Yaya Bey’s memories of her frequent visits to the Brooklyn Museum are vivid: the glee on the children’s faces as she guided field trips to exhibits like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s skull painting, and especially First Saturdays, when every floor boiled over with art, dance and music performed by a diverse group of artists.
“Because it’s free, it opens up the space for people who otherwise can’t walk into certain gallery spaces without being side-eyed,” said Bey, a musician who will join that cultural melting pot on Saturday, when the museum begins its 25th year of First Saturdays, the no-entry-fee evening events held on the opening weekend of most months.
In honor of Black History Month, February’s event will explore the theme “Legacy,” pinpointing Black artists’ influence on the borough of Brooklyn through live performances, poetry readings, curator-led art talks, a film screening and a market with dozens of artisans and vendors.
Lauren Argentina Zelaya, the director of public programs at the Brooklyn Museum, called First Saturdays a love letter to Brooklyn. She said the events amplified the creative excellence of the borough and have welcomed about 1.5 million visitors over the past 25 years.
“It’s a place where people — I’ve heard this from many visitors and many artists — where they feel affirmed, they feel seen, they feel reflected by the art on the walls, as well as the programming that we have,” Zelaya said.
To craft lineups for First Saturdays, Zelaya often spots talent at local events — including the First Saturdays floor itself. She decided to book Bey after attending a concert of hers at C’mon Everybody, a Bedford-Stuyvesant bar and venue.
Bey, a former art educator for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, writes music that fuses blues, reggae, jazz and Afrobeats, delving into topics like Black womanhood, generational trauma and romance. She said she hoped that singing about her personal experiences would let her connect with other Black women in the museum’s lobby.
“It’s nice that, ‘OK, here’s a Black woman that’s actually from this city who gets an opportunity to take up space at First Saturdays,’” she said.
Both inside and outside the Brooklyn Museum’s walls, however, some staff members and activists have expressed frustration about the institution’s progress on improving diversity.
There was opposition in 2018 when the museum hired a white person as a consulting curator for African art. (It hired a new curator, a Black woman, last March.) And after Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, former and current employees wrote an open letter highlighting “the harm and daily mistreatment” they said employees of color faced, saying that they hoped it would inspire a “courageous conversation” about discrimination.
In 2021, in response to rising concerns about job security, upward mobility and pay equity — people of color who work in museums often fill the lowest-paying roles — Brooklyn Museum employees voted to form a union.
About 55 percent of staff members at the Brooklyn Museum identify as people of color, Keonna Hendrick, its director of diversity, equity, inclusion and access, said in a statement, adding that the museum has increased equity and inclusivity through efforts like cultural competency workshops and wage transparency.
Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director, said the museum’s values are reflected in both internal practices, like its work to diversify its leadership team, and external practices, like its art collections and First Saturdays.
“There’s so much that we do throughout the museum that is really about helping to advance visibility and opportunity for Brooklyn,” Pasternak said.
The works that will be presented at this month’s First Saturdays event include “A Mother’s Rite,” a ballet created as part of the choreographer Jeremy McQueen’s Black Iris Project that explores a mother’s stages of grief after losing her son to police brutality. The performance was informed by Black mothers who have experienced similar loss.
McQueen said it was important during Black History Month to honor not only historical figures, but also the trials and tribulations that Black people are currently facing.
“I’m always focused on ways that I can expose ballet to new audiences and creating knowledge that are rooted in our culture, our history, our stories,” McQueen said.
Delmar Browne, a Flatbush native and D.J., will perform at this month’s First Saturdays for the first time since 2006. He plans to play a set from an “encyclopedia from the disco era,” along with house, funk and soul classics.
“You’re going to get the full monty that night,” Browne said. “You’re going to get some Afro house; you getting the whole gumbo.”
Jelani Akil Bauman, a trumpeter from Louisiana, would take summer walks to the Brooklyn Museum when he lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in his early 20s. He called First Saturdays a community haven for the borough and said he was eager to see people tap their feet and jive to his jazz tunes like “Oatmeal and Heroes” and “Serena,” which celebrates the tennis superstar Serena Williams.
“If this inspires them to want to pick up an instrument, I’m down with that,” Bauman said. “If it inspires them to want to pick up one of their old art forms, I’m cool with that. I just wanted to provoke positivity and growth and ensuring that it’s going to be all right.”
The post Brooklyn Museum Celebrates 25 Years of First Saturdays appeared first on New York Times.