The first faces you see when you walk into CAM are those of the Visitor Service Associates. VSAs do more than safeguard the art—they are CAM ambassadors who are informed and willing to give you a ten-minute Spotlight Tour of one of the works on view. Far from your textbook tour guide, a CAM VSA is someone you can engage with in a one-on-one conversation. Recently I spoke with Gian Garma in the first of a series of portraits of the VSAs, which continues with my interview with Autumn Wright.
Autumn Wright walks into the CAM staff offices with a book in hand—Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Autumn is a Visitor Services Associate (VSA) at CAM from San Antonio, Texas, with a passion for education advocacy and public policy. We sit down for a conversation about her interest in nonprofit work, St. Louis, and how art can act as a powerful educational tool.
What brings you to museum and nonprofit work?
When I was younger, one of my favorite things to do was spending time at museums and public libraries. I loved the opportunity to expand my knowledge outside of the classroom. I remember taking a field trip to the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, when I was introduced to aspects of Asian culture that I found super unique and exciting.
Since then, I have always wanted to do nonprofit work, especially educational programs that promote social awareness, which is why I joined the VSA team at CAM. Being able to inform people and bring them closer to the art—it’s a way of giving back. My grandma used to say when I was younger that my life isn’t my own. I didn’t understand it then, but now I think what she’s getting at is the fact that to be an individual means being part of a community and doing what you can for the communal good. It gives you a sense of place, and you just feel more connected that way.
What are you working on now outside of CAM?
I have been writing a lot. It’s a craft I feel immersed in and want to dedicate more time and effort into. Lately my writing has been research-based, mostly centered around St. Louis’s politics and public policy, the public transportation system, and also issues with funding distribution and urban development. I’m reading this book, Mapping Decline, by Colin Gordon, which discusses issues like red zoning and discrimination in private practices in St. Louis, which are the kinds of things that few people talk about.
It’s so crucial for art and writing to reflect social issues like these. A museum is a wonderful learning space, and I’m so glad to see CAM embodying just that. With the LEAP Middle School Initiative, our ArtReach program, and VSA Spotlight Tours, CAM makes sure that art is accessible to people in the St. Louis community from all ages and backgrounds.
What is your favorite part about your job? Any favorite exhibitions or artists?
My favorite part about being a VSA is definitely when I talk to people about the art and they start comparing it to their own experiences, which makes the tour an intertwined exchange of ideas. There’s a sense of interconnectedness that I really love. CAM doesn’t only showcase art, we encourage people to bring their own knowledge and stories into their interpretations.
My favorite artwork has got to be Stephanie Syjuco’s To the Person Sitting in Darkness, which is a modification of the American flag that criticizes U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, based on a Mark Twain essay with the same name. I think the term “people in darkness” has a dual meaning: it’s about the confinement of those to whom this flag is dedicated, as well as American ignorance about their cultures and ways of life.