Cultural Diversity of Museum Leadership on the Horizon

By Shantay Robinson


Earlier this year the Brooklyn Museum hired Kristin-Windmuller-Luna as their Curator of African art. When the community found out the curator of African art would be white, there was an uproar. The museum stood behind their decision, claiming Windmuller-Luna is a qualified candidate. Although she might be qualified that doesn’t change museum statistics. 38% of the United States population is made up of people of color. 16% of museum leadership is comprised of people of color. And just 4% of that 16% are African American. The leadership of American museums does not reflect the racial demographics of the country. While the community was upset the curator hired to oversee African art is white, she is qualified for her job. The problem may lie in the fact that people of color are not aware of the possibility of museum careers early enough to prepare for the job. In recent years, there have been foundations, organizations, and academic programs aiming to remedy this problem.

Curators, by definition, are the keepers of museum collections. They are the people who plan the exhibitions that will be on view at museums. It is the curator’s job to address the public in a way that will nurture their community’s interests. And it’s important that curators have an eye for catering to the publics they serve. When a curator does their job, museums are filled with visitors and they are pleased with what they see. That’s the only way museums will continue to get the numbers they need to stay in business. While the curator doesn’t necessarily have to be of the same race as the people they serve, it is essential that they have compassion for those communities. With the racial history and current racial tensions in this country being what they are, it could have been expected that the community would be outraged that the curator of the African collection in Brooklyn, New York would be white.  

One program, in the art capital of the world, is attempting to reach students at a pivotal time in their lives. In order to reach students before they make important decisions about their careers, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York hosts the Teen Curators Program. It’s an afterschool art history and curatorial program that enrolls up to 30 high school students per year. The tuition is free, and the program is year-long if they can commit six hours a week. At the end of the year-long program, students host their own exhibition, engaging the public in discussions about their personal and professional development. By reaching students at this pivotal moment in their lives the Schomburg is able to influence future generations of black curators from an early age.

College is an extremely telling time in one’s career. So, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the Department of Art and Visual Culture have devised the Curatorial Studies Program which was made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The creators of the program believe “By increasing the diversity among curators, museums will generate new and innovative engagement with art and ultimately serve diverse audiences better.” The program is designed to give students an education in art history and curatorial practices, provide mentorship by some the industry’s most innovative curators, and provide access to museums across the country.

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In 2013, the Mellon Foundation made their initial grant to museums around the country with the intention to fund undergraduate curatorial fellowships. In 2017, the foundation funded six museums with a $3.25 million grant. The program “aims to make a critical impact on American art museums by developing gifted curators who are committed to engaging with the full spectrum of museum audiences.” The Art Institute of Chicago, the High Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, will receive five-year grants to continue the Mellon Foundation grant at their institutions.

The Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, together, donated $6 million over 3 years to create the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Institute to “support creative solutions to diversify curatorial and management staff at art museums across the United States.” The foundations will “support innovative strategies and programs to advance diversity across the sector, including hiring professionals from under-represented populations and offering fellowships, mentorships, and other career development options for diverse professionals.” Museums included in the gift include Andy Warhol Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, Studio Museum in Harlem, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum and Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University.

Twenty-three black curators took on new roles in museums across the country in 2017. The vast majority of the curators were women. The new curators include: Rujeko Hockly, Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum, who curated Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined, Odutola’s first New York show at the Whitney; Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Virginia Museum of Fine Art where she curated Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen; Ashley James, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at Brooklyn Museum, who was a Mellon Research Consortium Fellow in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art; and Amanda Hunt, Director of Education and Public Programming at MOCA Los Angeles who curated 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art.

In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio created a cultural plan that links state-agency money to diversity.  Funding for museums and art groups will depend on the diversity of employees and board members. The administration initially stated they would not tie funding to diversity, but they have since decided that cultural institutions in the city should represent the populations they serve. The New York Times stated, “This unusual move by the city, which rarely dictates policy to its cultural leaders, puts pressure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History and other pre-eminent institutions that are led largely by white male executives and power brokers from Wall Street, real estate and other industries.”

With efforts to diversify the leaders of the art world, African American art professionals will gain opportunities and exposure to the most innovative spaces in the arts. And they will be prepared to represent their communities in these spaces. The general consensus is that there aren’t enough qualified black candidates to lead museums. With the stewardship of initiatives like The Schomburg Center Teen Curators Program, Spelman College’s Curatorial Studies Program, the Mellon Foundation, and the Ford and Walton Family Foundations, candidates of color will gain insight into the inner-workings of art institutions and feel comfortable leading museums across the country into an era where all people are represented fairly. Because these initiatives are relatively new, change will not happen right away, but there’s hope.


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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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