When the High Museum of Art’s “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” exhibition officially opens on Thursday, it will signify a couple of important firsts for the museum.
It will be the only time the work of iconic Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera has been shown at a major museum in the Southeast. That is a point the High has been touting with a good bit of pride, particularly since Atlanta will be the only United States venue for the show.
But there is another, less obvious point that has the potential to expand the High’s audience in the long-term at a time when it is trying to grow. For the first time the museum’s interpretative part of a show, including signage, recorded audio guides and labeling for each work in “Frida and Diego” will be in Spanish as well as English. And in anticipation of a more diverse audience exhibit, each Sunday there will be bilingual translators present. It is part of the museum’s long-term plan to bring in more Latino visitors and new members.
"Over the past four or five years we’ve been trying to bring in a younger audience,” said Virginia Shearer, director of education for the High, but there are also opportunities to make it more racially and economically diverse. “We want our clientele to reflect the city. We want everyone to feel welcome.”
A spokesperson for the High’s marketing department said that the museum does not keep official demographic numbers, such as race and income, on its members and visitors. Twice a year however, the museum has a consulting firm conduct voluntary intercept surveys with handfuls of visitors inside the museum where some demographic information is gathered, said Shearer. While it does not represent the whole of visitors to the museum in a given year, Shearer said, it does give the High a sense of who is coming through its doors. Based on those surveys the High saw that it could improve its numbers in terms of African American, Asian and Latino visitors, she said.
About a year and a half ago, when the planning for the exhibit was taking shape, top managers at the High began contacting a range of formal and grassroots organizations across the Latino community in metro Atlanta to figure out ways to partner for the exhibition. The museum often partners with a range of different groups for upcoming shows, but in this case it wanted to bring in one of those under-served audiences.
Gabriela Gonzalez-Lamberson, is the executive director of the Instituto de Mexico, which functions as the cultural arm of the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta. She said there was a tremendous amount of opportunity surrounding the partnership, from bringing in school groups, sponsoring family days and other activities. But there were also some potential hurdles.
“It’s a cultural barrier and economic barrier for many,” Gonzalez-Lamberson said. “You’re talking about a perceived notion that ‘I’m not sure this art venue will welcome me,’ or worrying about ‘not seeing anybody who looks like me or speaks like me,’ or ‘I don’t want someone to judge me when I’m speaking Spanish to my mother or translating for her.’ It’s a barrier that’s going to take some time to break through.”
The Instituto has been working with the High over the past 18 months to overcome that hurdle, bringing museum staff members to venues within the community and holding informal meetings with community groups to let them know that the museum is open to them. There will also be specific events, from films to free-days, throughout the show aimed at broader Latino audience. The High is also working with the Latin American Association, a social service agency, to target middle- and high-school students to get them participating in arts programs throughout the year, and to train them to potentially be tour guides for the museum, regardless of whether a show’s featured artist is Latino or not.Already in after-school programs sponsored by the Latin American Association, the students are studying about Kahlo and Rivera in anticipation of visiting the museum, said Isabel Perez, director of youth programing for the association.
“How many times can we see a Latino artist in a major museum, then seeing [the exhibit] be bilingual,” Perez said. “This means a lot to us. And for the kids it opens up possibility by having that exposure. They might start thinking about careers and opportunities in the arts they might not have thought of before.”
“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting”
Feb. 14-May 12, Noon-5 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. $16.50-$19.50. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
A series of “Frida & Diego” events are schedule during the run of the show. Here are three to consider:
Party with a Passion. Celebrate opening night with live music, salsa dancing and Frida impersonators. 6-10 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 14. $25 singles, $40 couples.
Mexican film series. Nine classic and contemporary films, including a collection of shorts, a documentary on Rivera and “Maria Candelaria,” the 1946 Cannes Film Festival winner, screen 8 p.m. every Saturday, Feb. 23-April 27. $7; Rich Theatre.
Lecture. Consulting curator Elliott King discusses the artists and their work. 2 p.m., Feb. 23; Free
All events at the High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, 404-733-4444, www.high.org