Episode 2: Diversity in the Arts with Melanie Cohn
Speakers: William Menard, Melanie Cohn
Welcome to Norris Speaks-Immigration Forward, a limited podcasting series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. I’m your host, William Menard, a partner in the Immigration Department at Norris McLaughlin. On this episode, I’m joined by Melanie Cohn, Executive Director of the Visual Arts Center in New Jersey located in Summit, New Jersey. Northern and central New Jersey have large immigrant populations that have originated from every corner of the world, from Central America to the Middle East, from East Asia to West Africa, from Europe to the Caribbean. Melanie and the Visual Arts Center work closely with immigrant artists presenting a wide range of exhibitions. The Arts Center also works directly with schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a city with a high immigrant population, to provide art instruction to young students, many of whom are navigating the U.S. immigration system at home with their families. Melanie, thank you for joining me today.
Thanks for having me. I really appreciate the chance to talk about what we’re doing here at the Arts Center.
Great! I mentioned that the Arts Center features artists who have immigrated to the U.S., so what are the, some of the countries that they’ve come from, and how do they arrive at the Arts Center? Do you contact them directly? Do they reach out to you? How does it work?
Yeah, one of our goals at the Arts Center, when it comes to work that we display, is to reflect the demographics of our community. So, we really want to have diverse voices as part of our program. I mean, artistic excellence is always probably our first thing.
So, it’s really about having great artists, and that being said, we find artists who’ve come to the U.S. from all over the world. Recently, you know, we’ve had an artist from India, Spendi Demalik . We’ve worked with artists from Ecuador and Mexico, and we’re currently planning a show of artists who have Caribbean heritage, so from a number of countries in the Caribbean region. I think it’s just really important for us, like, as you say, you know, here in New Jersey, we’re a really diverse community, so to be giving everybody’s voice an opportunity to be heard through our exhibition program.
You know Summit is a very nice town, but it’s pretty small. How do you find these people, or how do they find you?
Yeah, well, we have a curator, Mary Birmingham, and Mary’s job is really to have her eye out all of the time for artists. And she, sometimes artists, I think you asked, sometimes artists do reach out to her. She’s going to exhibitions all the time in New Jersey, also in New York City or in the Pennsylvania region. So, she’s out looking at shows all of the time, and she sees somebody’s work that she’s really interested in. She reaches out to them, and she’ll go on studio visits. And a lot of times these are relationships that last years. So, she might be following 100, 120 artists over several years. And then a lot of times it has to do, like, she might see a number of artists working along a similar theme.
She might build an exhibition along a particular theme, and sometimes it might just be one particular artist who’s doing a body of work that she thinks is particularly interesting to save that she wants to really highlight. So could be like either of those things that happen, and that brings an artist into the Arts Center.
And for instance, you mentioned an artist who came from India, that was kind of the first person that you mentioned. What kind of perspective does she bring that maybe somebody who, you know, a family that’s been in the U.S. for generations or whatever, what does a new immigrant to the U.S. offer in their exhibition? What kind of perspective did they bring?
Well, I mean I think a lot of times there are just specific cultural differences that an artist, you know, kind of shares in their work and it influences their story. And so, they share that difference in their work itself. And I think that Spendi Demalik is the artist that we had a show up here fairly recently within the last year, and her work, she’s a photographer initially. She actually goes back to India and works with women in India, and she takes photographs of them, and she puts the photograph onto a cloth. And then the women that she photographs, they do traditional embroidering back into those photographs so that the final artwork is the photo that Spendi took. And then the woman whose photograph it is actually having embellished on top of it with their own embroidery work. It’s kind of a really beautiful example because it’s taking what is basically a heritage-based art form, embroidery, you know, something that’s passed on from generation to generation within the home, is very culturally specific to India. Although a lot of different cultures, of course, do embroidery, these particular embroidery methods are centered in India. It’s kind of this combination of a contemporary art practice, that being photography, along with a heritage-based practice, that being this embroidery, and also the artist’s viewpoint, and that being the portrait alongside the women’s own embellishment of their portraits with the embroidery. So, it’s a really beautiful marriage. And I think that that’s kind of what you see in terms of a lot of artists’ artwork. You know, they’re speaking from their own culture. A lot of times it’s influenced by their current life, which might be in the United States, but they’re bringing with them their viewpoints from the life they had at home, you know, from whatever home country that they’re coming from. And I think that that’s really beautiful. And if you were like myself, who might come to the work, it allows me the chance to see the world a little differently. And to have different viewpoints that kind of enrich my own life, which I think is something all art forms do, whether they’re visual or music or literature, kind of allow you the chance to broaden your own perspective through the lives of someone else.
