Art in America: Supporting a New Generation of Curators

The Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship program is designed to diversify the curatorial ranks in museums across America.

MUCF 2017 National Convening Fellows group photo.jpgMellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows from partner museums at the 2017 National Convening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo courtesy of Daniela Hernandez.
Museums need to invest in a bigger range of talent in order to continue to thrive and remain relevant.

In 2013, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship, a pilot program designed to diversify the curatorial ranks in museums across America.  At a time of unprecedented demographic change in the United States, the program is intended to make art museums more representative of the country’s growing cultural diversity.

The tale of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program starts with Mellon’s former Executive Vice President, Mariët Westermann, who has prioritized curatorial diversity since her first year with the foundation in 2010.  “As an art historian who has worked in museums and run a graduate program, I was painfully aware of the lack of staff diversity – and in particular that curatorial cohorts do not remotely reflect the actual diversity of the country,” Westermann said.  “Museums need to invest in a bigger range of talent in order to continue to thrive and remain relevant.” 

Despite the best efforts of influential museum directors like Michael Govan – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) director who had long been “putting his money where his mouth is,” according to Westermann – profound challenges slowed progress.

“We had struggled for decades in our field and gotten nowhere,” Govan recalled.

As Mellon has long invested in the curatorial backbone of museums, the Foundation decided to focus its initial museum diversity efforts on curatorial
staff.  Not only is a more diverse range of curatorial voices necessary to
have lively museum exhibitions and programs, the ranks of curators also form
the most important pipeline for leadership positions such as museum

When ideas about how to structure a new curatorial program across the nation were percolating, Westermann realized that the Foundation needed hard data—not only to understand the depth of the challenge, but also to establish a baseline against which to measure program impacts down the line.  The Mellon Foundation partnered with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and Ithaka S+R to survey art museums on the diversity of their employees. The result of this effort, the Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, was the first comprehensive survey of its kind. [Click here to read MEASURING SUCCESS.]

In order to design a museum-based fellowship program with a strong chance of success, Westermann turned to two distinct programs as models. The first was the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, launched in 1988, which has since become the centerpiece of the Foundation’s initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of colleges and universities.  The second was the Getty Foundation’s  Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program, which has connected 3,200 students to opportunities since its founding in 1993. “For 25 years, the Getty’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program encouraged cultural organizations to think about the ways they could better represent and serve the plenitude of the American population,” says Westermann.

MUCF LACMA 2016 Summer Academy tour with Lilia Taboada.jpgMellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow Lilia Taboada gives a tour to students in the 2016 Mellon Summer Academy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA.


Mellon staff searched for institutional leaders with the capacity and willingness to take on the challenge of not only committing their staff to this program, but looking inward toward advancing inclusive cultures that make their museums attractive and welcoming places for undergraduates with limited museum experience.

A grant was made to LACMA, which acted as program administrator for the five participating museums:  LACMA; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO; the Art Institute of Chicago; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  A sixth partner museum—the Philadelphia Museum of Art—was added in 2017.

The pilot museums are in areas of the country with ethnically diverse or rapidly diversifying populations and are located near universities and colleges, making it easier for collaboration between faculty, mentors, and supervising curators.  They are also “encyclopedic museums,” offering participants in the nascent program exposure to the broadest possible range of collections, perspectives, audiences, and museum job functions.


The first building block of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship program is a one-week summer academy in which each of the participating museums host 15 undergraduates, mostly those studying art history and art, or who have expressed an interest in museum studies.  “I like to think of it as a boot camp—like art museums 101,” said Hilary Walter, who coordinates the curatorial diversity program at LACMA.  “Students see how a museum really operates and how curators regularly collaborate with a wide range of staff.”

“The curator is usually the one who decides what gets put on the wall,” Walter explained, “but how to do that involves a big team, each with their own set of responsibilities.  Registrars:  do we need loans? Conservators: are the objects in optimal condition to be displayed, or do they need some interventions to be stable enough to be on view? Exhibition designers:  do we need to change the layout to have enough space and allow visitors to move through the content in a meaningful and comfortable way? Communications:  how can we get the word out and attract people to come? Preparators:  what frames, cases, and other materials are required to install the show? Education:  how do we build public programs to connect audiences with this exhibition?”

Each museum’s summer academy is run similarly, but independently.  At LACMA, for example, students do a group curatorial project with objects from the permanent collection around a theme.  They must work together to conduct research, write and design object labels and gallery text, determine the layout of the show, and make presentations on the project and its contents to peers and staff.  Students may also learn to make an acquisition proposal by selecting an object or artwork and justifying why their host museum should acquire it.

All summer academy participants receive a weekly stipend and are provided housing in dorms at a college or university near the host museum.


The second component of the program is the ongoing two-year fellowship. Summer academy participants who wish to continue to develop a curatorial career path are eligible to apply for one of two such fellowships at each of the host museums where they are mentored by a curator and exposed to the ongoing curatorial process as it develops over time.  Fellows work part-time at their host museum during the school year and full-time over both summers of the fellowship.  At the close of each fellowship year, one participating museum hosts a national convening of all the fellows to encourage the students to share their experiences, present their research interests or fellowship projects, and begin to create a peer support network.  The convening allows fellows to explore the host city and its museum’s collection.

Fellows receive a yearly stipend of $10,000 along with support for professional development or travel of up to $1,000 per year.  “The stipend mitigates economic obstacles in bringing underrepresented groups into a new arena,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, who was appointed by the Mellon Foundation in fall of 2017 as a senior consulting fellow for initiatives related to diversity, accessibility, equity, and inclusion.  It also demonstrates to the students and their families that this work has real value, and that a young person can be compensated for contributing their ideas, vision, and hard work to the curatorial enterprise.

