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Arts Initiative names eight for Public Art & Engagement Fellowship

Eight University of Michigan faculty, fellows and staff have been named Public Art & Engagement Fellows by the Arts Initiative, a program committed to amplifying the role and significance of the arts within the campus and regional communities.

The intensive 18-month fellowship aims to expand public understanding of monuments, memorials and collective memories at the intersection of the arts, humanities and social and racial justice.

It will launch over fall break Oct. 17-18 with a trip to Philadelphia to explore the changing definitions of what constitutes a monument, and will include regular sessions on campus throughout the academic year with Curator-in-Residence Paul Farber.

Farber is the founder and director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to cultivating critical dialogues about past, present and future monuments.

As part of the fellowship, the Arts Initiative will provide each participant a stipend and support for travel, and will help facilitate sessions led by Farber and guest cultural experts over six sessions, culminating in fall 2023.

The sessions will cover urgent issues related to public art — who and what is commemorated in public spaces — as well as encourage relationships across U-M’s campuses and with regional partners. The fellowship is part of a wider partnership with the U-M Museum of Art and Monument Lab.

“The times we are living through are prompting both the public and institutions to examine our history as a nation, and consider timely questions about what we memorialize, how, and in what public forms” said Christina Olsen, co-chair of the Arts Initiative and director of UMMA.

“We’re excited to provide an opportunity for U-M faculty and staff to engage in significant conversations around monumentality, public art, and collective memory through this interdisciplinary fellowship.”

The 2022-23 Public Art & Engagement Fellows are:

The fellowship is a pilot for a wider set of programs and residencies that will explore the theme of Michigan monuments and facilitate activities that support research and creative practice.

The fellows also will engage with networking opportunities that showcase how municipalities and institutions grapple with the stories told through their public art, acknowledging the stories that have been left out of shared histories. The inaugural cohort of fellows represents a diverse set of disciplines and perspectives on the role of monuments and public art in our communities.

The Monument Lab partnership with U-M is designed to examine how history gets made and remade through public art, and it will leverage public artistic practice as a catalyst for imagining a more just future for the state of Michigan.

U-M students call for performance artist Tim Miller interdisciplinary residency

ANN ARBOR—Internationally acclaimed performance artist Tim Miller will be in residence at the University of Michigan the week of September 12 due to great demand from BFA in interarts performance students. 

Interarts performance is a unique interdisciplinary undergraduate degree jointly offered by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design and the departments of Theatre & Drama and Dance and Performing Arts Technology at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. 

Miller is known for using performance-making techniques to foster civic dialogue and build community around questions of bodily autonomy and sexual and racial identity. After learning about his work in a previous interarts course, students identified Miller as an artist they collectively thought could make the largest impact on their education experience—with an added eagerness to explore ideas of bodily autonomy in this particular moment of cultural significance.

“He said so many things that I’ve thought myself but never said aloud, and he made his audience engage with him in ways that we are almost taught not to do,” said interarts performance major Elle Schwiderson after learning about Miller’s work. “Overall, for me, it was seeing a queer artist be so strong and passionate about their queerness, and how there is so much pain and love and joy and tenderness and anger that we are taught to hold in our bodies that we aren’t ‘allowed to’ let out.”

Interarts performance professor Holly Hughes heard her students and sprung to action. Part of what Hughes loves the most about this interdisciplinary course work is that students can “create their own curriculum from the performing arts and the visual arts, and combine it to make something new.” 

Even though it is common for artists to work between these disciplines, it is rare for universities to provide this blended experience at the undergraduate level, she said.

“I had brought him in a long time ago for a talk at Michigan and thought: ‘Maybe I can put together a residency where he can actually work with classes and help students develop their work,'” said Hughes, a longtime friend and admirer of Miller’s.

That she did. 

Students will create original works inspired by Miller’s own that take on the most challenging social issues of our time. The artist will guide students through the exploration of turning their own experiences and insights into compelling performance art and catalysts for conversation and change.

“What I like to do with this class is just expose them to a lot of people who are finding different ways to combine their interests in performing and visual arts,” Hughes said. “We have this highly regarded musical theater program, for example, which might mean students have agents right out of college. With interarts on the other hand, there is not as direct of a career path, but there are so many possibilities. Through these residencies, I want students to be inspired by the different people that are out there developing their own paths.”

Miller has taught performance at NYU and UCLA, and performed at Yale, Columbia, Cornell and dozens of other universities across the country. He has received numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in his career, including a 1990 NEA Solo Performer Fellowship that was overturned under political pressure from the Bush White House because of the gay themes of Miller’s work. 

