By Shelley Hill Young
There’s the old expression “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” But how often do you take the time to really consider what that means and actually think and feel from another person’s point of view? Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art, says that’s what she’s learning at the Riley Institute Diversity Leaders Initiative.
“There have been some amazing aha moments listening to other people’s approaches to culture and the culture of our region, which has its tremendous burdens in terms of enslaved people,” Angela says.
The Riley Institute brings together about 40 leaders from the Lowcountry each fall to discuss challenges around diversity and to identify ways to make a difference in the community. Participants are nominated to attend. The institute’s mission is to help community leaders identify blind spots, learn how to suspend assumptions and break down barriers that hinder progress.
Angela says museums are cultural organizations that should be for everyone in the community. She says the Gibbes strives to create a comprehensive context for the works it presents. But, she says, you have to look beyond the written word and try to understand how the history of the region impacts people today.
So far, Angela says she’s learned that there’s a much wider disparity in ways people interpret history today than she thought. “There’s still very deep feelings about certain aspects of our history, which is extremely important and should be talked about,” she says.
Angela, who has worked at the art museum since 1981 and served as director since 2008, says art can play a role in sparking those conversations about race and diversity and fostering understanding. She points to a 2008 exhibit called “Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art,” which she organized when she was deputy director of curatorial affairs. The exhibit brought together for the first time the images of plantations and asked how that imagery has affected race relations for centuries.
“It was fairly controversial,” Angela recalls. “But, at the same breath, it got a lot of people talking. Of the many, many exhibitions that the Gibbes has done over the years, the visitors to that particular show were the most diverse that we have ever had. … It was extremely gratifying. People really came together for conversation.”
Angela says she’d love to expand that exhibit in the future to include Central and South America and the Caribbean to reflect that slavery was a global economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“It would broaden the whole concept of slavery as a global economy for a period of time. It’s all intertwined,” she says. “Looking at North America and what happened in the American South is important, but it’s also important to see the even larger picture.”
Angela, a Spartanburg native, is not one to shy away from a challenge. As a female in a leadership role, she said “any attitudes I have picked up on have only made me more determined.” She views herself like a lot of women: “You put a challenge in front of them and they just use it to strengthen themselves and overcome it.”
She says she is particularly inspired by working to develop a community project with a small group of peers at the Riley Institute. Working with the group, many of whom had not met before, requires you to listen to different points of view and make compromises, she says.
“It’s a microcosm of how the world should work,” she says. “It’s just so gratifying to see that in process. … “It can happen and it can happen with people who have completely different backgrounds, as long as you are willing to come to the table with an open mind and respect the other person. It’s really quite amazing.”