Finding Diversity in Art

Megan Gilbert

Iowa State University’s Art on Campus collection was curated in an attempt to create campus wide discussion about an array of issues.

Dozens of pieces in this collection were designed to illustrate the diverse student body at Iowa State, but as the modern student evolves, the meaning of the artwork has changed.

“[Diversity] is constantly growing. It’s constantly changing, it’s constantly evolving,” said Dr. Reginald Stewart, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at Iowa State University.

Stewart defined diversity as being “a list of categories that is always missing one group.” He said that, when identifying divisions, it’s not wise to definitively end the list because as soon as the list ends, someone has been excluded.

The Art on Campus collection’s goal is to represent the diversity of the students and staff at Iowa State, said Stewart, but the pieces that were installed fifty years ago might not offer an accurate representation of today’s faculty and scholars.

“It’s reflective of what the organization feels is important,” Stewart said. Looking forward, students must help Iowa State identify what modern students look like and can relate to.

“The identity that comes with being a multicultural student on campus plays a big role in my identity and how I view the world,” said Limay Vong, a senior at Iowa State University who identifies as an Asian American.

Sitting in the Multicultural Center of the Memorial Union, Vong is surrounded by art that represents various cultures with an emphasis on foreign language. Vong looked at a wall that was entirely covered in sheets of colorful manuscript and said that she was disappointed that art that was so obviously representative of diverse cultures was in an area that is mainly used by multicultural students and hidden from the rest of the students on campus.

“We learn better in more diverse environments,” she said. Being able to share her culture and traditions with other students in exchange for learning about her peers’ has helped Vong gain a wide perspective of a diverse world.

“Having a color blind society and pushing this under the rug will get us nowhere,” Vong said.  Although conversations about race and ethnicity can be difficult, and often result in exasperation, they create change in society.

Similar to the way an infection will become increasingly severe if it goes untreated, Vong said that ignoring conversations about diversity would only create a problem fueled by ignorance.

“In college, you have all of these opportunities to experience different cultures,” said Amanda Hannasch, a junior at Iowa State.

Hannasch is enrolled in an art course that focuses on diversity to learn more about other cultures and the way in which diversity is reflected in the Art on Campus collection.

“I think it is a conversation that we need to be having, but we aren’t,” Hannasch said. She struggles to find the words to explain her previous attempts to discuss diversity. As a young, white female, Hannasch said that she often feels unfit to have a conversation about diversity.

“It’s harder to have these conversations in a way,” she said. “You’re going to say something that offends someone and automatically be called racist.”

Although an individual may not be racist, Hannasch said, they would shy away from the topic in fear of accidentally saying something that could be perceived in that light.

Hannasch said that she feels Iowa State University does an excellent job in creating opportunities for students to have these conversations, but the students who need the most exposure to other cultures are indifferent and wont attend workshops or lectures that focus on diversity.

A group of dismayed students approached Iowa State University’s President, Steven Leath, last fall to address the lack of discernible cultural diversity in the Art on Campus collection.

“The ideas of the collection are diverse, but some students just may not understand their meaning,” said Vong. Each individual has their own experiences and knowledge, which influences the way they perceive the Art on Campus collection.

“You have to pay attention to understand what they’re telling you,” said Stewart.