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In Miami, a Museum Attempts to Bring Teens and Cops Together Over Art

Art Detectives, a partnership between the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and two community organizations that launched last month, may be the only program of its kind in the US.

Art Detectives with Lawrence Weiner's "OUT OF SIGHT" (2016) (photo by Amanda Bradley)
Art Detectives with Lawrence Weiner’s “OUT OF SIGHT” (2016) (photo by and courtesy Amanda Bradley)

MIAMI — Near the entrance to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Lawrence Weiner’s piece “OUT OF SIGHT” spreads across the floor like hopscotch, bold-faced text where the numbers would be: “IMAGINED THINGS CAN BE ALTERED TO SUIT,” “SPIT INTO THE WIND HOPE FOR THE BEST,” “THE DESTINATION IS STRAIGHT ON.” There’s an identical work next to it, in Spanish; Weiner frequently speaks to the demographics of the cities in which his work is showcased. Last month, at the launch of PAMM’s new educational initiative, Art Detectives, “OUT OF SIGHT” — usually coolly examined from above, or treaded on lightly by passersby — became an indoor playground game, children and Miami-Dade County Police officers hopping across its squares.

“How did things change from the space where you were — to the space you’re on now?” asked Loni Johnson, a PAMM teaching artist. One student, who’d hopped from “ASSUMING A POSITION” to “ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE POWERS THAT BE,” replied: “That square represented not knowing what I had in mind yet, not knowing what I wanted. Now I have more of an idea, more of an imagination.” Reflecting on the latter square, Officer Eddy Smith related, too. “I have certain powers, given my uniform,” he admitted, “when I’m conducting traffic, or with the people I’m interacting with.” It was strange to watch the children interacting with the police (and amusing to watch the police jump from square to square), but situational gawkiness eventually gave way to acceptance of the unusual setup, and they were able to simply be together.

Art Detectives was developed in partnership with the Miami-Dade Police Department, Breakthrough Miami — an academic enrichment program dedicated to middle school students from underserved communities — and Links Inc. Greater Miami Chapter, a volunteer organization providing services to women, the elderly, and youths. Every cycle takes place over three sessions (on Fridays and Saturdays), presided over by PAMM teaching artists and educational staff from each program. This particular cycle ended March 4; the second started March 11, and there are three more to come, the first of which begins June 16. (The participating students are selected “at the discretion of site leadership,” explained Breakthrough’s Senior Site Director Webber Charles in a video about the project.)

In the first session, several police officers and 50 students from Breakthrough Miami meet at a Breakthrough site classroom where, said Charles, “they’ll approach the project strictly on instinct. They’re given images and words, magazine cutouts and other materials, and they create a collage alongside the officers.” The two groups discuss the process, providing kids the impetus — hopefully — to discuss why they might’ve selected a particular image or word and how that speaks, more largely, to their feelings about police. As Charles explained, “Before they make their collages, the assignment is couched in a conversation about law enforcement and their role in the community.”

Prior to this meeting, said Adrienne Chadwick, PAMM’s Deputy Director of Education, “police officers and community members fill out a preliminary attitudinal survey from the Journal of Juvenile Justices about their experiences and perceptions of police and youth interaction. At the end of the program, they’ll fill out a post-survey to determine if there have been any changes in perception.”

The second sessions take place in the museum, where PAMM teaching artists guide the students and police through a few exhibitions, asking questions to prompt reflection and encourage sharing. The third and final sessions take place back in the classroom, where both groups discuss what they’ve learned and, more importantly, how they feel.

Art Detectives with Jesús Rafael Soto’s “Penetrable BBL Blue 2/8” (photo by Amanda Bradley)

As an arts demographic, teenagers often play second fiddle to younger children, too old to qualify for free entry to museums or to partake in “kid-friendly” workshops. In response to this oversight, there’s recently been a widespread push to make art museums more engaging for adolescents. In addition to Art Detectives, programs targeted at this overlooked age group include the Failure Lab at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Open Art Space at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Youth Insights program at the Whitney Museum, the Teen Creative Agency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Wariyaa program at Minneapolis’s Mill City Museum, organized by the Minnesota Historical Society in response to the trial of three Somali-American young adults convicted of attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State (some of these were recently profiled in-depth by Alina Tugend for the New York Times).

