Maria Rosario Jackson, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and director of its Culture, Creativity and Communities Program, was the keynote speaker at the luncheon and fundraiser, which took place on Thursday, Sept. 15. An author and lecturer, Jackson has expertise in the areas of community development, revitalization and planning, urban race, ethnicity and gender politics, and the role of arts and culture in communities. She has been published in academic and professional journals, edited volumes in the fields of urban planning, sociology, community development and the arts and served on the boards of various prominent national and regional arts organizations. Museum Director Camille Akeju said the anniversary allows time to reflect on the museum's past and present and to build on the museum's considerable legacy.
"In looking forward, we purposely looked back," she said during a recent interview. "We engage East of the River communities in our work and are broadening our approach to what defines community. We are always looking at issues that affect Anacostia and resonate elsewhere."
"Like most museums," Akeju said, "the primary task is to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. In order to stay relevant in an evolving community we have focused on issues that have an impact on its residents, whatever their ethnicity. This really isn't a new approach for the museum. Years ago, we looked at environmental issues through our exhibition highlighting a rat infestation in the community. Our midwifery exhibition was born out of the role midwives play in providing healthcare in the African American community."
"We will not ignore the community we are housed in and committed to. We will always remain relevant to our core constituents — who at this time are over 90% African American."
Akeju said the museum is devoted to producing provocative exhibits and programs and moving members of the community to action.
"Hopefully these activities cause the community to look at where it is and where it could be," she said. "We want to be the catalyst for discussion, a catalyst for change, a catalyst for social interaction and action. We hope to keep that up."
Former museum director Steven Newsome, 59, is in agreement about the seminal role the museum plays.
"For 44 years, we have allowed the public to be and see a part of who we are," he said. "Museums have a history of being distant and aloof but the one thing that's the hallmark is that [Anacostia] allows visitors to have an intimate encounter with culture. That is what distinguishes it from other museums. It was close and personal with the subject matter. There were times when there were a few people in the museum, but it still offered great experiential learning about culture."
Newsome – who served as the museum's director from 1991-2004 – said he has a great deal of affection for the museum.
"It still holds a very special place in my heart and mind, not just because it is Anacostia but because of how it does its work," he said. "The museum allows each individual to have an individual experience there. It is the nature of the place."
"The text and visuals are done in simple and intelligent terms. The simplicity is accessible. You don't have to be (a rocket scientist)," said Newsome, who is the founding director of the Prince George's County African American Museum and a consultant to museums and art foundations. "It is dedicated to the sensibilities of people with all backgrounds and educations. I am in awe. It is a multipurpose way station oriented to the people."
Akeju said its exhibits are a reflection of the museum's role in the community and the changing nature of what the museum offers.
"We have the dilemma of being in the community but people a few blocks down are unaware of what's going on at the museum," she said. "It was the same thing when I was in New York at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx and at the Harlem School of the Arts in Manhattan. People within a four-block radius didn't know what we did in our buildings. It's an interesting dilemma and I haven't figured it out yet."
Akeju said that a few years ago, for the opening of the exhibition, "School Bands: Instruments of Opportunity," the museum had three marching bands parade through the community. Like the Pied Piper, residents followed the bands to the museum.
"We're trying to do more activities like that, more familiar activities," said Akeju. "I think the (public) support is good but could be much better. We're re-engaging. We have face-to-face contact and we're putting information online. We're gradually drawing more people back."
The benefit's theme is inspired by the museum's current exhibit, 'Call & Response: Community and Creativity Initiative,' that focuses on traditional and non-traditional expressions of creativity – varying from traditional arts to roller skating – found in everyday communities.
Artist and scholar David C. Driskell was awarded the John R. Kinard Leadership in Community Service Award during the event. An authority on African American art and African Diaspora art, Driskell was honored with the 2001 establishment of an arts center bearing his name at the University of Maryland. Besides teaching at the university and chairing its department of art, Driskell has been cultural advisor to Camille O. and William H. "Bill" Cosby curating their fine arts collection. Kinard was founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum from its inception until his death in 1989.
Mary Brown, executive director and co-founder of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, received the Anacostia Community Museum Community Service Award. Brown was the 2010 Washingtonian of the Year in recognition for her organization's innovative work teaching more than 1,000 Ward 7 and 8 boys and men art to effect positive change in their lives.
In addition, for her 18 years of service as a docent and for providing key assistance with public programs and special events, Elnora W. Jackson received the Anacostia Community Museum Volunteer Appreciation Award.
The luncheon also featured a silent auction which included work by well-known artists Sam Gilliam, Clementine Hunter and BK Adams.
"Museums present history in terms of events, culture, and ideas. Museum exhibits allow people to see things as they were, expose things as they are, and offer possibilities for the future," Akeju said. "The staff of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum considers that role extremely important and is committed to having our community partners working with us in telling their story."