Championing social justice through art

Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center Executive Director Monica O. Montgomery poses with her favorite Quest Skinner art works currently on exhibit.

By CAMILA VELLOSO — Growing up, Monica O. Montgomery felt at home wandering museum galleries. She loved seeing how reverently people engaged with art, knowing each piece that adorned the walls served a purpose. She saw museums as a space for discovery and community, and her innate curiosity sparked a desire to learn more about the world of art curation.

But it was the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement that prompted Montgomery to change trajectory, from being a preschool teacher in Washington, D.C., to bringing social awareness into the curatorial world.

This past November, Montgomery, 37, was appointed the new executive director of the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center (PGAAMCC), after spending the last five years as an art consultant and curator in New York City, where she gained prominence as a curator who focused on social justice. She founded the Museum of Impact, the first mobile social justice museum, and Museum Hue, a social platform exploring the intersection of art and activism.

Her new role is a homecoming for Montgomery, who has family roots in both D.C. and Maryland. Her parents immersed her in the art world at an early age. Montgomery’s mother, Sandra Brannon, a graphic designer and art teacher, frequently took her to museums and public art spaces, while her father, Elvin Montgomery Jr., an author and appraiser of African American estates, taught her the importance of preserving collections and archives.

“I relocated my life because I saw the promise and the potential of this place,” Montgomery said. “I believe that black museums matter; I believe that local arts, heritage and cultural spaces are essential to our quality of life and to engaging people.”

The PGAAMCC, located on Rhode Island Avenue in North Brentwood and established in 2007, has been committed to celebrating the cultural and historical significance of African Americans in the area since its inception, Montgomery said.

The museum’s core exhibit, “Footsteps from North Brentwood,” was created by the North Brentwood Historical Society in 1991 to memorialize the first municipality in Prince George’s County incorporated by African American citizens, Montgomery said. She explained that the museum is founded on “a legacy of excellence, upward mobility and achievement.”

In introducing changes to the organization, Montgomery was guided by the museum’s rich tradition and her own experiences.

“The museum world is seen as kind of exclusionary and stagnant. And I wanted to challenge that,” Montgomery said.

“She just has this visionary mindset,” said Danielle Rouse, the museum’s strategic project manager. “I think it’s great for the organization to push themselves forward and use their history to help inform what’s going to happen in the future.”

Montgomery curated the protest garden exhibit featured in the museum’s first gallery, which is now a dedicated space for public history shows. As visitors enter the museum, they are met by visuals of raised fists and protest banners along the gallery’s walls.

With “Protest Garden: Building Civic Power,” Montgomery hopes to encourage visitors to become agents of change by shining a light on recent protest movements, such as March for Our Lives, Families Belong Together and Black Lives Matter.

“I’m really excited about the social justice slant that she’s put on things,” said Synatra Smith, the museum’s education curator. Smith believes Montgomery’s innovative model and mentorship has made her more creative and confident about her own ideas. “We’ve all been charged up,” Smith added.

Montgomery has also diversified the museum’s public programming and expanded the number of events held at the museum. From offering poetry nights and comedy shows to kids clubs and summer camps, Montgomery has found a way to engage with all members of the community around this year’s theme: “Learn, create, connect.”

But the museum’s new events honoring community members are perhaps what has Montgomery most excited. For example, PG Power Moves! and Sunday Scholar Brunch recognize influential people of color in Prince George’s county in a relaxed networking setting. These events align with the museum’s new motto: “A home for black excellence.”

Since taking the helm, Montgomery’s goal has been to amplify the work of locals artists and community activists and generate meaningful discourse around the museum’s programs.

“People are staying after events to talk and think about how to make the African American community stronger, and so that is the space that she cultivates here as the director,” said Rouse.

Montgomery believes museums should serve society. For her, this means reflecting themes that people are interested in, talking about uncomfortable truths and creating a hub for social activity and connectedness.

“[The museum] is a small space,” she said, “but it’s a MIGHTY space!”

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