I’m sure you talked to this artist, and what was the significance of putting their work in the context of a show in the United States and in New Jersey, you know, they’ve taken the art out of their home city or town or wherever they’re from, and they put it into an American context. What’s the significance of that to the artists?
Spendida lives in the United States right now. And I think, uh, you know, a lot of the artists that we work with are immigrants. They are living in the U.S. And I think that everybody’s different. Every artist is different. Every individual is different. I think for an artist, a lot of times you are sharing something that’s important to you. You’re sharing maybe a viewpoint or a set of ideas that are really deeply meaningful to you through the visual medium, because for some reason it’s important. It’s like part of your life to want to share that vision with other people. So, I think it’s really natural for artists who are immigrants to really want to share the richness of their background through their art in one way or another, because it’s really speaking to who they are and, you know, kind of sharing their unique story with the world. It’s kind of my viewpoint. I think every artist is different, and kind of what every artist is doing is different. But I do think as an artist, you are trying to give your own unique viewpoint. And so that of course includes your history, right? Like where you’re from originally.
Well, I think that’s interesting because we read a lot in the news and see a lot of people’s stories about how they came here. You know, you’ll see testimonials or articles summarizing people’s stories. You don’t hear much or see much about artists, you know, immigrants telling their stories in an art form other than in writing. It’s much, much less common. So, tell me a little more about, I guess, what that means to that artist to tell it in a different way. And then also, what does it mean to your community? You talked about your own perspective of how you feel. What does that mean to the other people that come to the exhibition?
I think representation does really matter. Right? So, an artist might just be wanting to share kind of, like I said before, like their personal story. But I do think that can be really meaningful to people who share a similar story, because when they enter the museum space to see a story that is similar to their own story, or to see people represented in a picture that look like themselves and their own families, it makes you feel like your story matters. And I think that that’s very powerful, right? I think one of the things that museums have really been struggling with, especially more traditional museums, is that in a lot of museums, like if you think of the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a European collection. If you go into that European wing, you’re going to see a lot of European faces. And I think that the Met is kind of fortunate because their collection shows a lot of different peoples. So, you can go into different rooms and see different people. But I think for many contemporary art museums, like the Visual Arts Center, you know, there’s been a history of just perhaps showing a more Eurocentric history in the past. And I think over the last many years now — I mean, I would actually say in the museum worlds really since the nineties, perhaps, or even the eighties — there’s been a movement to show more people’s stories that has become a stronger and stronger kind of imperative for museums to show more diverse voices and to show more stories. So, the people coming into the space do, at times, you know, maybe not every time they visit in a contemporary art museum like mine, we don’t have a collection. So, we show different people every three months. So, you might not see yourself every time you come into the space. But our goal is that if you were visiting across, you know, a year, that when you came into the space, you would see people like yourself on our walls, you know, no matter your background. That you would see an artist who did have a background that you could relate too. That’s really the goal. And I think it’s just inclusive, right? It’s important to be able to see yourself reflected in the artwork because it makes you feel like you belong.
Oh yeah, of course. Anyone who’s viewing a work of art is looking for what it means to them. Of course, it’s going to mean something different to every person and kind of in that theme, and it sounds like, kind of on that theme of inclusion, you obviously try to reach an audience and new artists, but you’re also trying to reach people at a much younger age. And I know that the Arts Center does work with various schools, but one of those is the public schools in Elizabeth. So why don’t you tell me a little about what the Arts Center does with those schools.
Yeah, I mean, Elizabeth is a great partnership that the arts center has had for several years now. And it’s really grown over those years. We offer programs with the student body of Jefferson High School and with every middle school in the district. And then a program that is a newer program for us, that I especially find powerful, is the program that we do with the bilingual program in Elizabeth, which is primarily, you know, people who are immigrants, students who are immigrants. And we work with Patricia Lanas who developed the system called Kulta 21 , where we train the bilingual teachers to use art works to help students with language acquisition, English language acquisition, and also for them to be able to look at any work and kind of relate to the work through their own personal narratives. It’s a very powerful program. Part of the reason that that program is so powerful is because as a viewer, it allows us to work with the kids in the Elizabeth School District to learn how to look at works through their own personal narrative, being informed by their own personal narrative, regardless of who the artist is, per se. They understand the work, they’re encouraged to share how they see the work through their own personal stories.
