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Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods to advise U.S. Senate on curation

Sen. Amy Klobuchar nominated Woods to the Senate's Curatorial Advisory Board, which has only 13 members nationwide.

Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods chats with people as they set up for The Depot Great Hall Marketplace at the Depot
Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods, right, chats with people as they set up for The Depot Great Hall Marketplace at the Depot in Duluth on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Jed Carlson / file / Superior Telegram
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Christina Woods, director of the Duluth Art Institute, has been appointed to a select board of experts who advise the U.S. Senate on that legislative body's substantial collection of art and artifacts. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) appointed Woods to the Senate's Curatorial Advisory Board, where Woods is one of only 13 members from across the country.

"Throughout her tenure leading the Duluth Art Institute, Christina has been a tireless advocate for the arts, championing innovative exhibits and promoting community participation,” said Klobuchar in a news release. “I am confident that she will bring her passion and experience to this important role."

In an interview at her office in the DAI's St. Louis County Depot quarters on Wednesday, Woods said that before she shared the news of her appointment, she wanted to be certain the role wasn't purely ceremonial. A Zoom call between Woods and Melinda K. Smith, the Senate curator, made clear that DAI's leader will in fact have hands-on responsibilities.

"She was like, no, we have a list for you!" Woods said. "They're interested in my point of view around the work we've done at the Duluth Art Institute to recreate didactics that include erased, overwritten and unremembered narratives around, especially, historical art or art representing narratives that we don't usually talk about."

In the art world, a "didactic" is an aid to help visitors understand the significance of a piece on display: for example, an informational card posted next to a painting. In her role on the advisory board, Woods won't just be sharing her perspective on what pieces should be displayed, but how they should be contextualized.

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Woods, a member of the Bois Forte Tribal Nation, has gained national recognition for her work in "decolonizing" art institution practices : that is, dismantling the frames of reference that have traditionally privileged white, male, European perspectives. Woods has a history of lending her expertise to public collections: She sits on the State of Minnesota Capitol Art Exhibit Advisory Committee and she's a member of a committee advising the state's Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board on statues and monuments.

The work isn't as simple as saying yay or nay to a particular piece. "With this work," Woods explained, "both at the State Capitol level and the United States Capitol level, it's political. Your words have to be carefully chosen. The way in which you promote a process or propose a process has to be pretty well thought out."

Even in today's polarized political climate, Woods said, she's found it's possible to communicate and move forward. "I just find more often than not, that even if somebody seems adversarial to (an) idea, if I can just have their ear and have a conversation, and really speak to them on their terms, they're there and they get it. They totally get it. And we've just created an opportunity to move forward."

While there's a newfound sense of urgency around revising colonial narratives — the monuments and statues task force was formed after protesters tore down a Christopher Columbus statue on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in 2020 — the U.S. Senate has recognized its collection's need of care and curation since at least 1802, when a Joint Committee on the Library was entrusted with the task.

Today, the Senate's holdings range from the Vice Presidential Bust Collection to much more prosaic artifacts. One of the most recent acquisitions, Woods said, was a rattle used by Sen. Tammy Duckworth's baby daughter, who in 2018 became the first infant ever brought onto the Senate floor.

"Those are important pieces to help us remember where we've been, and wow, now look at where we're going," Woods said. "That opens the door to that bigger story about equity for women and meeting the needs of what it means to serve in that public position."

Woods said she has "a little bit of studying to do" to catch up on the breadth of the Senate's holdings. "I just received my three very heavy packages of formally published books on the Senate art collection," she said. As she begins her new role, she said, she's seeking to "understand the dynamic breadth of what's there, and also to put my eye on what's missing."

The DAI leader believes she's currently the only Indigenous member of the Curatorial Advisory Board. "One of the things that I will bring forward is my ability to pick up on the missing narratives," she said. "If you're immersed in normative culture, it's very difficult to know what you're missing."

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She added, "I also feel there's an opportunity to be a voice for the Midwest ... recognizing that there's narratives about ... who we are today, that may not be represented. And it could be any number of narratives, not necessarily based on race, but any narrative that represents who we are in the Midwest."

Woods expects to travel to Washington, but said the details regarding her first visit to the U.S. capital in this new capacity are still being determined. She hopes to meet with stakeholders including tribal dignitaries, so the timing of her trip will depend on their schedules.

Among U.S. senators, Klobuchar has been particularly active in matters regarding the arts: She's part of a bipartisan group advocating for more equitable representation of women, who are the subjects of only about 5% of the sculptures on display in the U.S. Capitol.

"You don't have to have a Ph.D. to walk around here and think, 'Huh, they're all men,'" Klobuchar told NPR last year. "And that's just wrong."

"At the national level, for the (U.S.) Capitol, these are big conversations," Woods said. "Sen. Klobuchar sits on the commission (on art). So that says a lot about Minnesota and the arts."

Related Topics: ARTDULUTHWASHINGTON D.C.
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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