Survey Finds African Americans Under Represented in Art Museum Professions

Women Gaining Parity in Leadership Positions

Race and Ethnicity (curators, conservators, educators and leadership). Mellon Survey chartA survey released on July 29, 2015 confirms what we already know: African Americans are greatly under-represented in mainstream art museums as directors, curators, conservators and educators. Whites occupy 84% of such positions; Asians 6%; blacks 4%; Hispanic whites 3%.  These were among the findings of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey conducted in conjunction with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The study surveyed 181 North American art museums and found that in job categories focused on the intellectual and educational mission of art museums, whites still greatly predominate.

The positive news on diversity from the report relates to women in leadership positions such as director, chief curator, and head educator or conservation manager. Women are roughly equal to men in these positions.

Frederick Wallace, chief conservator of museum collections at The Mariners' Museum, cleans a mural panel canvas. Photo: John Whalen The attempt to diversify art museum professional staff is not new. This goal, along with the one to diversify museum audiences, has been espoused since the 1970s. During this 40 year period, many of the successful efforts at art museums were primarily focused on diversifying visitors. Until this primary focus is broadened, staff diversity efforts will continue to lag at American art museums.

To increase the success of museum diversity goals in staffing, young African Americans and under-represented others will need to be encouraged to set their sights on museum careers before they graduate from college. And they should be exposed to all facets of museum careers related to institutional mission, such as conservation, for example, where a love of chemistry and other sciences combines with a passion for art history in an exciting career path. Frederick Wallace (pictured on the right) was the first African American to earn a masters degree in art conservation from the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo.

To reach undergraduate students, the Mellon Foundation made a $2.07 million grant in 2013 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the museum and four other major metropolitan museums (Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) to launch a pilot program of undergraduate curatorial fellowships.

To achieve similar aims on the graduate level with curatorial fellowships, a joint program was developed between the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the United Negro College Fund.  

Museums also have made efforts to diversify professional staffs on their own. A notable example of an art museum already engaged in meeting the aims of the Mellon Diversity Report is in the deep south, an area where one might not expect a big push for change by a traditionally elite institution — the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham (BMoA).  

Birmingham Museum of Art Board of Trustees Chairman Ralph Cook & Mrs. Charlsie Cook The BMoA’s board of trustees chairman, Judge Ralph D. Cook, is the first African American to hold that position in the history of the institution.

The museum has made other specific, intensive efforts at minority professional development and staff recruitment through establishing The Thomas N. Carruthers Minority Internship (2000) which allows students to explore all facets of
Kelli Morgan, 2014-2015 Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Bimingham Museum of Art. Photo:Kelli Morgan collectionmuseum work to consider a career in the field; participation in the UNCF/AAMD Fellowship and Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship for African American Art.  The Carruthers internship places college juniors from private and public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in major American art museums for semester long paid internships. The Mellon Fellowship offers post-doctoral fellows an opportunity to gain professional curatorial experience in mid-size art museums.

Lindsay George, Carruthers Fellow, Birmingham Museum of Art. Photo: BMoAThe BMoA notes that it has also achieved greater diversity among its professional staff over the past few years through broadening recruitment tactics with targeted networking and expanded communications strategies. 

In 2014-2015, the BMoA had a Mellon Curatorial Fellow, not a post-doctoral fellow, because an ideal candidate for the position, Kelli Morgan, was nearing the completion of her dissertation and was hired before the degree was conferred. Kelli Morgan's full year at the BMoA included cataloguing, conservation training and working on two exhibibitions with the museum's chief curator. Morgan comes from a teaching background and, as a result of her experience at the BMoA, aspires to be a museum professional who bridges the curator's and museum educator's roles: "I refuse to believe that you can't do both," she says.

Sankofa Society: Friends of African American and African Art Group, Birmingham Museum of Art (BMoA)Complementing BMoA professional staff recruitment efforts are a range of community engagement and exhibition/programming initiatives aimed at African American audiences. The museum's Sankofa Society: Friends of African American Art group collects and supports acquisitions of African and African American art, educates about art created by people of African descent and promotes art of the Diaspora locally, regionally and nationally. The museum’s Exhibition Marketing Committee is comprised of community members who advise on programming and marketing strategies targeting African American audiences. It has organized or hosted numerous exhibitions on African American art including the current one — Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College and Black Like Who?, an exhibition drawn from the museum’s permanent collections that focuses on how representations of blacks in American art have been influenced at particular historical moments by specific political, cultural and aesthetic interests, as well as the motives and beliefs of artists.

Other Initiatives Around the Country

Another inspiring counterpoint to the dismal findings of the recent Mellon report is the St. Louis Museum of Art's, Romare Bearden Fellowship, which marked its 20th anniversary in 2012.  The fellowship program, administered by community partnership director Renee Franklin, fulfills the museum’s long term goal "of building a pool of talented young minority professionals to work in art museums, galleries, and arts organizations, as well as in universities."  During the fellowship Former St. Louis Museum of Art Romare Bearden Graduate Fellows returned to St. Louis in 2012 for the Museum's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fellowship program. Photo: St. Louis Museum of Art year at the St. Louis Museum of Art, Bearden Fellows pursue a range of activities including teaching, research, presentations, writing gallery materials and, in some cases, assisting with curating and installing exhibitions.

A major diversity effort underway in New York City is the inaugural Museum Fellowship Collaboration between the Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art. The institutions are accepting applications for the program. Each Museum will accept two Museum Fellows for either the curatorial department or public programs. The Fellows will spend one year at each Museum, then rotate to the partner institution for the completion of this two-year program.  See more about the fellowship here

In the midst of rioting and racial turmoil surrounding the Freddie Gray police custody death in Baltimore this spring, the city's Morgan State University, a historically black university, and the Walters Art Museum, announced a joint partnership to closely collaborate on exhibitions and programming. In an April 29, 2015 article in The Baltimore Sun the directors of the two institutions, Julia Mariciari-Alexander (Walters) and David Wilson (MSU) said that they had been planning the joint announcement for a year and a half and now hoped this collaboration would help to quell some of the city’s tensions.

Specifics for the formal program between the two institutions are still under consideration but plans include exhibitions, collaborative research projects and joint publishing as components of the final agreement. A collaboration such as this one also promises cultivation of Morgan State University students for museum internships and possible entry to the museum field.

In the Sun article, Kristin Guiter, American Alliance of Museums spokesperson, notes these types of partnerships between museums and minority organizations are more common in the past decade as museums seek to become part of the conversation surrounding social change by extending resources beyond the walls of their institutions.

A Diversity Study of New York City cultural organizations (separate from the Mellon survey) has been launched and results are anticipated in fall 2015.  Those results are likely to be similar to the woeful national demographics provided by the Mellon survey because city and Ford Foundation officials called for their study in response to undocumented concerns about the under-representation problem. Quantification of the problem is a first step to developing ways to resolve it.

To reach the goal of diversifying what the Mellon Report identifies as professional staff responsible for achieving institutional mission — curators, educators and conservators—there are no doubt many factors that remain under consideration: For example, how to make museum internal cultures more conducive to recruiting and retaining non-white professionals; how to encourage minority students interested in the humanities, but pragmatic about income, to forego traditional professions for museum professions; and how to inspire in these students a passion for art history, art education and art conservation that will be sustained from college to successful entry into museum careers.

Museum diversification efforts should result in new approaches to exhibition planning and public engagement that will be more appealing to traditionally underrepresented audiences without foregoing sophisticated strategies for the interpretation and presentation of art.

Associate IRAAA+ editor John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian and a former manager of educational programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.