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SIDDHARTHA V. SHAH has been promoting art as a means of community engagement and social responsibility throughout his professional career. Recently he has taken up the role of Director of the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts, and talks with VANESSA PATEL about how he is expanding his vision in this new college environment.

Q: Hello Siddhartha, thanks for your time. Since last we met, you’ve moved to the Mead at Amherst. It's a different profile of people, right?

SVS: Totally different. At Amherst College, the students are incredibly smart and talented. They can really think critically about art in a different way, and you can take more risks because college is about engaging with difficult conversations. 

Q: So how are you taking forward the community engagement that was so central to your last position at the Peabody Essex Museum?

SVS: That will be a major part of what I do. The challenge is how to make the arts more available to people and democratize art museums. But the museum is in the middle of a college campus, so, if the community has a hard time accessing it, if they can’t park, if they don’t feel like what’s on campus is really for them, we’re limited. I’m hoping to advocate for the museum to move closer to town, to show that we are balancing the commitment to the educational mission and the civic responsibility of the college. This is a long-term plan as we want more people from the community to feel welcome. We want the general public to feel quite comfortable wandering in.

Q: Are there specific projects that you are working on here?

SVS: We are working on a public engagement project, an exhibition around American Studies and the idea of democracy, as well as the college being a place to develop the civic leaders of the future. 

I started thinking about Puerto Rico, which is essentially an American colony. The situation of Puerto Rico really brings into question whether the United States is a democracy, and whether our identity really is about freedom.

To be in a space of beauty 
can shift the way we feel, 
how we open up,
the way we connect with people.

This exhibition, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Puerto Rico, is called “Tropical is Political – Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime.” It addresses some of the issues around American identity. There are towns near here in Massachusetts that have the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans in the United States, like Holyoke and the city of Springfield. These are communities that have not felt welcomed at an elite college campus. So, my hope is that by doing this exhibition, talking about the situation of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, that these folks will come to the museum and see their story. The labels will be in English and Spanish. This is one form of community engagement, through an exhibition that’s about the people who live near us.

Q: I hope it expands for you the way you want it to. 

SVS: The first thing I did when I arrived was to check with the staff if they wanted to do a training on sensory accessibility, and they agreed. The museum is now certified as a sensory-inclusive museum, which means that we attend to the needs of people with invisible disabilities (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder, a stroke, or on the autism spectrum). We have signs to inform them when there might be noise or flashing lights; we have noise cancelling headphones if they’re sensitive to sound. The next step is color accessibility, where we purchase special glasses. Folks who are colorblind don’t experience visual art in the same way. These glasses allow them to experience art fully.

Q: I’m sure it requires quite a bit of investment. Do you see this leading towards more partnerships with the larger community?

SVS: Yes, although it’s going to take time. You can’t rush into community partnerships. You have to assess the risks, for example, where you could break someone’s trust. It takes time to earn the trust of people, performatively testing partnerships, seeing that everybody is happy. 

We’ve been doing an art project around mental health for students with learning disabilities and social challenges, displaying their work in the lobby. We have special hours because some of them are not comfortable being there with the public. It is a resource we share with them and we want them to take advantage of it. But we have to be really sensitive about how we partner with them. All these things take time. 

Q: With so much social upheaval around us, what are your thoughts on the role of art in navigating through our current issues, for instance, the fears around climate change? Is there something that art can offer as a means of support?

SVS: There are a lot of different ways to approach this. Regarding fear around climate change, art can present solutions. Can art address this in ways that are communal? I’ve heard of some artists who make coral reefs out of knitting, so other folks can come and participate. It is a co-created practice about something at risk because of climate change. There are creative ways you can present issues. 

There are ways to present race and social justice with art in ways that words can’t. There’s a lot of sensitivity about using the wrong language and not wanting to hurt people. Art can communicate some of these complexities visually, touching a much deeper place. 

The flip side is that you can trigger people’s sensitivities. You may need to have content warnings, for example, “The next object engages issues of racism and sexual violence. The reason it is here is because there are aspects of these topics that need to be presented and engaged. If you wish not to engage with this material, then you might want to go to a different area of the museum.” You need to give them the option to engage or not.

Ultimately, it’s all about visitor experience. You have to balance the objects and care for the objects, the correct presentation and history, and the visitor experience. Museums have historically prioritized objects. Now they’re shifting, and I’m someone who is all about the visitor experience; objects support that. For the visitor to have a good experience, they should have the option to engage as they wish, rather than being confronted with something they aren’t prepared for. What do you want to learn about? Here are your options, now choose your own adventure.

Q: You have talked about including spiritual aspects like empathy, connection, and wellness. You used to do meditation at the Peabody. Is that something you’ve brought here too?

SVS: Not yet, since I’m the director and because of the power dynamic. But nothing has changed around my commitment to wellness and the role of the arts. There are a lot more college students seeking counseling services than when I was in college. Since the pandemic, a lot of students are seeking mental health support. I see an opportunity for the art museum to be a space of healing, rejuvenation, restoration, rest, and slowing down. All these are aspects of the same thing. 

I noticed in myself a connection between internet scrolling (doom scrolling) and anxiety. There’s so much news and the images are changing. I become like a zombie, mindlessly scrolling until I’m completely agitated. And if I’m experiencing that, there must be a lot of people experiencing it, potentially worse than me, because they might not even be aware. 

The museum can be a space of slowing down; not just swiping past an image, but looking deeper, more closely. If people are having an experience of looking at images and slowing down, it is the complete opposite of looking at images frantically, whether it’s a dating app or Instagram. A space to slow down can really support mental health.

The museum can be a space of slowing down; 
not just swiping past an image, 
but looking deeper, more closely. 
If people are having an experience of 
looking at images and slowing down, 
it is the complete opposite of looking at images frantically, 
whether it’s a dating app or Instagram. 
A space to slow down can really support mental health.

We do have a Counseling Centre on campus, and my understanding is that people can go for one-on-one sessions and group therapy sessions, like survivors of sexual violence, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous. I’m wondering if we can offer the museum as a space for some of these groups to meet, because we have an old wood-paneled room that can be completely closed and private; it is a beautiful, cozy room, a great safe space to engage in a facilitated conversation around a challenge. I’m exploring that too.

Think about the stress of exams. I remember what it was like, paired with trying to find a job when you graduate, maybe coming from not much money, and feeling like you are now going to be responsible. Those pressures as well as body image issues, questioning sexual identity, are really intense for students.

Q: I think the old support systems have practically crumbled and disappeared. They seem to have become redundant. There is a need for support systems with anonymity and lack of judgment, completely open and supportive. I really hope your idea takes shape, because that room sounds like a lovely place, a haven.

SVS: Yes. I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody, but I find beauty really healing. When you’re sick, hospital doesn’t feel or look like a space of healing. It’s sanitized and cold and smells bad, and there are machines beeping. Even a therapist’s office can feel unwelcome and stark. To be in a space of beauty can shift the way we feel, how we open up, the way we connect with people. So, I’m hoping that this beautiful room can be used in that way.

Q: Thank you again, Siddhartha.


Siddhartha V. Shah

Siddhartha V. Shah

Siddhartha is Director of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, overseeing collections, acquisitions, exhibitions, and programs, and deepening engagement with the community. Shah is on the board of the American Council for Southern Asi... Read More