MUCF Michael Govan with LACMA Fellows and alumni.JPGMichael Govan, Wallis Annenberg Director & CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows Canan Cem, Hope Flores, Jennifer Cernada, and Lauren Churchwell. Photo courtesy of Hilary Walter.


“My first experience at the summer academy at LACMA made me totally reconsider my post-collegiate career,” said Lauren Churchwell, who is a senior at Pitzer College majoring in art history.  “I had not considered a post-collegiate career in art history, but once I saw firsthand exactly what a curator’s function is within a museum, that’s when I discovered how much I wanted to pursue this field.”  Churchwell says she felt great satisfaction observing and participating in the installation of an exhibition and seeing the process come together at the end of a long period of planning and organization.  She also has a greater understanding of the other departments involved—from marketing and education to facilities and maintenance—all required for an exhibition to be successful.

A native of Nashville, TN, Churchwell is in the second year of her fellowship, where she is being mentored by Leah Lehmbeck, curator for European painting and sculpture at LACMA. Churchwell accompanied Lehmbeck and Govan to New York last fall to assist with the curation of a special LACMA presentation at The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF).

In introducing Churchwell to the leadership of the art fair in New York, Govan gave some context for why the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship was developed in the first place.  “You hear a lot of inappropriate language [among museum professionals] that there just isn’t the talent, but the truth is it’s been a club,” he said.  “Now, the Mellon Foundation, with all its accumulated credibility and support, is behind this. You no longer need to join an exclusive community to become a leader in museum curatorship.  Give people the keys and they can walk through the door.”   

The idea is to open up the field to talented new voices, and to broaden the paths into the profession,” he added as he gestured toward Churchwell, who was beaming.

Govan, Lehmbeck, and Churchwell took a few selfies together, with thousands of artworks from all over the world and across the centuries in the background. Churchwell seemed both excited by the fair and at ease, not only with Lehmbeck, her immediate supervisor, but also with Govan, Lehmbeck’s boss and one of the most powerful people in the American art world.  “They’re awesome,” Churchwell said of her colleagues.  “I think that one of the most valuable aspects of the program has been the connections I have made with curators, educators, gallerists, and other people who work in museums.  All of them have provided valuable advice.” 

Churchwell plans to apply for graduate school later this year, and says many in her cohort are doing the same.


The Foundation sees each successful summer academy and each completed fellowship as the beginning of a longer process.  Attaining a PhD, which most curatorial positions require, can take a minimum of seven years.  As of early 2018, 20 students have participated in the fellowship, and 13 alumni have either enrolled in graduate programs or are working in the arts to gain more experience that could place them on a path toward curatorial positions in a museum. 

Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said the summer academy students who don’t go on to become fellows stay in the mix.  “All those who participated remain engaged with the museum,” he explained, “What we are doing is opening the gates and saying ‘Come and explore!’”  The students who participate in the summer academies are exposed to more than just curatorial roles.  They’re encouraged to consider careers as collection managers, registrars, educators, conservators, publication editors, archivists, librarians, preparators, designers, or communications and marketing staff.


Program organizers and grantees alike agreed that the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship program effectively turns the director of each museum—already tasked with carrying out the programmatic missions of their institutions, managing large teams of people, working with their boards, and fundraising—into its “chief diversity officer,” as Westermann put it.

Cole concurs and adds, “It has always been my contention that a strong and effective leader is a necessary, though insufficient, factor for transformational change.  If art museums are to become more diverse and inclusive, then the current directors, 84 percent of whom are white women and men as the 2015 Mellon Study indicated, must take real ownership of programs like the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship.

Westermann added that directors “are in a position… to change their internal institutional culture so these voices they are bringing in can really be heard.” 


In November of 2017, the Foundation announced an additional grant of $3.25 million to expand the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship program through 2022.  Thanks to the increase in funding, partnering art museums will host approximately 270 students in summer academies and 36 students in competitive two-year fellowships.

Cole’s biggest hope is that “all museums—not just those taking part in our curatorial diversity program—will follow through on a commitment to increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups to participate in the important work of arts institutions, and will renew their commitments to expanding opportunity in their communities.”  She says, “Our approach has yielded great results because we offer long-term mentoring while emphasizing deeper cultural change at the institutions with whom we work.  The more institutions see what’s required to create truly inclusive pathways into their curatorial positions, the better off the arts and humanities will be.”

Indeed, other funders are filling important gaps.  In November 2015, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced a $250,000 gift from Winston and Carolyn Lowe to help diversify the staff through a curatorial fellowship.  Two years later, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation announced a joint $6 million grant to help 22 art museums—from towns both large and small—fill 30 percent of mid- and senior-level curatorial and management positions with staff from historically under-represented populations by 2025.

Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, explains the Mellon Foundation’s influence:  “[They] took a retail approach to bringing this information to all of us in philanthropy, asking us all to hold the mirror up to this country's cultural institutions. Without Mellon's investment in this groundbreaking research, the national initiatives that are underway today by the Walton Foundation and the Ford Foundation, in particular, would not have been possible.”

Last December, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, inspired by the Mellon Foundation's work, gave the Phillips Collection a $1,122,000 grant to pilot a five-year program aimed at diversifying the institution’s staff and building a pipeline of future museum professionals from underrepresented populations in the field.

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