Miller and three other artists successfully sued the federal government with the help of the ACLU for violation of their First Amendment rights and won a settlement where the government paid them the amount of the defunded grants and all court costs. Though the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1998 to overturn part of Miller’s case and determined that “standards of decency” are constitutional criterion for federal funding of the arts, Miller vows “to continue fighting for freedom of expression for fierce diverse voices.”

The U-M residency will culminate in a “performance and lecture and rant” with Miller and a short work created by interarts students at 6 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Dance Building’s Studio 3 of the Dance Building on North Campus. Miller will address how live performance can embolden communities, challenge injustice and connect people with one another. 

Presented by Stamps, EXCEL Lab, Roman J. Witt Residency, Arts at Michigan and the Center for World Performance Studies, the event is free and open to the public.

Ph.D. dissertations provide inspiration for artist

Alison Rivett would love nothing more than to make the arts accessible to more people.

That’s a large part of her role as associate director of the university’s Arts Initiative, but it’s also the guiding principle behind her latest efforts: illustrations based on Ph.D. dissertations.

Alison Rivett

Alison Rivett

Dissertations are not the most natural form of inspiration for art, and Rivett relishes the challenge.

“I was interested in text and image, since my time as a grad student here at the Stamps School of Art & Design,” she said. “I’ve only done a few from this series based on dissertations, but I want it to become my life’s work, especially at a place like U-M. I am interested in art for an audience of one, but very personally meaningful to that person.”

She completed her first one in 2019, a painting inspired by an analysis of the papyrus collection at U-M. Rivett was with the International Institute at the time and a colleague wanted to gift her partner something visual from his scholarly work in the classics department.

She chose a Greek-language papyrus letter to illustrate.

“I found the one I thought was the most visual, and it was a letter from a husband to his wife telling her to pack up the household and come,” she said. “He has found the place they were going to be living and all the things she needs to bring with her, which were trunks of clothing, 12 jars of olives, his three best men, and a few sheep.

“Taking it literally, I’m showing the woman carrying all this stuff on her own on a big platform — even though he probably did not intend that, it would have been difficult for her to move an entire household. I often look for what a textual description leaves out, or assumes.”

She also recently completed another piece inspired by an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards, which were hand-painted in Italy in the mid-15th century.

Alison Rivett made this painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards.

Rivett’s painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards

“The illustration I created combines frescoes referred to in the dissertation, and juxtaposes them with people mentioned in the textual evidence,” she said. “This one was great to work on because I love painting patterns-on-patterns.”

The finished product was gifted to the recipient as part of a “secret Santa” exchange.

The other painting she completed was about linguistic anthropology for a friend who wanted a gift for her Ph.D. adviser. The subject was the Wolof language in Senegal. She said she’s about to start another one based on an anthropology dissertation.

“I say part of the gift is I read the entire dissertation, and the joke is, they say, ‘You’re the second person who’s ever read this,’” she said. “I note the passages you can see in your mind’s eye that seem to suggest a setting.”

Rivett created this painting based on a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal.

Rivett’s painting from a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal

Rivett’s sense of humor shines through in her illustrations, and she believes that helps open the arts to a wider audience.

“Even when I try to do paintings that are straightforward, they end up being kind of funny, and that’s one way I see the arts being more accessible,” she said. “If you can laugh at it a little, it takes away some of this gatekeeping idea that art has to be about the sublime or it’s only for people who are insiders and go to galleries every week.

“When I was a student here, even classmates pursuing Ph.D.s were intimidated by art. They thought they did not have enough training to access or appreciate it fully. I think of that a lot now as we at the Arts Initiative think about how more students at the university can participate in art making.”

Rivett is an art consumer in addition to being a creator. She said her favorite exhibit each year is the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners through the Prison Creative Arts Project. The exhibit closed last week.

She said she enjoys visiting museums that are off the beaten path, inspired by her time as a museum studies student at U-M, and she holds the distinction of being the second paid employee of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.

She also said she enjoys checking out local estate sales on weekends and has come away from many of those with unique finds.

“I went to an estate sale that had a set of scrapbooks,” she said. “I found that all of them, 10 or 12, were filled with images of cats found from various sources — newspapers, greeting cards, and even Morris the Cat from cat food containers. I bought five of them.

“When confronted by incredulous friends, who see these as ‘trash’ not ‘treasure,’ I point out that these are pre-internet Google images. If we wanted to have images of things, we had to work hard to find them and collect them. And, particularly because these are images of cats, and some say the internet mostly exists as a platform to share images of cats, I think these are, really, an early version of the internet.”

