The galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts were full of a different kind of art — literature — at the African American Read-In (AARI). This annual event, which occurs during Black History Month, celebrates African and African American art and literature as community leaders read aloud in front of African and African American artworks in VMFA’s collection. After each public reading, curators shared information about the art.
VMFA’s read-in was one in a series of national events. The AARI was established in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month. It is the nation’s first and oldest event dedicated to diversity in literature. Since its inception, this initiative has reached more than six million participants around the world.
VMFA’s readers included Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, City of Richmond Chief of Police Col. Alfred Durham, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, local artist Hamilton Glass, and social entrepreneur and podcast host Kelli Lemon, among others. “The readers — well-known, busy people — found time to show that literature, art, and culture are important to Richmond and to them,” says Paula Saylor-Robinson, VMFA’s director of audience development and outreach.
VMFA’s education staff chose the readings for the event, which this year featured mostly African American poetry. Selections included “I Believe” by Elizabeth Alexander, “My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken” by Maya Angelou, and “To the Diaspora” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
The museum’s curators chose the artworks, focusing on new additions to VMFA’s collections. Featured works included Sanford Biggers’s Overstood, David Drake’s Two-Handled Jug, and ibala leSindebele (Ndebele Design) by Esther Mahlangu.
Visitors circulated throughout the museum, moving from gallery to gallery as they listened to readings and viewed each artwork. Saylor-Robinson says the event is designed to attract a diverse audience to the museum. “I want everyone to know what we have here day in and day out,” she says. “I want people to know the museum is relative to their experience and interests.”
After introducing new audiences to VMFA through the event, she hopes they will return to the museum. “I am happy to have any excuse to get people in the door,” she says. “I want VFMA to become part of their consideration of things to do in Richmond.”
While VMFA hosts many non-traditional museum events, from jazz concerts to dance parties, Saylor-Robinson hopes AARI showcases the quieter, more reflective aspect of a museum. “We put a lot of thought into the literature,” she says. “We wanted people to take some ‘me time,’ and to show that the museum is a reflective, thoughtful place.”