Studio Museum in Harlem: A Case Study

Studio Museum Main.jpgThe Studio Museum in Harlem defines itself as the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally. Photo courtesy of Studio Museum.

Three years ago, we set out with partners Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors to look at an issue that has been of increasing concern in the arts community: the lack of representative diversity in professional museum roles. Our work not only found that people of color are underrepresented in the museum community, but also that there were structural barriers to entry for these positions.

The findings led museum leaders to reassess what barriers may be present in their own organizations. In an effort to highlight solutions and successes in addition to challenges, we partnered with the Association of Art Museum Directors to highlight eight museums that have been successful in this area.

As we release these case studies in the coming months, we invite you to review our topline findings, beginning with the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. 

An Engine for Diversity - Studio Museum in Harlem

The Studio Museum defines itself as the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally. With a staff that is 77 percent Black or African American, it is an outlier among American museums, most of which hire a majority white staff. Some have argued that the existence of culturally specific spaces will increasingly isolate ethnic or cultural groups. The Studio Museum in Harlem offers an opportunity to test that theory, and to better understand the contributions culturally specific museums can make.

Studio Musum Mid.jpgOriginally designed as a space for integration between the white and black art worlds, in 1968 the museum pivoted onto African American art. Photo courtesy of Studio Museum.

The Studio Museum originated through a collaborative effort among artists, philanthropists, social workers, and Harlem residents who recognized the barriers that existed between more traditional modern art spaces (like MoMA) and potential Harlem audiences. The museum has grown in space and importance over time, with museum staff providing nuanced views on diversity and inclusion. While the museum is largely staffed by people of color, the binary approaches to diversity–white, non-Hispanic vs. people of color–have evolved into explorations of intersectionality around race, gender identity, and age.

Some of that appreciation for complexity comes from the museum’s changing profile. Originally, it was designed as a space for integration between the white and black art worlds. In 1968 the museum pivoted, changing its focus to African American art. That shift has since expanded to represent the art of Africa and the African diaspora. Over time, the museum has helped illuminate the local, national, and international cultural contributions of black artists to the broader art world and public.

As the profile of both the museum and Harlem has grown, the Studio Museum is now trying to recapture its local focus.

Beyond highlighting diverse artists, the Studio Museum has played a critical role as an incubator of museum staff talent. The full report lists a number of Studio Museum staff who have gone on to senior roles at other institutions. The report also details efforts the museum has taken to expose curators to new ideas and perspectives. This not only creates a new generation of museum leaders who are people of color; it also expands the nuanced view of diversity that the Studio Museum has developed over its 50-year history.


More In This Initiative

Case Studies in Museum Diversity


A series of case studies by Ithaka S+R in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors examines how certain art museums have been successful in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, offering lessons and best practices for others in the field.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the largest North American art museum, has supercharged its efforts to engage with more diverse communities. LACMA itself is relatively diverse with 50 percent of the staff including people of color.


The Andy Warhol Museum


The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest single-artist museum in the country.  The Warhol stands out because of its strategy to diversify the pipeline of professional roles, by thinking expansively about its curatorial practice, and actively working to strengthen community ties.


The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

A case study examines how the MCA Chicago, an “artist-activated, audience-engaged” institution, has been successful in its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.


Spelman College Museum


 A case study examining how Spelman College Museum contributes to diversification of the curatorial pipeline.