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.
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.”
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.