Renowned storyteller now leads Duluth Arts Institute

Submitted photo Robin Washington

Robin Washington grew up in a house of paintings. His mother was a painter, often making portraits of people the family knew. That bit of helpful experience is part of the reason the Duluth Arts Institute (DIA) named Washington president of its board of directors this year.

Washington also brings to the 112-year-old nonprofit his experience protesting with his activist mother in the early 1960s, experience as a reporter uncovering the Catholic Church abuse story, time as a radio host and TV producer, and the know-how of an award-winning documentary film director.

DIA has had its share of financial ups-and-downs in its century of existence. Now, the finances of the museum, perched on the Lake Superior waterfront in downtown, are in the diversely talented hands of Washington. 

A storyteller falls for The City on a Hill

Washington fell in love with Duluth as soon as he arrived. He was taken by the cold, hard-nosed beauty of the lake-wind-swept city. 

In 1986, just as he showed up, Silver Bay, a city about an hour north of Duluth, had a mining reserve go out of business. Some 500 jobs were lost in a town with less than 3,000 people. Yet, the northern folk found work, chasing any job they could. 

“These people are serious,” Washington said. “They have that work ethic.”

Washington was born and raised in Chicago, one of two boys. His father, a poet, was black, his mother Jewish. 

“If your mother is Jewish, you are considered Jewish. If you are one drop black, you are considered black,” explained Washington. “So that makes me 200 percent.”

He grew up in the turbulent 1960s. In the early part of the decade, his family members were the only non-whites on the block. As strides were made in civil rights and school desegregation and neighborhood integration, Washington’s mother and his black Jewish household represented the only non-blacks on the block. 

Either way, the home was a safe haven for freedom fighters. As little Washington and his brother ran around, the house was often used for making protest plans, resting, and for making art. 

Washington’s mother took him and his brother on protests when Washington was no more than five or six years old. A sit-in that stands out was the one his family participated in at the Chicago Board of Education that lasted over a week. He remembers sleeping on the floor and reporters asking him if he was scared. Washington wasn’t. His mother always took him to protests. He’d always related to somebody holding a sign. 

“Now I realize that was unusual,” Washington reflected, “[and] how significant those events were.”

In high school, Washington tried his hand at writing. The 14-year-old had fallen in love and thought writing poetry would be a great way to tell her. 

“She saw the poems,” Washington reported. “It didn’t work.”

A friend suggested he try writing something else, like a column or the news. He began writing for the school paper. Come time for college, though, Washington decided to enroll in an engineering program. 

Soon he diverted his attention again, returning to journalism and taking his talents to Minnesota. He worked at a newspaper in Two Harbors. 

Washington’s knack for storytelling blossomed. Opportunity came knocking, and he moved to Boston to work at the PBS affiliate there.

He still found newspaper work, spending eight years at the Boston Herald as a reporter and columnist where he worked on unraveling the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. One story he is proud of came from a victim ignored by other reporters, a man who first grabbed Washington’s attention while standing in front of a church holding a sign. 

His talent kept taking Washington elsewhere. Traveling around the East Coast and through different disciplines like so many stops on a flight itinerary, Washington worked for an ABC and NBC affiliate as a TV producer, BET, and National Public Radio. In 1995, he released a documentary detailing the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” For the public television documentary, Washington was awarded the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. 

Washington then heard of an opening at the Duluth News Tribune. He took the job and was called back to the same crystalline, cold beauty that enchanted him during his first stop. 

He continues to go back-and-forth between Duluth’s and Boston’s shores, doing varied newspaper and radio work. In 2014, Washington left the News Tribune as its editor. 

After being the leader of one of the city’s news sources, he and those who offered him the position and the museum felt it was natural he head DIA’s board of directors. This fall, the institute has a slate of exhibits, including the works of Washington’s mother. 

“Jean: The inspiration behind the Birkenstein Arts Movement” started in September and runs until Dec. 3. On display will be the work of Washington’s mother — known as Jean — during the 1950s and 1960s — people and moments at her home and during civil rights protests she witnessed and chronicled through paintings. 

Opening at the museum in September and running until Jan. 2 is the “Minnesota Black Fine Art Show” featuring established and emerging black Minnesota artists working in fiber, mixed media, photography, graphic design and painting.