Birmingham Speaks: An Evolving Program for a Changing City

/ In the Community - Programs

Birmingham Speaks is a dynamic platform designed to incite meaningful conversation among the citizens of Birmingham and our region. Since its inception seven years ago, the program has changed, shifting from a spoken-word event to a moderated panel, focused on issues endemic to our city. Panelists are chosen to specifically address a single question. The questions are generated from overheard conversations in coffee shops and classrooms, on Museum tours, and/or around a the happy hour glass of beer. For example: “What does it mean that Birmingham is undergoing a renaissance?”; “What is the latest around 20/59?”; “Have we lost a generation of youth?”; “Birmingham is more than just black and white so why are those the racial dynamics we are focused on?!”; or “Who are the artists and activists who are really moving this region forward?”

Four times a year at Birmingham Speaks, the city gathers at the BMA to listen, engage, and reflect upon itself. As a new resident of the region, I love this program. I want it to continue; I would attend even if not on staff at the BMA. As the Curator of Education, however, my role is to assess the program’s vitality and to consistently ask two questions: “How did we get here?” and “What comes next?” For it is being open to change that provides the best preparation for an evolving series in a rapidly-changing city.

Originally conceived in 2009, BMA Speaks was a program created by former Associate Curator of Adult Programs Kristen Greenwood and Sharrif Simmons. With the many changes happening in 2009 — such as the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the introduction of the iPhone, and the road to recovery from the financial crisis — the time was ripe to build off of this new energy and excitement.

Although the program was initially a success when it began, there were several issues that caused the program to shift from an annual event to a sporadic occurrence. It became harder to make a case for what distinguished our programming from other similar spoken-word events in the city. In early 2015, Kristen and Sharrif regrouped and began to re-cast the program into a new mold. In August of 2015, the program relaunched and the success was immediate. But what changed?

The first was the creation of a sense of purpose that linked the Museum to the question proposed to the panel. In August, November, February, and coming soon in May, the series takes on the concept of place as a theme. In discussing Birmingham as a place in the local and national imaginary, no other cultural institution can do that quite like the BMA. What better place, than here, at the Birmingham Museum of Art — amid art objects spanning 4,000 years of technological innovation, social change, and human interaction — to hold a regular forum on the shifting demographics and culture of our city?

The second change was the selection of a new moderator. Sharrif asked local personality and provocateur Max Rykov to serve in this role. Conscientious about bringing in younger voices, and balancing a desire to keep the conversations fresh and edgy, but on topic, Max’s unique perspective has added a spirit of generosity to the program. Max, Kristen, and Sharrif decided it was right to invite four to six community members to the Museum and provide them a platform to respond in their own words to the community’s questions and concerns. These changes and concepts worked so well we decided we were due for a name change. This event was larger than the BMA; Birmingham was finally talking freely to itself. And so, the program became Birmingham Speaks.

To keep fresh and current, we must innovate subtly. Perhaps we change the format a little. Perhaps we think about partnering with other municipalities. Perhaps we consider our use of technology. But one thing is clear: the BMA is proud of this program. Yes, Birmingham, its surrounding municipalities, and the BMA programming continue to evolve. What is beautiful and thrilling is that we are evolving in concert with each other.