U-M program reshapes undergrad research

The curiosity and passion for understanding the use of literary expressions as nonviolent resistance brought together University of Michigan professor Samer Ali and student Elizabeth Tower.

After Tower, a junior majoring in international studies, took Ali’s class on peace and nonviolence in Islamic cultures, she wanted to dive deeper into Arabic art forms, such as music, poetry, film and more. Their similar research interests connected them and a mentor-mentee journey began.

Ali then suggested Tower join the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, so they would have up to two years to develop a research project and the resources to build it. She jumped all in and next week will share their experience working together at UROP’s annual research symposium April 20.

“Mentoring is usually one-on-one and one of the best types of teaching,” said Ali, associate professor of Middle East studies. “It’s very practice-oriented, and we’re addressing problems, talking about the trade-offs that go with each solution. I learned how to teach using the philosophy of John Dewey, “learning by doing” and then engaging the mind, body, and heart of the whole human being.”

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower. Image credit: Sean Carter. 

Ali and Tower have been working together for the past two years. Their research falls under a broader umbrella: nonviolence in Arabic-Islamic cultures.

“It’s the capacity of human and literary expressions to transform social reality in a nonviolent way,” Ali said. “It’s nonviolence and the idea of creative resistance to injustice.”

Tower’s work intends to demonstrate that Palestinian hip-hop is a multimedia cultural movement that blends multiple forms of art at every possible stage: inspiration, production and integration into society.

“As a genre characterized by intermediality and multifunctionality, Palestinian hip-hop transcends cultural, social and political boundaries to offer everyone an access point to resistance,” Tower said. “This research helps us understand how creative work—when coupled with resistance and characterized by intermediality—straddles the boundaries between art, politics, news media and education to make a widely accessible form of creative resistance.”For Tower, the most valuable part of being a UROP student is the mentorship relationship.

“Professor Ali has not only guided me through my research, but he has spent endless time helping me as a writer,” Tower said. “He’s also looked for opportunities for me to present my research and to network with other scholars. It has just enriched this experience for me as a student and as a scholar.”

In its 34th edition, the UROP symposium, which has about 58,000 alumni, celebrates the partnerships created between students and research mentors.

It is a capstone project for more than 1,000 undergraduate students—from arts and Humanities, engineering and environmental sciences to physical sciences, public health and social sciences—conducting research around campus. They will present in a hybrid format this year, returning to in-person research presentations at the Michigan League.

“Seeing all the research posters, listening to students present their work, and all the energy and excitement in one space will be exciting,” said program director Michelle Ferrez. “Many of our undergraduate researchers have been looking forward to this opportunity. It is always a rewarding time for the UROP staff and research mentors to see how much a student has developed and grown in the past year.”

For Ferrez, research and scholarship are how the academic community communicates with the world and, therefore, the contributions from research go well beyond the academy.

“Engaging undergraduate students in research helps them mature as thinkers and doers,” she said. “Research is all about finding an interesting question or scenario and not knowing the answer. In addition, it provides students with an invaluable networking experience. It is those connections and skills they will be able to apply in the future.”

Investigating math learning and teaching

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter.

Vilma Mesa, U-M professor of education and mathematics, has mentored 20 UROP students since 2004. This year, she is working with four students to investigate mathematics teaching at community colleges.

Duo Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao spent the last year analyzing qualitative data and calculations to determine how students and instructors use open-access textbooks in college. Another piece of the research is to understand how they can develop textbooks that will improve teaching and learning.

“My UROP researchers are helping us understand the connections between the use of some specific textbook features by college students and how teachers work with these textbooks,” Mesa said. “We have an extensive project that allows us to map and track the viewing of textbooks, and we have identified ways in which teachers and students view particular features.”

During next week’s symposium, Burley-Sanford and Hao will talk about their experience working on this project and discuss some of their findings.

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa.

“We found interesting differences across our teachers in using one of the textbook features and also differences in the versatility their students describe as using the same feature,” Hao said. “Some instructors use the feature only for planning or only during instruction; using the feature during instruction seems to prompt more students to use the feature to learn the material more.”

With this information, the team believes it can demonstrate that the feature does fulfill the purposes for which it was created.

“Faculty who use the feature for planning and instruction do not see the need to use it for student assessment,” Mesa said. “Adding this component to the feature would be an unnecessary use of resources.”

Burley-Sanford said that once she started the project, she felt overwhelmed and underprepared.

