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.
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.”
Unlike a typical museum, where one might purchase a ticket to peruse a building full of exhibitions, KSMoCA’s programming has literally taken shape within and on the walls of the school. Given this unexpected location, the organizers have worked hard to cultivate the public’s perception of KSMoCA as a “museum,” in part, by producing traditional exhibitions. “Now that that’s happened to a pretty large extent it seems like, we’re able to try more unusual kinds of projects that museums wouldn’t traditionally do,” notes Fletcher.
Given the museum’s unconventional nature, it is fitting that KSMoCA will be releasing a print and online publication about how to create a museum in a public school. “We have received messages from people from all over the world who are looking at the [KSMoCA] website as a way to understand the project,” Evans reports.
KSMoCA continued to double down on its innovative approach since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In early 2020, all of Portland Public Schools shuttered and shifted to virtual learning. “You know, that first shock,” recalls Jarrett. “Everything just sort of ended.” Indoor operations took a backseat as KSMoCA’s organizers followed suit in the switch to virtual programming, offering a few online projects (e.g. Learning Outside the Lines and Conceptual Art at Home).
KSMoCA took a pause during the summer, and, in fall of 2020, re-launched virtual programming—this time bringing eight artists-in-residence along for the ride. These artists were tasked with developing virtual workshops for students as well as offering a series of lectures, which continue to be live-streamed over YouTube and archived for the public to enjoy on KSMoCA’s channel.
“We’re very much coming to this time and this work with an open mind, being really flexible,” notes Jarret, “understanding that that flexibility is leading us to learn things we never imagined we would probably be learning in this way.”
Paige Thomas (she/her)—International Baccalaureate Coordinator and Instructional Coach at the school—describes the recent shifts in KSMoCA’s programming. “I think that this year has really forced us to think about the intentionality of matching artists and teachers and classrooms together to make connections with content,” she reflects. “The more connecting points you can make between learning and experiences, the more educational opportunity there is within that.”
KSMoCA’s current roster of artists-in-residence includes Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (they/them), who has worked with the museum in the past. In 2019, Stevenson founded the Afro Contemporary Art Class (ACAC) at the school—a project that uses art to help young people of African descent learn more about histories and contexts that shape their lives.
In their fall KSMoCA artist lecture, Stevenson appears dressed as the vampire Blacula, a cinematic character recontextualized through their own creative practice. “I am creating the reality that I wish to be, see, experience, and share,” says Stevenson—adding that they hope others watching are inspired to do the same.
As a socially driven endeavor, KSMoCA appears to have a long future.
Fletcher mentioned that funding continues to increase and the museum recently received its second NEA grant, presumably strengthening its staying power. Socially engaged art projects in the US tend to have a reputation for being short-lived and extractive in many senses, but the organizers are well aware of this and have committed to never asking the school for money. “That’s a value we’ve held to,” Jarrett affirms, noting that she and Harrell have deprioritized their own compensation in fundraising efforts. “It signals to the school that we’re wanting to contribute, not extract.”
The museum is currently supported by a combination of grants and donations, volunteer time, and in-kind support from the school and Portland State University.
Nancy Rios (she/her)—the school’s Secretary and Project Coordinator—offers a perspective seasoned by 19 years on staff: “They’ve learned to adapt to the school system,” she explains, noting KMSoCA’s moments of trial and redirection over time. “They are really our true partnership. They didn’t come asking for money, wanting things, or wanting to be promoted. They actually came with the intention to really work and focus with our children,” says Rios.
“They really showcase and honor our kids, which we love.”
The museum finds additional staying power by creating opportunities for prolific artists working in the local community such as Intisar Abioto (she/her), creator of Black Portlanders.
During her fall artist-in-residence lecture, Abioto grounds her photography in locations familiar to the students. She shares photos of Black Portlanders taken very near the school campus in Albina—which has been home to Black families for many generations and continues to face rapid gentrification.
“Art is a practice to help you touch your dreams” Abioto says, displaying a personal photo. “These people are my dreams, you know, I care for them so deeply. And, for me, photography is one way to love others.”
The platform that KSMoCA seeks to build isn’t just for children and artists; it extends to families, teachers, administrators, undergraduate and graduate art students. All of these efforts involve cultivating relationships.
Michelle Peake, Counselor at the school, spoke specifically to the impact of the artist mentorship program, which pairs long-term artist mentors with students. “The matches were just so magical,” says Peake. “It got to the point where I had a parent say they wanted to be an art mentor because their kid was in it, and they saw the beauty of it, and they just wanted to be involved.” While COVID-19 constraints have put this program on hold for now, collaborative relationships continue to blossom in other ways.
“I feel really proud of the relationships that we’re building, and I feel really proud of how those relationships are holding and growing in this time in particular,” says Jarrett.
In order to keep the museum running smoothly during the pandemic, KSMoCA’s team meets virtually on a weekly basis with the team from the school. “This project would not be possible without the ongoing commitment and enthusiasm and willingness of these folks to meet with us,” Jarrett underscores. “It’s not their job.”
KSMoCA’s shift to virtual programming has also opened up new possibilities for building relationships with artists outside of Portland. “Because we’re all remote we can connect with someone like Paula Wilson (she/her) in her studio in New Mexico,” Evans shares. “If you haven’t watched that artist talk, it’s so amazing.”
She’s not wrong. Wilson’s guest lecture is transportive. She begins by virtually greeting viewers in her studio’s “chicken room”—an imaginative space with murals and structures that is home to four chickens and a rooster. “One thing that you’ll see in my work and in my spaces is a real desire to mix art and life together,” she says.
After saying goodbye to the chickens, Wilson moves to the next room and introduces viewers to her studio dog Dutchess, who “herds the chickens sometimes.” Wilson then proceeds to lead viewers through her studio—introducing them to breathtaking murals and multimedia installations, and her partner, woodworker Mike Lagg.
While KSMoCA strives to center the community and history of the school, working with technology also means the museum can function as a bridge between the school’s community and artists in distant locations. In Jarrett’s words, perhaps “students could potentially begin to understand that they don’t always have to be able to go to someplace physically to have a meaningful experience with a place.”
And, while KSMoCA has always prioritized introducing students to vocational possibilities in the arts, the chance to hear directly from professional artists in other parts of the world may help further expand this sense of possibility.
“What we’re hoping to contribute are enough experiences for the students so that the art world is an accessible place,” says Jarrett.
She adds, “but maybe we can also offer to the art world that it doesn’t have to be as limited and as closed as it often is.”
While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School has been referred to often with the abbreviation “King School,” the school staff and KSMoCA organizers both emphasize the importance of continuing to retain “Dr. MLK Jr.” in its title. These efforts honor the school’s history as well as the student-led initiative to return to its namesake.
Additionally, KSMoCA’s organizers underscore that the biggest impact individuals can have in supporting KSMoCA’s community during the pandemic is by donating to the Dr. MLK Jr School Family Stabilization Fund. Click HERE for more information on how to make a contribution.