Kara Olidge First Woman To Lead Amistad Research Center

Kara Tucina Olidge.
Kara Tucina Olidge.Paula Burch-Celentano

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By Peter 'Souleo' Wright

A piece of history was made when Kara Tucina Olidge was announced this June as the new executive director at the Amistad Research Center (ARC) at Tulane University in New Orleans. Olidge is now the first woman executive director of what is heralded as “the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive” dedicated to the history of people of color.

Olidge’s previous leadership positions include serving as the deputy director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ youth in Newark, New Jersey.

With her new history-making title she is helping to forge a path toward more leadership positions for women of color in academia while simultaneously advancing ARC’s mission.

ARC was established in 1966 on the campus of one of the nation’s historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), Fisk University. Since then it has amassed over 15 million documents, an estimated 250,000 photographs, and over 400 works of art collectively tracing African-American history.

“The title alone is remarkable and says it all. It makes us ask has anything really changed? When you compare Toussaint L'Ouverture—a leader of the Haitian revolution—and President Obama, you see the challenges of a person of color in a leadership position. You see what they have to deal with in terms of being hated by many. It is a timeless critique of what people of color face.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeJacob Lawrence, General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and revered by the Blacks (Toussaint L’Ouverture series, no. 20), 1938. / Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1982.

In between working on increasing ARC’s endowment, completing a digital archive, and gearing up for next year’s 50th anniversary Olidge spoke with NBCBLK contributor, Souleo. Check out her thoughts on the role of institutions surrounding today’s social justice issues, reaching the millennial generation, and her vision for leading the organization to successfully overcoming its current challenges. Plus she offers commentary in an exclusive highlight of ARC’s collections including artwork by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and the papers of Julian Bond.

As a native of New Orleans your new role represents a full circle moment for you. What does it mean to return to New Orleans in this capacity and to see the social and cultural shifts taking place there?

Kara Tucina Olidge: I am excited to be first woman executive director and it is such a milestone for me. This was my first internship and to start as an intern here and return to New Orleans as its executive director is very exciting.

One of the wonderful things is that in New Orleans there’s been an enhancement of what was here in terms of the culture, diversity, and the intersections between social justice, arts, and education.

Freret Street is a booming space with eateries, small boutique spaces, and arts organizations and cultural institutions. It is refreshing to see those developments happening. I also appreciate the level of involvement young people have in owning those spaces. It is undergoing a gentrification process. Now that can work for our benefit but we’ve also seen where it can work against the community. That is all still unfolding and I can’t remark fully on it but it’s an ongoing discussion.

“Congo Square is where enslaved black people gathered on Sundays in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. Scott reminds us of the unfortunate circumstances black people faced in America while simultaneously speaking to the celebratory part of ourselves. It is a reminder that no matter if we face Ferguson or voting rights issues we can still celebrate life and will always survive those challenges.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeJohn T. Scott, Congo Square, 1991. Serigraph: sheet, 36 x 42. Gift of the artist, 1991.

How do you plan to position ARC to respond to social justice issues surrounding race, sexuality, and gender identity?

Kara Tucina Olidge: In terms of advocacy, ARC always responded to social justice issues by having panel talks, exhibits and collaborations with national and local institutions. I will continue that work. The strength of our collections speaks to these issues.

For example we have Fannie Lou Hamer’s personal reflections on the impact being a civil rights advocate had on her and her family; Tom Dent’s work with the Southern Free Theatre highlights how young people used theater to address racial tensions in the 1960s; and we have Mary McLeod Bethune’s work in education. We are also partnering with institutions to build up consensus and advocacy in those areas.

“This piece talks about global connections and tensions. Tafari shows us how dance hall from the Caribbean emerged as a music form in popular culture. The energy and movement captured in this photograph is wonderful.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeDanijah Tafari, Dance Hall, 1995. Color Photograph, 8 x 10 in, Gift of the artist, 2001.

As per LGBTQ advocacy we have a southern LGBT archive here including some of Bruce Nugent’s work that we received this year. Most know him as part of the Harlem Renaissance and many from the LGBTQ community are familiar with his work in the 1920s. But we will explore his legacy through gay advocacy as a pioneer in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. We can celebrate him in Black History Month but it will be interesting and provocative to celebrate him during Pride 2016 and explore those conversations.

“Although this was created in 1952 it speaks to the current idea of what constitutes a dancer’s body. Even today, the ballerina Misty Copeland—who doesn’t have a typical form—has been candid about this issue in dance. The way Nugent shapes the dancers with wide and robust legs and the simplicity of the black lines against white suggests that push and pull between black performers and traditional ideas of body form in dance.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeRichard Bruce Nugent, Three Plates with Design of Dancing Figures, 1952. Ceramic, diameter 9 in. each. From the Marr collection.

One of the questions many organizations such as yours are presently asking themselves is how to actively engage the millennial generation. What are your thoughts on that topic?

Kara Tucina Olidge: We are part of the mayor’s summer youth employment program in New Orleans and through that I have five young people working at ARC. They are really my eyes into seeing what would be appealing to a young person. The first thing one of our young employees said on the tour and orientation was that we don’t learn this in school. So the climate is right for cultural and research institutions to reach out to young people because they do have a thirst for that historical information.

When you talk about the development of civic leadership they need those road maps. We don’t need to bend or stretch ourselves to make it more appealing. We just need to open the doors and engage them in real conversations. That is the most important thing. It is really about access and operating on a grassroots level with young people—connecting the past to what they want to do now, which is advocacy and building coalitions.

“This work speaks to family and spirituality which are both part of the strength and resilience we always relied on throughout the diaspora. No matter how our images are stereotyped black families remain intact and serve as an anchor for many.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeJeff Donaldson, Mom and Pop (Victory in the Valley of Eshu), 1971. Silkscreen, 40 x 29 inches. Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1982.

As you look to the future, what are the main challenges for ARC?

Kara Tucina Olidge: One challenge is expansion. How do we understand ourselves? I am looking at how we realize ourselves in virtual and multiple spaces. We can be an institution without borders so that we have the ability to be out in the world in different ways.

We need to think of what that looks like in the 21st century. Everything doesn’t have to be contained to one space. I am looking at how to do more institution-wide collaborations for exhibits and talks to create a national and international discourse.

“This was created during the Black Arts Movement. It speaks to the challenges around black male identity and the social, economic and political circumstances many black men find themselves in where they can easily become a target for whatever reason. This connects to the protest movements we are seeing now in response to how Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown were targets.” -- Kara Tucina OlidgeElizabeth Catlett, Target, 1970. Bronze, 20 x 14 x 22. Purchase, 1990

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.