In its utilization of art to address challenging issues like inclusivity, race, and critical theory, Art Detectives is in line with other museum-based programs intent on engaging teenagers. But it seems to be one of very few art programs in the US — maybe the only one — bridging the police-community divide specifically.

The program’s long-term effects are unforeseeable, especially given the myriad and objectively horrifying issues plaguing the Miami-Dade Police Department. “The police are adults, and adults are inherently less able to experience transformations of thought or paradigm shifts of what is acceptable,” Charles told Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately, when we’re talking about adults going through training that’s inherently adversary to the students they’re working with, it can be harder to move the needle.”

Miami-Dade officers have a reputation. In 2014, following a chase by Miami Beach Police officers, 18-year-old Israel “Reefa” Hernandez was killed. Hernandez had just been caught tagging a shuttered McDonald’s; an officer shot a taser at the boy’s chest. Witnesses reportedly saw the cops high-fiving and laughing at Hernandez’s fallen body, and new evidence suggests they may have chased him with guns drawn. But when the officer responsible wasn’t charged, David Ovalle at the Miami Herald posited that it was unsurprising — wholly expected, even.

In 2011, during Memorial Day Weekend in South Beach, 22-year-old Raymond Herisse was killed — and four bystanders wounded — when police, in response to Herisse’s reckless driving, fired over 110 bullets at his car. He’d already stopped driving. It took four years for courts to ultimately decide no charges would be filed. Herisse was one of seven black men killed in police shootings in Miami over a span for eight months.

In 2013, a new effort was launched to monitor the Miami-Dade Police Department, following an investigation by the US Justice Department, which included research on the aforementioned seven shootings and 26 others. This federal monitoring agreement was ratified last year, though the monitor is former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, whose officers “engaged in a notable campaign to arrest black residents disproportionately while riding bicycles.” In Miami, there are plenty of reasons to fear the police, particularly if you’re young and black or brown.

Art Detectives hopes to humanize each group for the other, transforming teens from troublesome bodies into true, curious individuals and the police from threatening and potentially lethal figures to grownups with hearts. And while it’s great both groups will get to think critically about contemporary art, “the art is just a medium by which we’re talking about more serious issues,” said Charles at Breakthrough. “It’s tertiary to a larger discussion.”

Charles is also quick to address the challenges of creating new conceptual lenses through which the groups can view each other — instead, the program’s organizers hope to dismantle or weaken some of the old dialogue. “The students will have the opportunity to assess police officers in a new context,” he said. “I don’t think we should expect expect anything in terms of building up — the program is successful if we deconstruct some of the misconceptions about what it means to be a student in some of Miami’s neighborhoods and, similarly, what it means to be a police officer in Miami-Dade County.”

The dismantling of narratives that police have internalized about community youth — and vice versa — is a nationwide, generations-long challenge. Shifts of this magnitude are slow. The significance of Art Detectives is its ability to enable the coexistence of two groups that are generally averse to each other in an unfamiliar context mostly stripped of power dynamics — and those that are inherent kept in check by virtue of the setting and the educators (here, the officers, like children, must raise their hands to speak). These kinds of small-scale efforts to open up dialogue are important precisely because, in the fight to cultivate empathy, everything begins at a small scale.

Art Detectives at work (photo by Amanda Bradley)
Art Detectives at work (photo by Amanda Bradley)

At the museum, the children and police were sectioned off into three groups led by teaching artists (in addition to Johnson, there’s Chire Regans and Susan Del Conte) to examine several artworks, Weiner’s “OUT OF SIGHT” included. They were encouraged to consider why an artist might’ve chosen a particular color or composition, the larger messages of each piece, how each made them personally react or feel. The dark tones and “brick-like” shapes of Sean Scully’s “Wall of Light, Rain,” for example, inspired students to discuss home, shelter, and community; one alluded to fortitude. One police officer, seemingly inspired, did the same.

