Articles

New Fellowship Aims to Diversify Museum Curatorial Ranks

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 13, 2014

Museum workforce by race (via aam-us.org)

Museum workforce by race (via aam-us.org)

The art world, as those of us who participate in it know quite well, has a diversity problem. A “data snapshot” from the American Alliance of Museums, using information gathered in 2009, reveals that nearly 80% of the museum workforce in this country is white. In and of itself, that isn’t too much of an overrepresentation, but the breakdown of who works what jobs in museums often seems self-evident when you look around — guards tend to be people of color, curators are predominantly white.

The problem extends to audience, too: a National Endowment for the Arts survey the year before found that non-Hispanic whites made up nearly 80% of adult museum visitors. In 2010, the Center for the Future of Museums issued a report that speaks of “the ‘probable future’—a future in which, if trends continue in current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society.”

This is a crisis of significant proportions — one that no single project or program can solve. But the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is making a start with a new fellowship that seeks to diversify the curatorial field, specifically at major art institutions around the county. As Jason Foumberg wrote in Newcity Art, where he broke the news of the Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program:

A two-million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports the initiative, the first of its kind in the U.S. The program connects college sophomores from marginalized backgrounds with curators at the five participating museums. Over four years, the students will receive professional mentoring and paid fellowships in an effort to make art museum curatorial offices as  diverse as the communities they serve.

Charting the demographics of the American population vs. those of museum visitors (via Center for the Future of Museums)

Charting the demographics of the American population vs. those of museum visitors (via culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu)

Four undergraduate students will be selected in each city, and they’ll receive personal mentoring and academic advising with establish curators, as well $10,000 each summer they’re in the program to work a museum internship. The five participating institutions are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the High Museum in Atlanta.

Mariët Westermann, an art historian who serves as vice president of the Mellon Foundation, is spearheading the effort. Asked via email about its genesis, she told Hyperallergic:

In 2010, a group of museum directors spoke with Mellon Foundation staff about priorities for the art museum sector and for their institutions. The relative lack of diversity of curatorial staff and of museum visitors emerged as a broadly shared concern. While museums have become very attentive to engaging a wide variety of constituencies and to diversifying their staff teams, it is obvious that the cohorts of curators and conservators that are at the intellectual heart of the museum continue to be quite homogeneous.

Westerman explained the criteria for participating institutions: “encyclopedic art museums in metropolitan areas that have diverse communities and strong institutions of higher education” — although it’s not clear why no New York City museum was chosen. The grant extends over five years at each institution, with the first year devoted to organizing and launching, the following four to implementation. “It is important to stress it is a pilot program,” she wrote. “We look forward to learning a lot over the next few years, with a view to extending and growing the program if the first indications are promising.”

A chart from the 2009 American Association of Museums report on the workforce in US museums. (via aam-us.org)

A chart from the 2009 American Association of Museums report on the workforce in US museums (via aam-us.org)

Echoing some of the reports cited above, as well as critics (like Ben Davis) who’ve written on the issue, she added the following reflection on the dire need for increased diversity in the art field:

Art has been a fundamental, major resource of human culture for more than thirty millennia, and knowledge of this heritage is an abundant fount of history, innovation, and pleasure that should be available to all. Art museums exist for this reason, and even if many work hard to create programs that will attract a wide range of visitors, they need to have the same kind of diversity of perspectives and backgrounds on their staffs to do so effectively. If the diversity of museum staff relative to the demographics of the United States diminishes ever further, the future relevance of art museums is at risk.

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  • Monsoonking

    I like that this program starts very early in the candidates’ academic careers. I suspect that these institutions aren’t endemically racist, but rather the pool of qualified applicants “naturally” skews white and privileged as a result of historical socio-economic factors.

  • gwvanderleun

    Yes indeed, let’s always take steps to assure we have the least qualified but most racially pure. How else are our museums to get even dumber than they are?

    • Monsoonking

      I think that’s the idea behind starting the program when students are only sophomore undergrads and actually training them through mentorship and fellowships. Ideally, the program will create more qualified candidates rather than shoehorning someone into a role they’re not ready for.

    • Ialwaysforgetmydamnkey

      Am I to understand that you don’t think they can find twenty qualified minority undergrads to fill these roles, gwvanderleun? Surely you’re joking. I hope you’re joking.

  • mrpillis

    I know being gay isn’t a race thing but it does make me and others feel like a minority, and I would feel better about this pie chart if it acknowledged sexuality- being white, gay, and in the arts is still a cultural position rife with prejudices- likewise, agreeing with Monsoonking, the issue isn’t necessarily about hiring practices as much as it is also about the structure of the educational system at large, this article was really helpful too- http://mediadiversified.org/2013/10/21/black-people-dont-go-to-galleries-the-reproduction-of-taste-and-cultural-value/

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      To be fair, the pie chart is pulled from a study and isn’t directly connected to the fellowship. But yes, you’re definitely right that “diversity” is a large, nebulous thing, and it doesn’t automatically mean race or gender, and it’s complicated, because it’s often something you can’t see.

  • Ialwaysforgetmydamnkey

    I find it interesting that you state that it’s not clear why no NYC museum was not chosen; the article you linked explains their logic quite clearly.
    The specific cities were chosen because they have large populations of certain minority groups: “The AIC may draw from the city’s African-American population, LACMA from its nearby Chicano population, and the Nelson-Atkins from Kansas City’s Amerindian population.” – http://art.newcity.com/2014/01/06/eye-exam-too-many-privileged-white-curators-in-u-s-museums/#sthash.1cNXZXSq.dpuf

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      To me that’s not an answer. NYC certainly has large populations of minority groups!

      • Ann B. Davis

        Hmmm, maybe NYC doesn’t have to be the center of everything all the time. Or, maybe the opportunity pipeline in NYC is already fairly rich relative to the rest of the country. Diversity in geography is just as valuable as other forms of diversity, particularly in areas of the country where opportunities are fewer and farther between, but the talent is just as viable, interesting, and worthy. Perhaps this foundation looked for directors/institutions with demonstrable investments in meeting the needs of under-served communities and are positioned to make this program a flagship. Or maybe they are the ones who put their hands up and said We Care about this. Who knows? Can one imagine the likes of Armstrong, Campbell, Lowry, or Weinberg making a strong public showing that this is a high priority for them (in between meetings with their architects?)

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          I’m not saying NYC needs to be the center of everything, nor that the program is flawed for not including NYC. It simply seems to me a noteworthy omission, and one worth pointing out/asking about. (Mariet was out of the country when we emailed, and because of time issues, I didn’t get a satisfactory answer on this question). If NYC museum directors are too busy meeting with architects to care about a program like this, that would, to me, point to precisely why NYC needs a program like this!

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