"Museums can be very staid places unless you have activities -- especially performing arts," said Amina Dickerson. "African art especially needs live performers because it is not art that is hung on the wall."
Dickerson, director of the program department at the Museum of African Art, knows as much about performing as she does about programing. At 24, she has sung in local jazz clubs, written a play, acted in local theater productions, worked with the Living Stage Project of Arena Stage, modeled and coordinated fashion shows.
But her prime interest, especially since her appointment as program director last spring, is making African art a living experience.
Her goal was given impetus recently when Congress passed legislation making the museum part of the Smithsonian Institution.
"Now since we will be part of the Smithsonian," she said, "I hope we can make our great slogan of being a 'teaching museum' a reality."
Among Dickerson's work at the museum has been her successful organization of the "In the Schools" project, which brought African art to the D.C. public schools. In addition, Dickerson has increased the number of live performances of African dancers and musicians, has upgraded the museum docent program (which trains volunteers as tour guides and assistants in special museum presentations) and has designed special African crafts programs for community groups.
Dickerson said her arts background is a definite plus in her job of coordinating all nonexhibit activities. "African art is a part of dance, of theater, of music and is part of the life of the people. While we can't bring whole African villages to the museum, we can attempt to approximate that atmosphere with singers, craft shows and special celebrations."
Art experts say that African art differs from European art because it centers on everyday life. It includes artifacts for special rituals (masks, sculptures) and everyday objects such as stools and combs.
Dickerson, a third-generation Washingtonian, returned home several years ago when her play was produced here. The drama, "The Journey: A Black Ritual Experience," was written when she was 17 and first produced in Boston when Dickerson was a freshman at Emerson College there. She describes the play as an epic that traces the spiritual journey of several black characters.
After the local production, she decided to stay here.
"I decided I needed to get out here and live before I could write all I wanted to about life," Dickerson said. "I believe that fate takes me where I should be. After I got back to Washington, I wrote a letter and wound up at Arena Stage doing public relations for the Living Stage Project."
Later, when attending a reunion at the African Museum of graduates of the Harvard Summer Institute of Arts Administration, she heard about a job at the museum. Her first job with the museum was taking African art to public schools. A year later she was named director of the museum education department.
Dickerson said her mother, who is a clothes designer and involved in community arts projects, has inspired her arts career. Her father, an architect with the D.C. Department of Recreation, added that arts have been an integral part of the Dickersons' life.
"All of our six kids were raised on the arts," Dick Dickerson said. "My wife and I knew that there was no other city that had more to offer in terms of the arts than Washington. There is no such thing as not being able to afford it, because so much of it is free. And we made sure that the kids took advantage of this."
Peggy Cooper, founder of Workshops for Careers in the Arts who has worked with Dickerson, said Dickerson is "a very talented person who could have gone either way -- as a performer or an administrator. I'm glad that she chose administration since there are few blacks in this area, while an overabundance of us are in the performing side."
Being the only black among the top staff of the museum, however, has created some problems, Dickerson said. Ten- and 12-hour days have taken their toll and the in-house and outside racial conflicts that have hovered over the museum since its founding in the 1960s still linger.
"The black-white situation is still very much in the air," Dickerson said. Last year, the museum Kwanza celebration was picketed by black nationalists protesting the inclusion of white people in the black holiday celebration and white domination of the institution.
In August, two instructors planned to boycott a workshop on African hair-braiding for similar reasons.
"I managed to convince them -- after negotiating with them all day on the phone -- that the overwhelming black enrollment would be the main ones hurt by the workshop's cancellation," Dickerson said.
In preparation for the recent Kwanza celebration, which ended Jan. 1, Dickerson met several times with black nationalist groups and there were no problems at the celebration.
Museum director Warren Robbins said, "I think they (the protesters) are wrong and misguided. We have to educate the white population to make it realize its own ignorance of Africa. Also, most African countries do not have an effective system of preservation (of their art works)."
Although Robbins praises Dickerson as "one of the best people I have ever had working for me," a staff member who wishes to remain unidentified says Dickerson brings a lot of her frustrations on herself. "Amina's current problem is that her whole life is the museum. She is here so much that she is becoming like one of the art objects on the wall. She is under a lot of pressure here and it gets to her."
Dickerson said she believes there is little she can do to stop some criticism -- about white volunteers at the museum, the European-slanted lectures or the dominance of whites in many of the public presentations of the museum.
"Where I feel an obligation as a black person to express what I think is a black point of view, I believe that the main thing is delivery of services to the community. That is really what I concentrate on."
Dickerson's own presence at the museum also is criticized. "On one hand, people tell me the museum should be all black. On the other hand, when I say that I am the black program director here, they say that I am a token black and can't get anything accomplished in this lily-white racist institution.
"What we are really still trying to decide is the role of the museum. Since the museum was founded in the '60s amid political turmoil and reidentification of blacks with Africa, and because the museum is located in a black city and housed in the first Washington home of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, blacks expect the museum to be their territory. It is not. It is run by white people and if you can just get beyond that point, you can decide what you are going to do with it. The museum is here and already organized, so I feel that blacks should use it.
"We are a public institution and we are responsible to many different interests -- not just one. If people will just give us a chance, they will find that we will try to make them happy."