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Duluth Indigenous woman drives inclusive agenda at art institute

“What we’ve done is decolonize the organization," Christina Woods said.

Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods talks about problem solving while Lena Hysjulien listens
Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods, right, talks about problem solving while Lena Hysjulien listens during a BAM (Birkenstein Arts Movement) session Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, at the Duluth Art Institute.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — For Christina Woods, an introduction runs deeper than a few words, so she starts with a story.

One of her names was given at birth, another arrived with her. “Anamacikwe,” or "thunderbird lady, is her sacred name, she explained to a handful of students in the Duluth Art Institute’s Lincoln Park building.

“The Anishinaabe believe that before you’re born, you choose your parents. You negotiate with the Creator the life you want to live, the lessons you want to work on,” she said.

Woods then asked the girls to illustrate their names on paper for a timed exercise.

The Birkenstein Arts Movement (BAM) — which engages Duluth students in free high-level visual arts workshops and leadership training — is one of Woods’ achievements since stepping in as DAI executive director.

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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 / Superior Telegram

“I’m one of a few people nationwide running a predominantly white arts organization, and I’ve shifted it to a BIPOC-led arts organization, not just because I’m there, but because of who’s on my board.

“That’s the kind of leadership and contemporary thinking that the Anishinaabe are bringing to Duluth today,” Woods said.

She has presented on this topic in webinars hosted by the International Council of Museums , and her article discussing “the whiteness in our museums and art institutions” will be unveiled at the American Alliance of Museums in May.

“Really, what we’ve done is decolonize the organization,” she said.

Duluth Art Institute board president Robin Washington stands in an art gallery in front of four paintings by his late mother, artist and activist Jean Birkenstein Washington.
Duluth Art Institute board president Robin Washington stands in front of paintings by his late mother, artist and activist Jean Birkenstein Washington, at the DAI in a 2019 exhibit spearheaded by executive director Christina Woods.
Contributed / Kim Kosmatka

Woods was brought in as an interim manager in 2018 and did quite well. “We were down two people, she fixed us up,” DAI board president Robin Washington recalled, noting her focus on fundraising, grants and programming.

Regional native artists are not new to the organization, he said, referring to Frank Big Bear and Vern Northrup exhibits.

The organization was already going a more diverse route, and with the “racial reckoning” that followed George Floyd’s death, art funders included more BIPOC creators than before.

And, the DAI was ready for it. “She put us in a good position," he said.

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“Rather than we changed to a focus on BIPOC or more diversity, I would say we evolved,” he added. “We’re all in this age of intersection, that’s what an art museum should do.”

The staff and board were already bringing more diversity, especially based on race, Woods said, adding: “It was an easy pivot.”

DAI leadership started shifting how educational classes are designed, as well as the exhibition selection process.

They now use a panel outside of staff and board members to review all artist submissions. There’s higher percentage of BIPOC participation within this panel, and they ensure all are well-versed in the nationwide history of underrepresentation and absent ethnic and neurodivergent narratives, Woods said.

Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods talks with Duluth artists as they fold photos into origami for an upcoming art exhibit.
Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods, standing, talks with artists Viann Nguyen-Feng, left, and Mei Sun as they work on a piece for the “Like Me, Like You” exhibit by the Twin Ports APIDA Collective on the fourth floor gallery at the Depot in Duluth on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

They implemented a BIPOC artists page on the DAI website.

Their board is now 60% BIPOC led.

Internally, too, there’s more equity among vacation time and flexibility to partake in celebrations outside the normative Christian culture.

“We recognized that having a floating day is really important for folks who celebrate different holidays,” Woods said, adding that now it’s not an uncomfortable request.

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Drew Digby has been the executive director of the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council for more than four years. He is leaving the position for a job at the University of California Los Angeles Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Woods is a strong advocate for identifying and celebrating unheard narratives, said Amy Varsek, exhibitions director and curator. The DAI galleries, classes and youth programming continue to grow in diversity and inclusivity under her leadership.

“She knows who she is and welcomes people to learn about her work and her heritage,” she said.

Varsek has been with the DAI since 2015, and she said Woods honors her process and curatorial style, and she supports and empowers her voice.

Many arts spheres have been dominated by white spaces and narratives. Woods is always thinking about how the arts can add on to and initiate social justice movements, and access, said Liz Axberg, DAI community outreach coordinator and AmeriCorps VISTA.

“For every project, she asks what demographic we are serving and who we are missing. I always want to remember to take that into account, always checking my perspective,” Axberg said.

Roshan Ganu smiles as she works in her studio space with sketches lining the wall behind her
Twin Cities artist Roshan Ganu takes a break in her art studio. Ganu exhibited at the Duluth Art Institute in fall 2021 after meeting executive director Christina Woods. Of her experience, Ganu said: <b>“</b>As a women-led organization, I want to give credit to that. I appreciated how each one had their own autonomy to make decisions.”
Contributed / Samantha Rickner

India-born multimedia artist Roshan Ganu’s “The Banyan Tree” opened in October in Duluth, and her takeaways from exhibiting at the DAI: “As a women-led organization, I want to give credit to that. I appreciated how each one had their own autonomy to make decisions,” Ganu said.

Ganu met Woods during a pre-pandemic art show in the Twin Cities. While Ganu is culturally rooted in India, her art reflects her experiences living around the world. “I often speak to a hybrid space that I inhabit as a global person.

“This is one approach I have to storytelling. Christina has her own approach with her history and her name, Anamacikwe.

Karissa White Isaacs, a curator at the Tweed Museum of Art, left a legacy of strong advocacy for Native artists.

Woods was born a Bois Forte tribal member, and she grew up on the Iron Range. She started her career in elementary education before adding diversity consultation and training in the Stillwater, Minnesota, school district.

Since moving to Duluth in 2010, Woods worked as the executive director at the Damiano Center; a field producer for WDSE’s “Native Report”; and among other roles, she co-chaired the Duluth Human Rights Commission.

Today, she’s on the State of Minnesota Art Advisory Committee and the president of the Duluth Public Arts Commission.

While much of her professional life has been educating and enlightening folks on the “colonialistic practices embedded through generations,” she said it’s an important fit for where she’s at now.

“Our art museums play an enormous role in whose story and whose history gets told.”

The story was updated at 1:38 p.m. Jan. 20 to clarify that Christina Woods was brought in as an interim manager at the Duluth Art Institute in 2018.

Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods lets her seventh graders get a close-up look at her sketch of a bear
Duluth Art Institute director Christina Woods, center, lets her seventh graders get a close-up look at her sketch of a bear during a BAM (Birkenstein Arts Movement) session Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, at the Duluth Art Institute.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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