I asked Officer Smith about his experience: “I feel the youths are here to express how they feel, and I’m beginning to accept how they feel,” he said. “Sharing, sitting, talking with them, I’m hoping they have a better understanding of us — that we’re here to help and serve and protect the community. Like them, we have families, we hurt, we cry.”

He was sincere, and there’s nothing not lovely about this. But what about the police’s perception of the youths? That’s a little more challenging, for a number of reasons. Many of the police officers involved in Art Detectives already work in community policing, and are naturally more sensitive to the concerns of students. “I go to career days, or help lead park talks, where we go to parks and discuss our careers and try to connect with the kids,” Smith explained. “When you first come up to a youth, they think they did something wrong, and they’re terrified. If you start sharing, giving them something, they’ll realize you care.”

Officer Mercy Rodriguez, who works in the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Neighborhood Resource Unit and is a principal contact for the Art Detectives project, added, “That’s our base foundation: we work with schools, at different community housing. We love the community, and we love to interact with children. This program is not necessarily youth-related or police-related. There’s another common goal, which is looking at art. That in itself helps us to humanize the badge.”

Most of the officers participating in Art Detectives, like most of the students, are black, and many of the aforementioned police misconduct cases — the kind that got the Justice Department concerned about what, exactly, is going on in Miami — revolved around the actions of cops who were not black. This is not a deliberate choice, according to Rodriguez: “This is what we do: we’re all diverse officers, no matter our background, our ethnicity, our race.” Lieutenant Elton Lee, another officer working with the program, explained that while the officers are mostly selected randomly, “we do select them based on their positive interaction with youths.”

None of this is necessarily problematic. But if it were required that every police officer handling cases involving youths had experience in dealing with them positively already, maybe the situation in Miami would be different. The goal here is to create a new conduit through which different members of a community can be together and hear each other. To that end, the questions posed by the PAMM teaching artists are meant to foster empathetic communication, shedding light on commonalities.

“With the expertise of the PAMM staff, who are phenomenal, they can eke out some of the issues and common threads between the two parties as it relates to their interactions with the art,” said Charles. “That’s what we’re looking for: those magical moments where, serendipitously, a cop and a student have a similar story or find out they come from the same community. That can move them forward. It’s an opportunity to enable some of these moments to happen, naturally and organically.”

When this did happen, the cops and students laughed at and piggybacked off each other’s responses to the work on view. At the end of the three-hour museum encounter, Johnson instructed the two groups to create a communal manifesto: “Write what you feel the purpose of this program is, and what you’ve learned.” In the resulting texts, there were plenty of references to the art at PAMM, and the art of living: “To learn about how art is not just paintings, but decisions in life,” wrote one student. Another added, surprisingly and beautifully: “We learned about art, and that Earth is also art. It has beauty and needs to be taken care of by humans, because Earth is a living thing.”

But if these impromptu manifestos are any indication, the modest goals of Art Detectives — to share and hold space in a neutral setting conducive to fostering empathy — are slowly coming to fruition. Here’s more of what the kids and police had to say:

We can take the purpose of this program and apply it to our community after it’s over.
I hope we can create a safe space for everyone involved to continue to express themselves.
This program is about being open-minded, and putting yourself in other perspectives.
The purpose of this program is to learn to have compassion for all members of the community. Love equals art; art equals love.

For these encounters to keep happening, maybe art can continue to serve as a common experience that facilitates conversations between members of a community who are too often, brutally, at odds. As the participation of PAMM and its teaching artists proves key, perhaps museums in other cities with similarly polarized relations between citizens and police can adapt this model, emphasizing mutual understanding and the power of listening. It’s easy to be skeptical of this kind of progress, but it’s harder still to do the work.

Participants in the Perez Art Museum Miami's Art Detectives program (photo by and courtesy Amanda Bradley)
Participants in the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s Art Detectives program (photo by Amanda Bradley)
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