Dianne Smith Sees Art as Both Gateway and Glue

What does it mean to “bring the power of art to the community, and the vibrancy of the community into art,” as President David Mickenberg says in his letter.  How does this new vision of the Museum translate into real programs and lead to real connections?

This vision began emerging in the summer of 2016 when Lehigh Valley residents and business owners read and reflected on their lives and experiences, using Langston Hughes powerful poem “I, too, sing America” as both model and inspiration.

The project, called Intersections, was the brainchild of the new Museum artist-in-resident, Dianne Smith, who immersed herself in the lives and conversations of community members for six months.

The participants sat for photographic portraits and shared their videotaped oral histories about moving to and living in the region. Dianne also worked with Central Elementary School fourth-graders, providing cameras and encouraging the students to use them to explore and capture the spirit of their neighborhoods. Three exhibits emanated from Intersections and were shared not just inside the walls of the Museum, but also in schools, galleries and businesses.

As artist-in-residence, Dianne helped focus the Museum’s new perspective and bring it to life. In December, she joined the staff as the Public Engagement Manager and her impact on programming since that time has been profound.

A multidisciplinary artist and cultural worker whose art has been featured for over two decades in national and international solo and group exhibitions, Dianne says, “I believe the arts are the gateway to the world beyond ourselves. The idea is always to create a space where the viewer can interact and engage with it.”

“Dianne’s work is the embodiment of what we think the relationship of our Museum can and should be with the community,” says David Mickenberg, President and CEO. “We believe the arts have a unique ability to inspire and connect members of a community and these are the kinds of projects that can help make that happen.”

In January, over 700 Valley residents visited the Museum to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “MLK Day is a time for the community to come together, reflect on how far we have come, and consider what milestones we have yet to meet,” says Dianne. The Museum opened its doors with free admission and activities, including art making, live music, poetry, and film.  

In February, Dianne and her Public Engagement team initiated the first BLACK HISTORY MONTH @ THE ART MUSEUM program with a documentary film series honoring the lives of African Americans. This shared experience invited viewers to examine notions of urbanism, class, economics, culture, race, identity, and how they have shaped American history and our community.

The Museum also now hosts a monthly documentary film series, highlighting Women’s History Month, World AIDS Day and the work of Latin American filmmakers.

In June, Dianne led the innovative program, Make Your Mark, Allentown! Residents were asked to imagine the impact a few helping hands and a couple of hours can have on our community—and make their mark with a day of service. On June 24th, Allentown native and NBA Detroit Pistons’ player Darrun Hilliard and an enthusiastic group of volunteers worked with Habitat For Humanity to prepare a home for a deserving family.

The next day, the program continued with over 900 Lehigh Valley residents taking part in a variety of fun, free and hands-on activities, all with a printmaking or mark-making component, in honor of prints collected by Museum benefactor Paul Kania. Community groups set up tables and were part of the event.

A few weeks ago, the Fall Festival brought the entire Museum—plus the area  from Fifth Street to Arts Park—to colorful life for this huge, free, annual community event. The festival was bursting with activities, including plenty of art-making options, a guided exhibition tour, yoga, and a children’s film festival featuring award-winning 22 shorts.

“I think art is the epoxy that holds a culture together,” says Dianne. “It connects organizations and the community to each other, thus giving everyone the experience of collaborating. Partnerships established with the Museum and surrounding community develop cultural capital. This kind of synergy will undoubtedly build a collective identity and sense of pride—thus strengthening and improving community relationships, as well as the preservation of its culture and history.”