Interview with Monocle’s The Urbanist

One of the many great things about attending CityLab 2016 in Miami was the opportunity to speak with inspiring and talented leaders from across various professional fields. This included conversations with some great journalists, including the one I had with Megan Billings, Deputy Bureau Chief at Monocle. I’m a big fan of Monocle magazine and I enjoyed speaking with Ms. Billings about the work of the Arab American National Museum. The interview was published by Monocle’s The Urbanist podcast (episode 265).

screenshot of The Urbanist podcast, episode 265
The Urbanist podcast, episode 265
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Sharing Our Innovative Work at CityLab 2016

I’m immensely excited to be in Miami for CityLab 2016. Over the next few days, attendees will explore both challenges and innovative approaches to creating more sustainable and vibrant cities. I have the honor of serving on a breakout session on Monday, October 24 called Community Building with Arts and Culture. Moderated by Sammy Hoi, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, the panel will also include Franklin Sirmans, director of the Perez Art Museum Miami; and Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, founders and artistic directors of The Good Chance Theatre. I am humbled to be joined by such a distinguished list of presenters.

Here is the summary overview of our panel:

Two top museum directors working in diverse and, at times, divided cities, will explore the power of the arts to break down division and foster community, particularly across racial and ethnic lines. Franklin Sirmans of Miami’s Perez Art Museum and Devon Akmon of the Arab American National Museum will share strategies for how to use art as a lever for cross-cultural dialogue, They will be joined by Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy of the Good Chance Calais, a pro bono theater company which these two young British playwrights started in the infamous Calais Jungle refugee camp. Despite lacking plumbing, roofs over their heads, or much to eat, refugees from a host of nations came together under the Good Chance tenet and made art. In this session, inspiring anecdotes and clear cut strategic advice will be shared with a common goal of helping participants to reflect on how art connects us, highlighting our common humanity.

CityLab is presented by The Atlantic, in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute. The event is officially described as:

Dedicated to highlighting innovation and effective practices in urban governance, CityLab gathers the world’s most creative mayors and city practitioners with artists, academics, funders, and other public and private sector leaders focused on improving cities and spreading urban strategies that work.

Follow the discussion online with the Twitter hashtag #CityLabMIA.

CityLab Brochure

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Panel Presentations in Washington, DC (Oct. 18/19, 2016)

2016 Smithsonian Affiliations Annual Conference
Opening Session: Saluting our Past, Shaping our Future
October 18, 2016 at the Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian

  • Moderated by Harold A. Closter, Director, Smithsonian Affiliations
  • Devon Akmon, Director, Arab American National Museum
  • Sarah Holbrooke, Executive Director, The Pinhead Institute
  • Allyson Nakamoto, Director of Education, Japanese American National Museum
  • Jose Santamaria, Executive Director, Tellus Science Museum

Affiliate partnerships can be enriching and occasionally transforming. What have we learned from 20 years of experimentation and collaboration, and what do we envision for the future? Four Smithsonian colleagues offer their keynote insights into the power of partnership and the ways in which working together has benefitted their organization and community, while helping the Smithsonian fulfill its national outreach mission.


Middle East Institute and the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University

The Art of Immigration: How Immigrant Artists Enrich America
October 19, 2016 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • Moderated by Monica Gomez-Isaac, Executive Director at the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR), George Mason University
  • Devon Akmon, Director, Arab American National Museum
  • Huda Asfour, Musician & Composer and Co-Founder of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival
  • Anne-Marie McGranghan, Resettlement Officer, UNHCR
  • James Witte, Director, Center for Social Science Research (CSSR) and Research Director, Institute for Immigration Research (IIR), George Mason University

A discussion about the social, cultural, and economic impact of immigrant artists on U.S. society, the infrastructure available to support the integration of immigrant artists, and the personal transformations they undergo as they adapt to their new homeland.

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Little Syria, NY at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration

On October 1, 2016, the Arab American National Museum proudly opened the exhibition Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy at our nation’s most storied institution on immigration, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. This exhibition presents the rich history of the earliest concentrated Arab immigrant community in the USA, placing the Arab American experience in context with the greater American immigrant narrative. I cannot think of a better time, or a better location, for this exhibition.

Nothing tells the “American story” like Ellis Island, and nothing tells the Arab immigrant story like Little Syria. At the time the Little Syria neighborhood was thriving in New York, “Greater Syria” itself consisted of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and newly arrived Arab immigrants to New York exemplified this diversity. Choosing to exhibit Little Syria, NY in New York City, on the island where so many Arab immigrants first stepped foot on American soil, demonstrates a commitment and appreciation to our rich and contributory heritage.

At the same time, this exhibit embraces the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness despite one’s place of origin, beliefs, race or reasons for making the courageous decision to embark on a new journey and way of life.

This exhibition would not have been possible without the generous support of Arab Americans from across our nation. Many served as advisors, object donors, and financial donors. We are most grateful for their unwavering support.

Little Syria, NY will be on display through January 9, 2016. Over the course of the next three months, we anticipate over 300,000 visitors to the exhibit. We hope you will get a chance to visit.

For more on the exhibit, check out this wonderful article written by Associated Press journalist Jeff Karoub.

