Mickalene Thomas: Akron Art Museum refreshes its galleries to showcase more diverse artists

Kabir Bhatia & Jean-Marie Papoi, Ideastream Public Media, August 19, 2022


The Akron Art Museum is celebrating its centennial on the heels of a small fire, the controversial departure of its director and high staff turnover — and that was just during COVID. The museum is looking inward with a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative as well as the reinstallation of its galleries.


“You usually see about 3% of a museum’s collection, that’s usually what’s on view,” said Jared Ledesma, senior curator. “This reinstallation is the first time that we have ultimately moved a lot of those objects around, taking them off-view.”


Pieces such as Chuck Close’s “Linda” are now in storage while Ledesma has brought out other works from the 7,500-piece collection. He spent his first year on the job organizing the building into themes such as “The Otherworldly and the Fantastic,” “The Political Landscape,” and “Images of Blackness.” The latter is where visitors can see “Girlfriends and Lovers" by Mickalene Thomas.


Ledesma has moved the work to a more central location and said it shows how the artist is subverting a history that has been “very white-centric.”


“[When] we think about a historical painting of a model or a muse, what comes to mind is a white nude woman… being the subject of our gaze,” he said, striking a pose.

“Mickalene uses her own gaze as a Black queer woman in looking at her models and depicts them as very strong and depicting this type of Black femininity."


Ledesma acknowledges that here are currently no Black members of his staff, but he’s hoping to make his team more diverse in the future. And he’s highlighting pieces which speak to his identity as a queer Latino, such as a haunting painting by Chicago-based artist Herman Aguirre.



Ledesma came from Des Moines Art Center, and he said it’s important to him that “this museum in Akron represented its community.” A year before his arrival, Museum Director Mark Masuoka resigned amid allegations of bullying, racism and sexism. Since then, staff members formed a Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion committee.


“We talk about a really wide range of topics,” Ledesma said. “Diversifying our staff, and how do we do that? We talk about issues related to the displays in the gallery and accessibility… thinking about the font size of our labels for people who are vision impaired, the height that they're displayed.”


Ledesma said the committee’s focus aligns with changes at cultural institutions near and far.


“Since the murder of George Floyd, a lot of museums in particular have been under pressure about being kind of artifacts of colonialism and collections that are mostly composed from heterosexual cisgendered white men and – us included – in looking over our collection. So, we really wanted to showcase that we do have works by people of color in the collection [and] by women artists.”


Jared Ledesma joined the Akron Art Museum as senior curator last summer -- a year after Museum Director Mark Masuoka resigned amid controversy. Courtesy of

Jean Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media.


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