“That is where a great mentor can step in,” she said. “Professor Mesa has been an inspiration and has helped shape my academic experience. I have learned valuable skills that will benefit me both in academia and in life, such as critically thinking about something and analyzing information.

“The best part about having a mentor became clear when she encouraged me not to give up.”

‘A Lesson in Longing’: U-M students team up to create portraits of their campus community

After transferring to the University of Michigan in fall 2020, N’Dea Shelton, a senior studying history at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, was looking for a way to get to know her new classmates.

“As a transfer student, I wanted to connect with this university better,” she said. “I wanted to get to know who was here because it is really easy sometimes to just live—to just walk and not pay attention to anyone.”

At the same time, Michael O’Brien, a first-year MBA student at the Ross School of Business and a photographer, was also seeking to understand his new community and the U-M culture.

With this shared desire to make meaningful connections, O’Brien and Shelton have collaborated on “A Lesson in Longing,” a project that combines photography, interviews, music and text to produce multidimensional portraits of U-M students. The project takes its name from a 2019 Jennifer Packer painting of two figures within a spectral domestic interior.

The two artists were brought together by the U-M Arts Initiative, having served this past semester as Creative Fellows for its “Bridging the Divide” project. The initiative aims to expand art access and promote art making by U-M students across all disciplines, and it launched “Bridging the Divide” to support and mentor student work focused on connection, collaboration and healing. Twenty-one students across eight university units participated as inaugural Creative Fellows for the project.

To create the portraits of “A Lesson in Longing,” O’Brien and Shelton developed a two-part process that generated multiple portraits of each subject. First, O’Brien photographed each subject in their home. He deliberately chose a technically cumbersome film-based process for these portrait sessions, a 4×5 camera, in an effort to slow down and spend time with his subjects. Each photo shoot lasted up to two hours, he said.Those same students were then interviewed by Shelton, who asked them to complete statements such as “I’m on a journey toward,” “The world would be a better place with” and “One song that describes my place in life is.” To produce her portraits, Shelton then overlaid the interviewees’ answers on photos taken by the subjects themselves from their windows. She also included Spotify codes to the subject’s selected songs.

While O’Brien’s photos capture a subject’s likeness, Shelton’s text-based images are fully anonymous and won’t be displayed side-by-side with the students’ photos when “A Lesson in Longing” is installed April 8. Similar to O’Brien’s goal in engaging long portrait sessions, Shelton promised anonymity in her portraits so her subjects felt free to be honest and open in their answers.

“They are free to say what they want to say without anyone casting judgment, without anyone attributing their picture or face to anything they say,” Shelton said.

The collaborators chose to work with students they may not have otherwise encountered in order to center the process of building relationships through art making.

“I’m drawn to photographing communities that I’m a part of, essentially in an effort to get to know them better,” O’Brien said. “I’d basically been making portraits of family members, and I really wanted to make portraits of people I didn’t know.”

“On a personal level, I wanted to build confidence speaking to people at this university,” Shelton said. “With this project, people have been extremely willing to share their opinions and pieces of their lives with me.”

Taken together, O’Brien’s and Shelton’s images depict multiple facets and different perspectives of the students that make up the U-M campus community.

“I describe Michael’s role as capturing the person in their environment, and my role was to try to capture the person’s personality that maybe the photo doesn’t show, the words that they say and what they feel,” Shelton said.

“A Lesson in Longing​​” will be on view 4:30-7 p.m. April 8 at the Nichols Arboretum Reader Center at 1610 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, as part of a special showcase of all the Arts Initiative “Bridging the Divide” projects.

The reception with art, food and music is free and open to the public.

Prison artwork live again after 2 years of digital versions

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project presents the 26th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, the largest exhibition in the world of its kind.

“Falling Down Locked Up,” Ink & Colored Pencil. Image credit: Tyler Gaastra

The free, public exhibition highlights the work of 392 artists from 26 state correctional facilities in Michigan. It features 714 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional works. 

After two years of not being able to meet the artists in person (the 2020 show was canceled and last year’s exhibition was virtual), PCAP staff and volunteers had strong reactions to reconnecting with them.

“There was no greater joy I experienced this year than visiting artists in prison,” said PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky. “Despite everything, PCAP artists have persevered and they continue to create works of great ingenuity, nuance, thoughtfulness and playfulness. I’m humbled by it.” 

For Krinitsky, art selection trips to each facility are at the heart of the exhibition because this is when powerful dialogue happens between artists and volunteers. 

MSW graduate Emily Cole was among the group of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists who traveled to all 26 participating prisons in Michigan in search of the best works of art created.

