It has been a great honor to expand the bookstore and continue to share texts that deal with difficult conversations around race, body, incarceration, and immigration as well as uplifting the texts and works of Black authors who otherwise might be shunned in other bookstores and libraries.
This work is critical, especially during these turbulent times as books are being banned, Black bookstores close due to funding, and many states are writing bills to stop the teaching of the full history of the United States. Many of the books being banned are by Black authors and can be found at our bookstore all year long. MoAD bookstore is a space of refuge and an incubator for learning. We believe deeply in sharing the voices of Black people even when it may be uncomfortable or force ourselves to re-examine what we once thought. The books we offer often contextualize art as well as the breadth of Black experiences around the globe.
As an artist and someone who is extending my community to the Bay Area, MoAD is important to my artistic development as well as my commitment to building community. I feel seen in the work that I do as a museum professional but also as an artist. It is here that I have had the opportunity to work with other Black artists who share a deep love for not only sharing art from other Black artists across the African Diaspora, but witness and learn from Black art and share pieces of ourselves, our communities, and our passions through our own practice. Black spaces like MoAD allow for our (Black artists) creativity to percolate and to be shared and seen by each other. And for us to document the important artistic cultural practices across the Diaspora. Black cultural institutions are more than spaces to house art or books, but also to activate change, share ideas, tangible resources, and information, and provide solace. Black museums and bookstores matter.
While many will visit our bookstore in person and online during the month of February, we hope that guests will utilize MoAD for their primary book shopping needs beyond so that we continue to do this important work sharing and providing an important space for Black artists and authors alike.
About the Author
Charlena Wynn, raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, is an arts educator, fine arts curriculum designer, art historian, part-time curator, and amateur fiber and collage artist and painter exploring the Black queer Atlantic, death, and memory. They graduated from the University of North Carolina Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art and minor in Psychology and earned their MA in Liberal Studies focused on museums and racialized gender from North Carolina State University. Before relocating to The East Bay, they lived in Alexandria, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Greensboro, North Carolina and spent several months in Carmarthenshire, Wales, UK studying Blackness within 18th century British art. They are deeply invested in building and cultivating Black, southern queer communities through mutual aid and other material resources, prison abolition (including in schools), and advocating for disabled educators and living wages.
In September 2021, Charlena joined MoAD as the Visitor Experience Manager in which they are excited to continue the work of their predecessor in sharing a wide range Black and African literature, representing the goals and mission of MoAD, and ensuring MoAD continues as a valuable resource to the community it serves. In this role, they plan to extend the reach of the bookstore, the last Black-owned bookstore in San Francisco, to a wider audience and share more literature focused on art, children and young adults, disability, and Black LGBTQ history as well as maintaining and expanding the scope of accessibility.