Oglethorpe students expand diversity of its museum’s collection

Shanequa Gay (left) discusses her painting "La Pieta," with Isuan Oyakhire, an Oglethorpe senior biopsychology major, after its unveiling at the university’s art museum.

Shanequa Gay (left) discusses her painting "La Pieta," with Isuan Oyakhire, an Oglethorpe senior biopsychology major, after its unveiling at the university’s art museum.

Oglethorpe University’s Museum of Art was missing something, student leaders thought.

The gallery has grown threefold in the past three years, officials said, with classic century-old French paintings and other artwork. However, there are few pieces depicting the lives of people of color.

A group of Student Government Association leaders recently began an effort, with the help of faculty, to add some diversity to the 800-piece collection. On Friday, the students unveiled the first painting in the gallery by an African American woman. The museum has three works by African American artists. All of the artwork within the permanent collection was donated.

The painting by Georgia State University master’s degree student Shanequa Gay is meant to spotlight African American mothers whose sons have been killed in controversial police shootings and other racially charged incidents.

Students talk with artist and Georgia State University master’s degree student Shanequa Gay, (center) whose work "La Pieta," is the first painting in Oglethorpe's art museum by an African-American female artist.

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The students used $5,000 from Oglethorpe’s Student Government Association account to buy the piece, “La Pieta,” a painting that depicts a black woman holding her teenage son in her arms. University officials believe it’s the first time a student government association has conducted an effort to increase diversity in a campus art collection.

About 50 students, alumni and faculty attended the unveiling. Many rushed to Gay afterward to discuss the piece.

“When I thought about the African American males who are constantly coming up in the news and being killed, their names tended to overshadow the mothers. … Very rarely do you think about their families who have lost them,” Gay told the audience.

“This is such a big contrast to the works that are here, and I love it,” Nicole Kang, who graduated from Oglethorpe in 2013 and is the university’s special events manager, told a group of friends after the unveiling.

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Gay was one of 10 artists selected for "Off the Wall," an initiative led by WonderRoot and the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee to paint murals through much of the city for February's Super Bowl. Her work has appeared on several television shows and in art galleries throughout the South.

Student Government Association President Brad Firchow, a senior, said they chose “La Pieta” because “the work resonates with a lot of issues our generation is facing.”

Shanequa Gay stands next to her painting "La Pieta," after its unveiling at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art.

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Increasing racial diversity in art collections and among art gallery administrators is gaining momentum. A 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found nationally no more than 4% of museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders are African American, and 3% are Hispanic. The Walton Family Foundation in September gave Atlanta's Spelman College $5.4 million to create an educational pipeline into art museum leadership to increase diversity in that field.

Oglethorpe, located in Brookhaven, has nearly 1,300 students, and about 55% of them identified themselves as nonwhite, university officials said.

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Firchow, who is white, began talking to Museum Director Elizabeth Peterson and Curator of Collections John Daniel Tilford about adding diversity to the collection. The conversations included other student leaders such as Taylor Roberts, a Mellon Foundation Curatorial Fellow, and Black Student Caucus President Jordan Madison.

Roberts, a sophomore, said in remarks at the unveiling that Gay’s work “resembles (student) experiences and what they look like.” Madison, speaking in an interview, said the main goal of this effort was to “ignite” a belief in classmates that they can “make things like this happen for the community.”