In recent years, art museums and their supporters have been increasingly concerned with how well museums reflect America’s growing cultural diversity. Despite the best intentions of many museums, the 2015 Art Museum Demographic Survey—conducted by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Association of Art Museum Directors and Ithaka S+R—found a dearth of diversity within museum professions, and suggested that interventions such as diverse educational pipeline programs (e.g. the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship) may be necessary if museums wish to cultivate staffs and cultures that better resemble America's evolving demographics.
As museum leaders seek to heighten diversity within the staffs, programs, and collections, the Mellon Foundation has partnered again with Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors, this time to examine particular institutions that have been successful in these areas. The hope is that these case studies will allow others to learn from peers and adopt practices that would reduce their own structural barriers, not only with respect to staffing but also toward achieving equity more broadly. Previously published case studies have profiled the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Andy Warhol Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The most recent study in this series features Spelman College Museum, which presents the work of women artists of the African diaspora.
Spelman College Museum
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is located on the campus of the prominent Historically Black College and University (HBCU) for women in Atlanta, Georgia. The museum fits neatly within the scope of its host institution; its mission is to present the work of women artists of the African diaspora. In this regard, this culturally specific museum acts as an educational resource; artistic works by a historically marginalized group of artists are shown without the awkwardness of tokenism, but rather with a deep understanding of cultural production that has been excluded from the art history canon. The expertise this museum has developed in presenting female artists of the African diaspora over the last twenty years is not only a major asset to itself, but also of great value to the field. This case study focuses on the museum’s curatorial practice in relation to the broader field, its ability to make substantial contributions to diversifying the curatorial pipeline, its efforts to realize the museum as an inclusive resource, and its pursuit of institutional partnerships.
Building Partnerships and Inclusion
Institutional partnerships are crucial for a small museum to realize an ambitious exhibition program. They are also critical for establishing an atmosphere of inclusion in the museum. When defining its community, the museum “starts with Atlanta,” Curator of Collections Anne Collins Smith says. “You’ll be amazed by who walks through the door.” She sees the museum as a key factor in bringing diverse audiences onto campus.
In 2017, Art Papers, a quarterly contemporary art publication, Spelman College Museum, and Atlanta Celebrates Photography, an organization dedicated to the cultivation of the photographic arts, partnered to present an event at the museum featuring Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who is a Spelman professor and founder of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, in conversation with artist Mickalene Thomas. The conversation was an opportunity for the three organizations to expand and share their audiences. (The audiences for Art Papers and Atlanta Celebrates Photography are mostly white.)
Having structured partnerships to bring new audiences into the Atlanta University Center, the largest HBCU consortium in the country, creates an access point that many would not have found on their own. Spelman Museum Director, curator, and art historian Andrea Barnwell Brownlee sees these partnerships as an important part of eliminating the, “fear of the unknown” for those who have not attended events on Spelman’s campus before. It is this kind of community engagement for which Brownlee strives. “We are extraordinarily proud of our mission,” she says, “but we are also rooted in the southern tradition of being welcoming and being hospitable.” The practice has yielded lifelong visitors who may have otherwise remained oblivious to the museum's presence.
Reaching New Museum Audiences through a Culturally Specific Mission
Spelman College Museum’s mission can seem narrow at first, sometimes even to stakeholders. Smith said, “I remember when I came here I wondered, can we really present that specifically?” The concern that audiences within and outside the college might consider the scope too narrow is valid; much work is necessary for culturally specific organizations to reach audiences outside the demographics of their programmatic focus. In its execution of that work, Spelman College Museum offers its community insights into some remarkable cultural contributions, often overlooked in the broader field.
The museum’s mission would be valuable if only to give students a chance to see art made by women of the African diaspora. But by including the broader public, a small 4,800-foot gallery is able to expose the brilliance of many historically marginalized artists to a variety of communities. Soon after beginning to work as a curator at the museum, Smith began to see it as a notably inclusive environment: “Within the context of intersectionality, the great thing is you look at so much more than race. People who are just focusing on race are limiting themselves. Here we offer hospitality as well as rigor.”
Diversifying the Curatorial Field
Through Spelman’s curatorial studies program, which guides ten students through two years of art history coursework and hands-on curatorial experience, a substantial contribution is being made toward preparing African American students for careers as curators. Funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this pilot program grants students access to curatorial studies courses, mentorship opportunities with seasoned curators, and internship opportunities across the country. As Brownlee says, “For me, the next generation piece is critical. We’ve got more people retiring and passing away than people coming into the field. We’re not all necessarily thinking about hiring and pipelining. We need something that is going to take away the excuse of, ‘Oh sorry, not enough experience.’”