And how is that kind of specifically affecting and impacting kids from immigrant communities? You know, a lot of these kids are maybe undocumented themselves, or they may be U.S. citizens who were born here, who have parents who are undocumented or what are called mixed status households, where some people are citizens, and some people aren’t. How is that impacting the work that you do and how does it impact the kids?
Number one, like, the kids are amazing. The kids that we work with are such a great group of kids. And I’ll also, I want to say that the Elizabeth School District, it is always such a pleasure to work with them because they care so much about the kids. And one of the things that Elizabeth School District really wanted to do as part of the program was, they really saw it as a way for the kids to learn how to advocate for themselves, not be afraid to speak up, find their own voice, especially if you’re coming to a second language and you’re learning a second language. I’ve been learning Spanish for five years now. I can understand it pretty well, but it’s so scary for me to speak in Spanish, especially with native Spanish speakers. I can understand, but it’s really intimidating for me to speak. So, a lot of these kids that come in from Elizabeth, like sometimes they’ve only been speaking English for like a year, two years. Like it’s actually a relatively new language for them, and they come in and they talk about the artwork that they see, what feelings it brings up, why what they’re seeing brings up certain feelings in them. And the only way, I think, for us when we’re learning a new language, to really start to have confidence in our ability to communicate, is to do that, to really have that chance to talk and be heard. So, I think that that’s the real power of the program. The kids are sharing their own story while they look at the work. And at the same time, I will tell you that kids are seeing this work so deeply. So, I’ve been with the groups as they’ve looked at work and talked about the work that they’re seeing, and I’ve seen the work through their eyes in a whole new way, because we all see things differently actually. So, kids have come in and looked at work and talked about how figures are sitting within the frame and shared it through the lens of their own stories. It’s all relevant. I’ve started to experience work differently through seeing the work through their eyes and through their stories. It’s just super enriching, I think, for all of us to take part in it, the kids, the teachers, and the staff here at the Arts Center. It’s really special as a community to share our own personal stories and to look at artworks together, because it really does bring out new meanings and new ways of looking at things.
And I, I don’t want to put you on the spot too much, but can you think of one example of that type of experience where a kid, an immigrant family, has kind of seen work or made work in a different way that impacted you directly?
I have a couple of them, but we had one work by an artist named Simon Dinnerstein, a triptych, on display a couple of years ago. We had a group of kids come in with Kulta , and that triptych is kind of interesting because on one panel, you have a portrait of the artist, who is a white male. On another panel you have a portrait of the wife, who’s holding a child in her lap, the daughter. So, they are separated by a third panel. That’s a workbench that is the artist’s workbench, and it has all of the tools of the trade on the work bench. And it’s a beautiful portrait. It’s very, very detailed. And we had the kids come in and look at it. And one of the kids said that to him, it was interesting that the mother and child were separated from the father and to him, it spoke to the father perhaps having to be away from the rest of the family as he was working. And that the work was actually what was separating them. And that was obviously from this child’s own experience. Right? That his family had to be separated when the father was working or had been at some point working elsewhere from the rest of the family. So, it was very moving. But what’s interesting, I had never looked at the picture that way, but what is really interesting is that indeed the father who had painted the picture had been separated from the mother and the daughter while he was working. So, during the painting of that painting, actually, they were separated. So, it was also completely relevant to the work. I had just never looked at the work through that lens before. It had never occurred to me that that was actually part of the narrative of the picture, even though it was. This young man had saw it, like he saw it through his own personal lens, he noticed it and he was right.
I think that is a good note to end on. This has been Norris Speaks-Immigration Forward, a limited podcast series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. I want to thank my guest, Melanie Cohn, and you the listener for being a part of the conversation. Be sure to tune in next time for a brand-new episode. If you’d like to reach to me directly, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’d like to learn more about our work feel free to visit our website at nationalimmigrationlawyers.com. Thank you for listening and if you enjoyed the program, we would appreciate it if you could leave us a five-star review on your favorite podcasting platform. We hope you can join us next time.