Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

The Art of Learning: KSMoCA adapts to the pandemic

The innovative museum inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School has stayed ahead of the creative curve during Covid-19

What is an art museum? Some would say it’s a classic cocktail of white walls, rare art objects, and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Others might say it’s an ivory tower that thrives on cultural extraction. However, for the students of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, an art museum is an experience built into the very fabric of their learning environment. 

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (aka KSMoCA) began in 2013 as a collaboration between two parties—the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University and the school in Northeast Portland. This one-of-a-kind museum continues to flourish and adapt to changing conditions. Since its inception, KSMoCA has developed an array of arts programming including rotating exhibitions featuring works by local and visiting artists—Melanie Stevens, Laylah Ali, Byron Kim, and Hank Willis Thomas to name a few. 

Museum Co-Directors Lisa Jarrett (she/her) and Harrell Fletcher (he/him), along with KSMoCA’s Program Director Amanda Leigh Evans (she/her), caught up with me to discuss developments in KSMoCA’s programming since the COVID-19 pandemic. They also invited me to meet some of their collaborators on the school staff. 

Students running outside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

In many ways, KSMoCA reads like a larger study in creation of alternate realities. It iterates on pre-existing institutional frameworks to conjure something distinct within the landscapes of both art and education.

All of KSMoCA’s core organizers teach at PSU. However, it was actually the school that planted the seed for this unlikely collaboration seven years ago. “Essentially, the then-principal [Kim Patterson] reached out to Harrell [Fletcher] to see if there was an interest in connecting the programming for the Social Practice MFA students with the site at MLK Jr. School,” Jarrett explains.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Changes in the school’s leadership brought new collaborators to this growing vision. These include Jill Sage (she/her), now in her sixth year as Principal. In discussing KSMoCA, Sage spoke about the intention to de-center whiteness in the art community while simultaneously broadening conceptions of what being an artist means. 

“It’s not about what adults think or having some kind of prescribed product,” says Sage. “It’s really about creating a space for kids to explore with some support, and tutelage, and just exposure, really, to different ideas.”