“I learned a great deal about what inspires their work, such as their family, passions outside of art, and the goals that they have set for themselves in the future,” Cole said.

The show features diversity of both artists and artistic choices. Artists range from 18 to 80 years old, men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most pieces are for sale, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

Last year, almost half of the 823 pieces were sold, generating $28,945 in just two weeks. There is a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes and political statements. 

“Many artists chose to respond visually to several topics that currently dominate the news and public discourse,” said curator Charlie Michaels. “They include emotional and thoughtful reflections on isolation and COVID-19, on the American political landscape, and personal perspectives on race and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

  • "At our Wit's End," Paint. Image credit: Serge Tkachenko
  • "Curiosity Built the World," Acrylic. Image credit: Albert Kakosky III
  • "Even in the Dark, There's Beauty," Acrylic. Image credit: Daniel Teribery
  • “3 Dodo Birds, Acrylic. Image credit: Darryl Rattew

Senior curator Janie Paul started the Annual Exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP founder Buzz Alexander. Paul, a community-based artist and U-M professor emerita whose primary focus is the capacity of visual meaning-creation as a vehicle for social change, has been bringing art from prisons across the state to campus each year.  

Paul and Alexander traveled to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art for the first show in 1996. 

"We were just mind-blown by the work," Paul said. "We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community. It brought us all together."

The exhibition is at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. on U-M's North Campus March 22-April 5. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

The opening celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. March 22. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections, artists from previous exhibitions and a performance by the U-M Out of the Blue choir. 

Oboe professor runs a marathon in every state

Nancy Ambrose King traveled in January to Hawaii to run in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon.

When she crossed the finish line, she completed a goal that was years in the making: running a marathon in each of the 50 states.

Nancy Ambrose King.

“It was really thrilling, and maybe even a little bittersweet,” King said. “I had been working toward that moment for nine years. Overall, it was just a really exciting morning, and I was happy that I accomplished what I’d planned to do.”

King, professor of oboe in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, picked up running as a hobby in her mid-40s when her neighbor invited her to join a local 10K race.

King discovered she loved the way running made her feel, both physically and mentally. That first race led to others, and running became a regular part of her routine.

As her 50th birthday approached, King thought participating in a marathon would be a fun way to mark the milestone. That year’s annual Detroit Free Press Marathon happened to fall on the same weekend as her 50th birthday.

“I thoroughly expected it to be the first and last marathon I ever ran. But six months later, I did one in Cleveland,” King said, “and just kept running.”

King learned about the 50 States Marathon Club, a nonprofit organization whose members share the common goal of running marathons in all 50 states. People are eligible for membership after they’ve run 10 marathons in 10 states.

King decided to try to complete all 50 marathons before she turned 60. She started signing up for marathons across the country and launched a vigorous training schedule.

“I’m a goal-oriented person,” she said. “It’s sometimes not that much fun to get up in the morning and go running when it’s snowing and 5 degrees below zero, or 95 and hot and humid.

“It’s easy when you’re only accountable to yourself to take a day off or a week off. I felt the goal of having a marathon coming up held me accountable to getting out there every day and running.”

King ran as many as nine marathons a year. To train, she ran 45 miles a week divided into short runs on weekdays and longer runs on weekends.

The medals earned by Nancy Ambrose King, who completed a marathon in all 50 states.

“I really found that (running) is a time that I could have completely to myself and my thoughts,” she said. “I would come up with really good ideas and projects. It was just an hour or a few hours that I would be out there unreachable for the most part, and I found it to be a creative time mentally. Physically, I like the way I feel when I’m in good shape.”

At first, finding marathons was easy. But King had only a few states left when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing her to get creative with her schedule as she scurried to locate replacement races for ones that had been canceled.

She said one of her most memorable races was in Boston in 2015, two years after the Boston Marathon bombing. She also loved the scenery during a race in the mountains above Seattle.

“Even though a lot of the marathons I did were big-city marathons, some of the most memorable were in the small towns that I never would have had the opportunity to visit if they weren’t the destination for a marathon in their state,” she said.

King always knew the final marathon in her goal would be in Hawaii.

“It’s just such a beautiful destination,” she said. “I knew it would be a great trip to celebrate the project’s completion and share that moment with my family.”

On Jan. 16, King’s husband, two sons and their girlfriends, her neighbor, her neighbor’s family and even a couple former students who are living in Hawaii were there to cheer her on.

She said she hasn’t yet decided what her new running goal will be. She plans to participate in some half-marathons and recently picked up a new sport: golf.

King has actually exceeded her 50-marathon goal. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014 in Washington, D.C., bringing her total to 51.