Through documents, artifacts and photos, the exhibition tells the story of a Middle Eastern community that once flourished in Lower Manhattan. The show is on view through Jan. 9 in the building where some 12 million immigrants from around the world first set foot in America. And it documents the vanished neighborhood of Little Syria in ways that still resonate, at a time when Syrian refugees and immigrant rights are making headlines.

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Upcoming Speaking Engagements: Week of October 17, 2016

Next week I’m heading to Washington, D.C for a couple of professional engagements. First up is the Smithsonian Affiliations Annual Conference. The conference runs from Monday, October 17 through Thursday, October 20. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Smithsonian Affiliations and our colleagues in Washington have put together an excellent conference schedule. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues, exchanging ideas, and learning fresh insights. Check out the conference agenda.

My responsibilities at the annual conference are twofold. First, I’ve had the pleasure of serving on the Smithsonian Affiliations Advisory Council for the past three years. On Monday, we will convene for our annual meeting. I’m very much looking forward to learning more about the developments with the Affiliates program, as well as doing my best to provide effect feedback. Additionally, on Tuesday at 9:30am, I have the pleasure of participating on a keynote panel entitled, Opening Session: Saluting our Past, Shaping our Future. During this time we’ll be sharing our work and experiences as part of the Affiliate network, while also exploring opportunities for future collaboration. If you can join us, swing by the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian. Here’s a peek at what I’ll be discussing.

On Wednesday, October 19, I have the pleasure of serving on a panel presented by the Middle East Institute and the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University. The panel, entitled The Art of Immigration: How Immigrant Artists Enrich America, also includes Huda Asfour (Musician & Composer), Anne-Marie McGranghan (UNHCR), and James Witte (George Mason University). Our discussion will explore the “social, cultural, and economic impact of immigrant artists on U.S. society, the infrastructure available to support the integration of immigrant artists, and the personal transformations they undergo as they adapt to their new homeland.” Details on the panel, including info on registration, can be found here.

Hopefully I’ll see you in D.C.!

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Museums and Libraries As Community Catalysts

How do museums and libraries catalyze communities? More specifically, how do they serve as “enablers of community vitality and co-creators of positive community change?” These are fundamental questions the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is asking as part of the Community Catalyst Initiative. IMLS launched the initiative, in partnership with the William Penn Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund, in July 2016. On September 8–9, IMLS hosted around 70 museum and library professionals for a two-day Community Catalysts Town Hall in Philadelphia. The program invited attendees to reflect on how cultural institutions respond to challenges in their community, and how they work to improve the well-being of residents and the community at large.

Many topics were explored during the convening, including types of community well-being (e.g. economic, social connection, ethnic diversity), types of collaborations (leading vs. contributing vs. facilitating), and ways in which institutions understand the various needs of the communities they represent. However, what most piqued my interest was a discussion on institutional mindset; the philosophical underpinnings that make certain institutions better at implementing this type of community-based work.

It was mentioned repeatedly that museums and libraries are often perceived as trusted and neutral institutions. On one hand, trust in the foundation of all relationships. Trust between a cultural institution and its constituents is core to effective collaboration, especially those seeking to benefit a community. However, on the other hand, I question how an institution can truly catalyze a community if its intent on remaining neutral. To catalyze requires action and neutrality, by definition, affords inaction.

If cultural institutions are to become more effective catalysts, then staff must work to be more rooted in, and responsive to, the communities they serve. This is tough work. It requires working beyond the standard hours of operation. It requires knowing the needs of the community and how institutional assets can be leveraged to address the various needs. It requires continuous learning and improvement through both iterative and incremental approaches to program delivery.

I believe that our friends at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle best articulate what is required to be successful through their institutional values:

People give us meaning and purpose.
Relationships are our foundation.
We desire community empowerment and ownership.

To do this, we have found the following:

The work is labor intensive.
The work requires flexibility.
We willingly relinquish control.

This is an incredibly bold philosophy for a cultural institution. It shifts the institutional mindset, disrupting traditional power imbalances, and is both empowering and responsive. It roots community at the center of the institution’s work. I wonder how more traditional cultural institutions can adapt to incorporate such an approach; one that is connected with community and reciprocating in terms of benefits.

Cultural institutions that seek to become greater catalysts could learn a lot from community organizers. In many ways, becoming a catalysts requires a community building mindset. We should learn from the grassroots approaches of these organizers to further our work.

I’m optimistic about the direction museums and libraries are heading. And, I’m grateful that funding agencies like the IMLS are pushing the field to think about the evolving positions of cultural institutions in their respective communities. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the Community Catalysts Initiative and I encourage IMLS to put forth greater resources to enable cultural institutions to explore this approach to their work.

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Featured in Hour Detroit Magazine

The Arab American National Museum was featured in the June 2015 edition of Hour Detroit. There’s a nice article on the museum’s tenth anniversary.

Creating Conversations: For 10 years, Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum has been telling the community’s unique stories

“It makes you optimistic about the future for this institution, no matter who is here,” Akmon says. “It’s our goal to continue to contribute and to continue to mold it to that next shape.”

An image of an article in Hour Detroit
AANM featured in Hour Detroit
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