By Helen Bezuneh
Special to the AFRO
It’s been almost two months and Jenenne Whitfield is still not sure what motivated her former employer, the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) to remove her as its director. A press release from the museum’s Board of Directors did not specify why they decided to part ways with the former director–– and Whitfield is not any more privy to their motivations, she told the AFRO.
“The bottom line is that they let me go,” Whitfield said. “I was told what you were told – that we were ‘going in different directions.’ I truly don’t know anything more. That happened on Sept. 19. Obviously it was a shock to me.”
In the Sept. 21 press release, Christopher Goelet, chair of the board of directors, spoke on behalf of the Board.
“After an extensive review of issues essential to the strategic growth of AVAM, the Board of Directors decided to part ways with Jenenne Whitfield as director,” he stated. “While deeply unfortunate, the Board nonetheless appreciates Ms. Whitfield’s contributions over the past year and wishes her well in her future endeavors.”
Whitfield, co-founder of the United Artists of Detroit and president of the highly praised Heidelberg Project, an outdoor arts space in Detroit, assumed her role as director in September 2022. AVAM recruited her from Detroit following the retirement of founder and former director Rebecca Hoffberger.
“I wasn’t actually looking to leave Detroit, but it happened,” she said. “When I went to visit the museum, I really fell in love with the concept and the idea of using art and creativity as a means to promote compassion and hope. I decided that I would take that leap.”
Whitfield was the first director of the acclaimed museum after the retirement of its founder Rebecca Hoffberger.
“My role was obviously to lead the next chapter of the museum, so that’s what I did,” she said.
While at AVAM, Whitfield dedicated time to familiarizing herself with the city.
“I did the kind of work that would really require a person to be on the ground and getting to know the community where the museum is functioning and operating. By me being new to Baltimore, I definitely had to hit the ground running. I began building relationships and looking at ways in which I could make my footprint in the museum and define what the new leadership would look like for AVAM,” she said.
While AVAM’s board did not state a reason for Whitfield’s ouster, she said the decision prompted her to reflect on the broader problems confronted by women of color in leadership.
“What I really am more concerned about, to be perfectly honest with you, is the mass exodus of women of color out of these leadership roles,” she told the AFRO.
She said what’s “crystal clear” is that oftentimes “leadership” is not clearly defined nor are institutions properly prepared for change.
“What I’m finding to be so dynamic and powerful is I’m not alone, number one. And there is a community in Baltimore that is just really a community of bada– women,” she said. “Many of them knew of my work here in Detroit… . And they were just so powerful in supporting me and letting me
know that they know what the deal is. They were a safety net for me, to the extent that I’m really not interested in leaving Baltimore.”
Whitfield elaborated on the stress Black women face within the workplace.
“Quite frankly, the whole idea of dismantling the White supremacy process, it’s a whole construct,” she said. “It’s been devised and created by people who really have not been open to the views and opinions and thoughts and processes of other people. When you talk about how you might succeed–or not–in an environment like that, women, in particular Black women, women of color, are so accustomed to always finding ways to make things work. It’s just part of our DNA. Meanwhile, our physical and mental health is going to hell in a handbag. That is an issue and that is a problem.”
She said women of color often put pressure on themselves because they know they are always under scrutiny.
“We’re being put through a magnifying glass that is much narrower and smaller than anybody else,” Whitfield continued. “You literally find yourself in situations where you are wanting to be perfect, so you walk a very fine line. There is no margin for error and there is no real training that helps you to understand what the playbook is. You are not invited into the playbook or to review the playbook– you’re charting your own path and in the meantime, you’re trying to make sure that you’re covering all of your bases and that you are being open and you are being transparent. It becomes a lot of pressure.”
The local community was saddened to hear of her departure from AVAM, Whitfield said.
“I did my job and I did it well,” she said. “I think the evidence of that was the outcry from the community. Those that I got to know, the relationships that I was building, the way in which I wanted to strengthen AVAM’s presence within the community and the camaraderie that I was building with many of the staff. That all speaks for itself.”
Leslie King-Hammond, artist, art historian and founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, spoke with the AFRO about the turbulent relationship between cultural institutions and their diverse communities.
“Cultural institutions were created for a privileged class,” she said. “The geography or the location where the cultural institution was located often was not open to the working class general citizenry. It was a kind of system of patronage that catered to those who had access and privilege.
She continued, “We are now in a time where cultural institutions have become the center of a city. And the institution has a responsibility to reach out and engage the community and reflect the interests of the community as well as the mission of what that institution is all about.”
King-Hammond said the exodus of women of color from the helms of different organizations can be attributed to a lack of will required to address issues of equity and inclusion.
“As we look at the problem, we see that institutions are not necessarily prepared to deal with diversity, equity and inclusion other than to hire someone to come in to address these concerns,” she said. “When they look at what is required to become more diverse, inclusive and equity to all parties concerned, they invariably find fault with the person that they have hired and they let them go or force them to retire. This has become a national trend, which is extremely distressing, depressing and very much concerning because we wonder about the health of those institutions and how they’re going to survive if they don’t have a relationship with the community in which they exist.”
Whitfield said she seeks to be among those finding solutions to address the challenges that women of color encounter in leadership roles.
“I think that leadership is not prepared for all of the social changes that are trying to be implemented now,” she said. “There needs to be better training, there needs to be better cooperation, and quite frankly many of these institutions probably just need to dig it up from the roots and start all over.”
She is also excited about her future work in the art space, she said.
“I have always been a huge mentor to the next generation,” she said. “I had hoped to start what I called the Next Generation, Next Gen as an adjunct group to the museum. The other issue with museums is that they’re losing a lot of their audiences because younger people aren’t trained to hear someone curating their experience. They want to curate their own experience. And they want to have a different engagement and interaction in the museum experience. I want to do some forward thinking, futuristic things that are embodying the younger people and helping them to make these new constructs.”
“I think there is a future in Baltimore,” Whitfield added. “I think it either might be in teaching, training, or who knows. We’ll see.”