Andrea Barnwell Brownlee has a calm, measured way of outlining her mission as an art historian, writer, curator and director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. But when the subject turns to presenting the work of black women artists throughout the diaspora — and disrupting any preconceived notions about who gets to have a say in the conversation — a playful gleam animates her eyes.
“My responsibility as an arts advocate is never to tell anybody what to like or why to like it, but to provide a space for open dialogue,” she says. “I’m more fired up by the person who visits our museum and asks, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I love creating opportunities where people can come in and we duke it out.”
Brownlee’s idea of museums as incubators for rich, healthy discussions took root when she was growing up in Alexandria, Virginia. Regular field trips to the museums, galleries, gardens and zoo of the Smithsonian Institution balanced time spent in the classroom and taught her to view the world as a place of open possibilities. Teachers and docents encouraged her to spend time with art, dig deep and experience it with all five senses — six, when counting the place where art can kindle imaginations, reveal new paradigms and change minds.
The education continued when Brownlee enrolled at Spelman in 1993. Though the college would not break ground on its Fine Art Museum until the following year, she recalls being surrounded by original works of art in a small campus gallery, in dormitories, with and in the residence of then-president Jonetta B. Cole (the school’s first African American female president), who regularly invited students to view her collection.