“If Washington, D.C., ever becomes a state, I have it covered,” she said.

Nancy Ambrose King playing Danse (Sigillum Saturni) by Dirk-Michael Kirsch.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Each time one of my students achieves a great milestone or is recognized for their effort and ability is a memorable experience for me. I am so fortunate to work with students who are among the finest musicians in the nation, and it is truly a privilege to guide them through their career.

What can’t you live without?

Definitely my family. My husband and two sons are my biggest supporters. And my daily New York Times crossword puzzle!

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Hill Auditorium. I have so many memories of performances I’ve played on that stage and amazing concerts I’ve heard as an audience member, going back to my days as a student here in the early ’80s until the present day. It’s a jewel on our campus.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by great musicians who transcend their instrument, by the beauty of our natural surroundings right here in the state of Michigan, and by those in the world who tirelessly give of themselves for the betterment of our world. Seeing small random acts of kindness in the midst of our pandemic is a great testament to the strength of our community and is inspiring.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larsen. I have Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” next up on the list.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Definitely the three oboe professors I had in my life. Arno Mariotti, who I studied with from the age of 10 until I was 20; Harry Sargous for two years right here at U-M; and Richard Killmer at the Eastman School of Music, who guided me through both master’s and doctoral degrees and has been my lodestar for 35 years since.

UMSI students provide Arab American National Museum invaluable community accessibility and usability expertise

The halls of the stately Arab American National Museum (AANM), usually echoing with the patter of feet and expressions of awe, have sat silently awaiting the return of patrons since March 2020.

With the pandemic necessitating the temporary closure of AANM’s physical space, the institution turned to University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) students for assistance and expertise in improving the digital accessibility of the museum’s collections.

Located in Dearborn, Michigan, AANM is the only museum out of the nation’s 35,000 that is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing Arab American culture. The institution has long been a champion of curatorial accessibility; however, ensuring that its tens of thousands of annual in-person visitors have the same intimate and meaningful interactions with its online collections is a new challenge.

While the museum was closed due to the pandemic, staff hosted an online music festival, in their pajamas, from Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s “Teenage Bedroom” installation. Video by AANM. 

“The pandemic and our inability to have visitors come to the museum really forced us to ask who’s accessing our things online, who do we want to be accessing them and whether they’re getting the full experience that we want them to,” says Matt Jaber Stiffler, the research and content manager at AANM and lecturer within the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ American Culture department.

To answer these questions, Master of Science in Information (MSI) students William Cheng, Michelle Torby and Angel Caranna met regularly with Stiffler as part of the fall 2020 SI 547: Engaging with Communities course, led by clinical associate professor David Wallace. The class is client-based, meaning that companies, nonprofits or organizations host student teams that work to address real-world information challenges.

UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office helps recruit projects for the course that facilitate community partnerships and allow students to make an impact while building their portfolio through real-world experiences. In SI 547, students are challenged to examine the principles, methods and ethics involved in community collaboration.

The Arab American National Museum, located in Dearborn, is the first and only museum in the U.S. that is devoted to Arab-American history and culture.

Wallace says, “This type of experiential, hands-on, client-facing work is fundamental for professional development as it explicitly joins course theories and concepts to pragmatic, real-world problem solving and shaping positive client outcomes.”

At the start of the semester, each student submitted a questionnaire surveying their skills, experience and interests. The students were subsequently matched with projects where they could make a meaningful impact.

Cheng, who graduated from the MSI program in spring 2021, was excited to be a part of AANM’s project because he could exercise both his technical user experience (UX) design skills and his empathetic objectivity.

“I’m an international student, so I can relate to the way that Arab people feel in U.S. society in terms of status and suffering,” Cheng said. He came to UMSI after growing up in Taiwan and earning both a BA and MA in library and information science from National Taiwan University.

The students worked with Stiffler and the team at AANM to set realistic goals. AANM had just migrated to a new website for the first time in 13 years during June 2020. Around the same time, the museum had been forced to lay off nearly two-thirds of its staff due to pandemic budgeting constraints.

The museum’s website contains object, archival, art and library collections in addition to born-digital collections that preserve online content. AANM started the partnership with the intent of making the museum’s digital space more accessible specifically for those with hearing and vision impairments.

Through a series of user interviews, students discovered that people with sensory impairments were not the only users having trouble accessing information on AANM’s new site. The students determined the website needed a stronger structure before it made sense to solely concentrate on audio and visual accessibility.

Entrance to the exhibit “Coming to America” at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

“We expanded the project’s scope to focus on general accessibility that could benefit everyone,” says Torby, a second-year MSI student.

