Following a nationwide search, the APEX Museum’s board of directors has named its new executive director, Lauren Tate Baeza.
A scholar, public servant, and advocate, Baeza has a love for the arts, culture, and history. Her work has taken her abroad to the Caribbean, as well as East Africa. Now, after seven years in Los Angeles, she’s back in Atlanta.
“We are extremely happy to have Lauren with us,” said Dan Moore Sr., president, and Founder of APEX Museum. “She brings another whole new dimension to the APEX Museum and brings a young academic perspective to it. We have a young lady who has been a blessing to us already.”
The APEX Museum, located on Auburn Avenue, is dedicated to telling the stories of people of African descent, as well as their culture and history. Indeed, one of the city’s hidden treasures, the museum, which stands for African American Panoramic Experience, will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.
According to Moore, the APEX Museum is known for its three permanent exhibitions: the early African Civilization before the transatlantic trade, which displays that our history starts before slavery, the exhibition about slave the trade, and the Sweet Auburn history exhibit, which is hugely important to black Atlanta history and Atlanta history.
Baeza’s main responsibilities will focus on programming, development, and exhibitions, which she said she loves. She also said the museum constantly inspires her and that she has a lot of incredible ideas for the museum. The programming will be planned around the set exhibitions bi-monthly, inviting the community to come back.
Baeza said they want to see people more often at the museum and that the museum will feature film screenings, open public debates that deal with controversial issues and a safe place for people to have those conversations, lectures, and guest artists and panels, turning the space in more of a community space to engage people.
She stated that the rotating exhibitions and programming will help bring in new demographics and new geographies; different types of people coming to the museum because of the different types of exhibitions.
“I anticipate my favorite part of the job will be the exhibitions: planning, research of exhibitions, execution, working and collaborating with other scholars, historians, constantly working with the display coordinators, and introducing new stories and nuanced telling’s of our history on a regular basis,” said Baeza. “It’s creative and academic.”
Baeza said she has always had a passion for museums. Now, as the museum’s new director, she said her primary goal is to get more people through the doors. Her previous experience includes work at the Fowler Museum and the Santa Monica Museum of Art (now the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).
Initially looking into a career in policy work doing consulting, grant writing, research, Baeza was about to accept a temporary assignment with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Rwanda when she decided instead to accept the position at the museum.
She has also had several internships and volunteered her time, being involved in exhibit installations and working special events with contemporary art museums, which she thought of as a hobby when she realized her passion for it.
“I am so happy to help the APEX get to the next level and I’m very optimistic,” Baeza said. The community really likes it, but it really is going to be even better,” she added. “I’m just so excited to get us to that place to oversee that transition.”
Baeza feels there are many different ways to combine her interest in Africa and African American history and culture, as well as her interest in policy work being at the APEX Museum.
“There are a lot of ways to be an ambassador,” Baeza said. “You can do a lot with your community at a local level and make a real tangible difference doing something as simple as being an educator or working in a museum, bringing knowledge to the people.”
What distinguishes the APEX Museum from other museums in the city of Atlanta, according to Baeza, is that it features Africa and African American Diaspora history and culture all year long, 365 days a year.
The museum is also a fixture of the historic Auburn district, which is an incredibly important part of American history and the Civil Rights Movement. Auburn Avenue is known for its rich history in Atlanta, once known as one of the wealthiest streets in the world for African Americans.
It is also the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr., which always gets emphasized in Atlanta. There were race riots there and there is also the history of the fight against segregation and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC).
“You see a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he did at other institutions,” Baeza said. “What we hope to do that is different from other institutions is compliment that singular part of history by talking about other unsung heroes in Atlanta that stood for Dr. King’s ideas and celebrate Dr. King and those other people who are a huge part of Atlanta’s history, as well as celebrate people of African descent.”
The APEX Museums’ goal, according to Baeza, is to continue the push beyond that narrative of slavery, the fight against segregation, and systemic victimization of our people to talk about all of the dynamic contributions of African Americans and people of African descent in a celebratory way.
Countering somber parts of our history with all of the great things that our people have been able to do is the new direction for the museum, she explained. The museum, under her directorship, will aim to highlight how in every subfield, every topic and every profession, African Americans are there, are dynamic, and can do it all.
“That’s some of what the museum has done historically and that’s what we will continue to do in an even broader capacity by looking at all the things the museum can celebrate,” Baeza said.
The APEX Museum has persevered 39 years of changes throughout the city from one year to the next. The community continues to support the museum, as it is an iconic institution with a legacy, according to Baeza, which she really wanted to be a part of.
“There’s room to grow,” said Baeza, who also likes the idea of taking on the challenge to oversee the transition that is going to ensure the museum will be there for another 39 years. “I am super-excited to be home. Nothing has ever been like Atlanta for me.”
An Atlanta native, Baeza earned her college preparatory high school diploma from the Dekalb School of the Arts. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in African and African-American cultural studies from California State University-Northridge, with research emphases in postcolonial African political history, contemporary African arts and literature, and cultural resistance.
She also earned a master of arts in African studies from the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) African Studies Graduate program.
After years away from the city, Baeza came to the conclusion that she had to move back to Atlanta because she loves the city — she said she has been watching her hometown from afar, seemingly enthralled that now it is enjoying a little bit of a renaissance.
“This is an incredible time in Atlanta,” she said. “I can do this work and I can take some of my talents and do that at a local level in my own community that will really be impactful and gratifying personally.”
In fact, Baeza had started applying for other jobs in Atlanta when she got the call from the APEX Museum.
The museum is funded by corporate sponsors, national, state, and county foundational grants, and by individual giving, which is more substantial in keeping the museum open than other institutions and non-profits that she has worked for.
The museum is doing what most non-profits do, going after all manner of funding by giving priority to corporate interest because it has been more personal and there are more opportunities for collaborations, according to Baeza.
“This is a major city,” she said. “We can go into an office and actually shake hands at a headquarters based in the city.”
Baeza said time is managed by the calendar year and all throughout the year the museum focuses on fundraising. Sometimes during the year, the museum will focus on exhibitions, curation, or programming, and preparation, like all non-profits.
The community funds the museum, especially around the holidays. There are currently plans in the works to expand museum’s gift shop, bringing in local entrepreneurs, clothing designers, and more. There will also be one space in the museum allocated to showcasing contemporary artists in the Southeast and especially artists from Atlanta because art is history.
Baeza said that any and everyone interested in history and culture are welcomed to the museum.
“Africa and African Diaspora culture are American Culture and world culture,” she said. “Everyone who visits the museum is expected to leave with a new or renewed interest and should expect to see things that make them think.”
“It is critically engaging with the things we put on display and we want people to leave feeling very thoughtful and asking a lot of questions,” she added. “We want the museum to be an exchange not just one directional.”