Kantara Souffrant believes that art demonstrates what people value.
And as the incoming curator of community dialogue for the Milwaukee Art Museum, it’s her job to ensure community engagement is a focus of programming at the museum through partnerships with Milwaukee’s art community and the community at large.
“I use art as a way to look at structure, access and community,” said Souffrant, who will start in January. “It’s one way of measuring how a community is doing.”
An artist-scholar and a museum educator, Souffrant earned a doctorate in performance studies from Northwestern University and serves as an assistant professor of global/non-Western art history and visual culture at Illinois State University.
From 2015 to 2018, she was the manager of the school and teacher program at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where she connected students with art in the museum’s collection and revitalized the training and educational materials for the museum’s Haitian art collection.
While at Illinois State University, her research interests included Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. As the daughter of two Haitian immigrants, Souffrant, 34, said the museum’s Haitian art collection showed her a history she didn’t know.
‘A lot of learning and unpacking to do’
One of her goals is to make sure everyone feels welcome at the museum.
“I understand that it hasn’t traditionally seemed accessible to Black, brown and low-income people,” she said. “It’s my job to make sure everyone feels respected and accepted in the space. That includes understanding the barriers that keep people from experiencing the Milwaukee Art Museum.”
Marcelle Polednik, the Donna and Donald Baumgartner director at the museum, said Souffrant’s role serves “as a critical piece to the important work the museum needs to start doing — today.”
Megan McGee, a friend of Souffrant’s and the executive director of Ex-Fabula, a nonprofit that uses storytelling to connect communities, said Souffrant’s work involves breaking down cultural barriers.
“Many institutions like the art museum are grounded in whiteness,” McGee said. “If we want those institutions to serve everyone, there is a lot of learning and unpacking to do, and that is what Kantara’s work is about.”
McGee said Souffrant’s warm and authentic personality is one reason she is good for this position.
“Whenever I hear her speak, I learn so much,” McGee said. “She makes history come alive.”
Souffrant will also serve on the museum’s senior leadership team, helping to make art relevant to Milwaukee’s diverse communities, addressing social issues through art and being responsible for off-site projects.
“Kantara is genuinely interested in making connections,” said Marcela “Xela” Garcia, the executive director of Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. “She is someone that will approach the work in an honest and genuine way.”
Garcia and Souffrant met when Souffrant originally worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“She showed up when it wasn’t required,” Garcia said. “She is interested in seeing Milwaukee become a better place.”
“It is my goal to leave the community in a better place than when I came,” Souffrant said.