Her advice to those taking client-based courses is to “be open to changing the scope of the project and working with the organizations to voice your concerns, because if you don’t, then you can’t best pivot to meet the needs of everyone.”

The students spent four months engaging with the website to create a usability report. During their regular meetings with the team, AANM was receptive and often implemented the students’ suggested changes on the spot.

AANM found the experience of working with the students so useful that when an opportunity arose to continue the partnership during the winter 2021 semester in the SI 622: Needs Assessment Usability course, they seized it. A new group of MSI students, including Austin Zielinski, Jordan Graves, Qinchi Chen and Shujie Li, picked up the project.

In SI 622, students utilize a variety of methods — including observation, surveys, interviews, performance analysis, evaluation in the design/iteration cycle, usability tests and assessment of systems — to provide clients with recommendations for performance improvement. The winter 2021 course was taught by clinical assistant professor Mustafa Naseem.

“The AANM project goal was to better understand how to bring users to the website and how they access information,” says Zielinski, a second-year MSI student.

Epicenter X, a timely exhibition of Saudi Contemporary Art in Dearborn, Michigan opened at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) on 8 July 2017, and ran until 1 October 2017.

The interdisciplinary team assessed the website and held interviews with users and stakeholders. They also conducted comparative analysis assessments with other museums and did usability testing. At the end of the semester, the students sent a report to AANM along with a final video summarizing their findings.

“The recommendations were very clear: Change the wording of headings for clarity, adopt color contrasts to make screen reading easier and run tests to understand how screen readers are picking up the information,” Stiffler shares. “We had really good suggestions, so it’s just a matter of implementing them now.”

Stiffler and his colleagues at AANM were impressed by the final product. “It was very professional, very useful. Throughout our conversations, the team understood what we were trying to do, and the end product will be very helpful for us as we move forward.”

AANM recently reopened to the public and hopes to continue implementing the changes to their website for those interested in exploring the museum’s digital collections. The institution plans on sustaining its relationship with UMSI in the future, too.

“I think it’s great that UMSI is so invested in these projects. It’s really nice that we don’t have to seek out ways to get help, that they’re always there,” Stiffler says.

Fair Representation in Arts and Data

Stamps Associate Professor Sophia Brueckner has long known that small things can make a big impact. However, the fact really hit home for her very recently through her work with the ongoing research project, ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data.” In the last year, she’s been part of a team of dedicated University of Michigan (U‑M) researchers who used several of the most popular face detection algorithms designed to distinguish a variety of factors (including gender and race) to analyze the entire collection at UMMA.

We’re trying to draw parallels between bias and exclusion in the museum world and bias and exclusion in technology,” Brueckner says. ​With our research, we hope to create a more aware — and more inclusive — local community and world.”

Funded by the U‑M’s Arts Initiative, Brueckner explains that the year-long collaboration between data scientists, artists, and museum curators has focused on exploring how bias is present and problematic, the process where bias happens, and if they could recognize some trends in the diversity of UMMA’s collection.

There’s simply no other project like this anywhere, and it’s really important research to have in this day and age,” says the project’s lead investigator and data scientist, Dr. Jing Liu.

Liu, who is also the managing director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science, shares that previous to working on ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data,” she had already been kicking around the idea of how artwork could be used to demonstrate to the public, ​in a very intuitive way, both the power of data science and the harm of data science.”

We know that data science and artificial intelligence (AI) systems have implicit bias and that momentum needs to be built up around the topic,” Liu says. ​For a few years now we have thought about educating the public in some way. When we found out that there was funding for pilot projects, I knew it was a chance to be a part of doing something really substantial.”

Working Together To Make Change

The project’s initial findings are certainly thought-provoking. Some key highlights were not too surprising to the research team. For instance, they uncovered that the algorithms often failed in recognizing females in the collection and that the collection is very white-heavy.

We essentially did face detection over UMMA’s entire collection,” Brueckner explains. ​We found all the faces in the collection and then we applied algorithms that are available publicly and open source, which helped identify race classification and gender classification to those faces.”

She said that it’s very hard to understand sometimes why these algorithms are making certain decisions, but the researchers have found the results really interesting. She points to one unexpected discovery: when left to an algorithm to categorize visual input, the most representative face found in the collection is a painting of a clown.

Georges Rouault, Cirque de l’Etoile Filante. Plate XIII: Le Renchéri (p.106), 1935. Full information

We applied a different type of algorithm that looks at which features are really important in detecting a face and then look at the averages,” Brueckner says. ​That the algorithm concluded on the ​clown’ is funny, but it actually sort of makes sense, because clowns have exaggerated facial makeup.”

