Artivism. Pop-up installation. Monica Montgomery, the founder of the Museum of Impact (MOI) wants you to be intimately familiar with these terms, and then she wants you to act. As the first mobile social justice museum in New York City (and the world), the MOI travels around the country, presenting social justice exhibits to inspire action and advocacy from its viewers, and to connect with communities through art.
It was created out of crisis. Montgomery, who was a pre-school teacher at the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder, found herself unable to explain to her kids — many of them black and brown — why a boy who looked like them and who was not much older than them had been murdered. Her students’ bewilderment presented a void that Montgomery needed to fill; she could not do so with a one-off teaching moment. A long-term investment was needed to tackle issues as multi-layered as police brutality and racism.
The reactions of these young people, of their teacher and of the community at large, echoed in the streets and on social media as the Black Lives Matter movement was cemented. In response to the endless questions that were matched with tears, rage, and numbness, Montgomery implemented a series of social justice-forward lesson plans, including a coordinated effort to write Mother’s Day cards and send them to Trayvon Martin’s mom. She was unfortunately fired from her job for having too “radical” of politics and shortly afterwards, the Museum of Impact was born.
The mobile aspect of the Museum of Impact was born out of necessity, Montgomery says, the museum’s limited resources making her dream of a “brick and mortar” art space still just that — a dream. Since its inception, however, the team behind the Museum of Impact have executed a model that serves communities, local and national, through partnerships more than patronage. One perk of the Museum of Impact experience: customization.
On the MOI website, activists can order an art installation to occupy any space, whether it be an office, gallery, school, church or library. The framework of the resistance menu remains largely the same, with artists rotating in and out to accommodate work that is submitted through the MOI website. In this way, the Museum of Impact serves more than one purpose: not just to boost social justice movements but also to showcase artists of color who are looking for positive exposure and gallery space.
The School to Prison Pipeline and Say Her Name are programs that co-curators can use as templates for their pop-up. The first is designed to bring awareness to the disproportionate levels of suspension and expulsion of black and brown children that correlates highly with getting caught in the criminal justice system. The second is rooted in the work of women-identified “artivists” (activist artists); based on the slogan “Say Her Name” which calls attention to those like Sandra Bland who lost their lives to state-sanctioned violence, but whose names and more importantly, whose lives must not be forgotten.
“As a grassroots, progressive museum, we create pop-up experiential voyages into the heart of social movements; encouraging visitors to participate and leave their own mark,” says Montgomery, when asked to describe her organization. Many have engaged with the mobile museum to do just that. The MOI has logged more than 10,000 visitors across 30 pop-ups and workshops since its founding.
Another branch of the Museum of Impact’s work is to curate and promote artists outside of pop-ups. Icons in their Own Right, for example, was the solo show of Harlem-based artist Makeba Rainey, whose portraits featured prominent figures in the Black community, from civil rights activists to entertainers to artists and beyond. Other artists who have received the support from MOI include Karina Puente, whose work, “Cut Deep,” memorialized all of the black and brown people killed by police between 2014-2017; and Sofia Dawson, whose large-scale paintings featured the loved ones who survived police violence in the era of Black Lives Matter
Montgomery and her team also have their hands full with their keystone event, Museum of Impact Upstanders Fest. During her 2017, Tedx talk in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ms. Montgomery coined the term “upstander” as the antithesis to bystander: “someone who does, who’s change-making, centering empathy and bravery and progress and taking action.” The Fest acts as a massive recruitment, showcase and panel-laden, workshopping event. It’s a large-scale representation of MOI’s mission and an artivism wonderland. Past festivals have taken place in New York, Maryland and Oregon, and plans for the 2018 tour are underway.
No matter the installation, vision or venue, Montgomery and her team of volunteers and artists invite you to build with them. They are calling on you as partners, as co-curators of a radical think tank, as facilitators of community hive-mind mentality; so that in the future, less of us are paralyzed by the question of “what next?” in the wake of injustice or tragedy. Be sure to visit MOI’s website, catch some inspiration and Hear, Care, Act!
Next, check out NYC’s Smallest Museum and discover the City’s Quirkiest Museums. Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a Master’s Student in Journalism at NYU. You can find her work here and follow her @llovellin.