During her 14 years as an elementary school teacher, Christina Woods often settled squabbles among students using art.
"I realized the best way to talk about [conflicts] was by finding a neutral ground, which was art," she said.
Now, as executive director of the Duluth Art Institute, Woods is again using art as an instrument for social change, creating opportunities for artists of color and drawing in others from diverse backgrounds as art teachers, volunteers and board members.
"The organization's governance changed," she said, "from a predominantly white board of directors to 60 percent BIPOC," or Black, Indigenous and people of color, "which now makes us a BIPOC-led organization after being predominantly white for 113 years."
Woods also has been selected to be part of a 13-member board that advises the U.S. Senate on its substantial Art & Artifacts Collection. The Senate Curatorial Advisory Board provides advice and assistance to the Commission on Art, which acquires, restores, replicates and replaces artwork, historical objects and documents. These pieces are part of preservation projects and exhibits in the Senate wing of the Capitol or the Senate office buildings.
Woods was nominated for the post by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said that Woods would bring "passion, expertise and Minnesota perspective to this role.
"Throughout her tenure leading the Duluth Art Institute, Christina has been a tireless advocate for the arts, championing innovative exhibits and promoting community participation," Klobuchar said.
Woods, the institute's first Anishinaabe director and a member of the Bois Forte Band, has become well known for her work on inclusion in the art world. She's on the Duluth Public Arts Commission, the state of Minnesota's Capitol Art Exhibit Advisory Committee and a committee advising the state's Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board on statues and monuments.
Before becoming the museum's director in 2018, Woods spent 14 years teaching, writing curriculum and grants, fundraising, and consulting on diversity and inclusion. In 2019, she was named one of "50 over 50" influential Minnesotans, a list compiled by the state AARP and Pollen, a media arts nonprofit.
Woods has changed longstanding museum practices, for example, giving artists of color a role in writing materials explaining their art, rather than leaving that up to curators. Those whose points of view were shaped by their upbringing in the dominant white culture may have difficulty understanding work by people of color, transgender people, people with autism, and other underrepresented groups, she said, and thus may impose their own interpretation on it.
Their art is best understood by those who have shared the experience, she said.
Woods has put in place other practices to change the longstanding culture. She assembled a community panel of artists and art enthusiasts "who aren't in the normative culture" to decide on exhibits in the upcoming calendar year. She has shifted the institute's internal leadership from a hierarchical system to one that emphasizes collaboration among the staff of seven.
"Not any one person drives an agenda ... every person is a leader," she said. "So we all have input on every aspect of the organization."
The institute's efforts to create opportunities for artists of color and bring attention to their work includes keeping a list of such artists on its website.
When viewing work by artists of color, white audiences need to adjust their usual lenses — to "decolonize" their points of view, Woods said.
"If you're not familiar with art from BIPOC artists," Woods said, "you need to take a little bit of time to reach beyond what you're used to and understand there's an absent narrative in it."
The effort means approaching art in a different way: asking more questions, examining what one could be missing, looking up more information, "whatever it takes," she said.
"There's work involved in viewing BIPOC artists," Woods said. "The work is to unearth the story they're trying to tell."