Motivated by the knowledge that both the algorithms and UMMA’s collection are biased, the ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data” team inspired the UMMA exhibition, White Cube Black Box.

The phrase ​White Cube’ is a term that refers to museums historically being exclusionary and having blank white walls and removing all the context, which makes the work actually quite inaccessible for those who aren’t highly educated in the subject matter or coming from certain communities,” Brueckner explains. ​And, the term ​Black Box’ is used in engineering to talk about how a lot of these technologies that we rely on are opaque.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

Entrance at UMMA during the “You Are Here” exhibit (2021).

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

Viewers examining UMMA’s 2019 Photography Exhibition “Take Your Pick,” which showcased every aspect of 20th-century American life you can imagine—and some you probably can’t.

For Liu, the power of people from different disciplines coming together to share ideas has not escaped her. She shares that in her usual experience when different groups of people talk about the same topic, they tend to talk over each other.

But, with our project, artists and scientists sat down and talked with each other and learned from each other and challenged each other to strengthen our collective effort,” she says. ​I want to see more of this and I’m really hoping that our project is an example that helps to steer things away from the status quo.”

Seconding her wish is Brueckner, who also hopes that the team’s work will steer people towards becoming more educated consumers who will vote for more data privacy and security. If the project can provide an inroad to making people aware of the pitfalls in technology that is being embedded locally, and all across the world, a bit earlier, then she’ll be plenty happy.

This type of biased data collection is already being deployed around the world, and some of it is useful and some of it is frankly pretty scary,” she says. ​Recently, there was a disturbing case in Detroit where a child was misidentified at a skating rink and was given a ban all because of an algorithm. We need to raise awareness that these algorithms are still deeply flawed.”

U-M Humanities exhibition explores aging, identity and labor

The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities presents “Beautiful By Night,” an exhibition by Chicago-based photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist James Hosking. The photo series and documentary project is about the veteran drag performers at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, a small bar that has had an outsized influence on San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community for more than twenty years.

Sadly, it is now the last gay bar in the area. The project captures the performers Donna Personna, Olivia Hart, and Collette LeGrande as they transform at home, backstage, and onstage. It is a candid exploration of aging, identity, and labor.


According to curator Amanda Krugliak, the timely work reveals not only the multiple dimensions of the protagonists, but also our skewed perceptions and value judgments in regards to aging, identity, class, and work.

“The artist and documentarian James Hosking lived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood from 2010 to 2018, during which time he created the series of photographs and video Beautiful By Night. The exhibition presents intimate portraits of three long-time drag performers at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, a small bar that has been so meaningful to San Franciso’s LGBTQ+ community for decades, and is now literally the last surviving gay bar in the neighborhood,” Krugliak said.

“The project is a deftly crafted and sensitive homage to performers Donna Personna, Olivia Hart, and Collette LeGrande. The images show us complicated, sometimes messy, multi-dimensional people in their environments, taking us from backstage to front and center, from the routine to the out of this world. Hosking’s focus on small details, the nuances of color, or the particularity of light, result in an expansive vision. As viewers, we feel the closeness of Hosking’s relationships to Donna, Olivia, and Collette, and, in turn, we also feel for them. They are the protagonists of their own stories, both everyday and extraordinary, and we are their rapt audience.”

Some of artist James Hosking’s photos featured as part of the U-M Institute for the Humanities exhibition, “Beautiful By Night.”

James Hosking’s portraiture explores underseen LGBTQ+ communities and subcultures. He often combines multiple images to explore sequentiality and juxtaposition. In recent work, he prints on fabric and acrylic, as well as collages with archival material, vernacular photos, and found textures.

His work was included in the 2020 exhibition Come to Your Census at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and he had a multi-year collaboration with the city’s Tenderloin Museum that featured screenings, public programming, and a solo exhibition. His work has been screened internationally and has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostMother Jones, and many other publications.

He collaborated with National Book Award-winning writer William T. Vollmann on a portfolio about transgender women for Port magazine. His work has received support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts program

Beautiful By Night will be on view through February 21, 2022 at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery. The Institute for the Humanities Gallery is located at located at 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor, and is free and open to the public from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays.

Related Events:

Wednesday February 16, 6:30 PM joing the Institute for the Humanities for a special viewing of James Hosking’s film, “Beautiful By Night” with guests, protagonists, and queens Donna Personna and Olivia Hart in the Thayer Academic Building.