As a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, Akili Tommasino used to cut class to visit artworks such as the ancient Egyptian “Head From a Female Sphinx” with gaping eye sockets at the Brooklyn Museum, or Umberto Boccioni’s striding bronze figure “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” at the Museum of Modern Art.
Wandering through the galleries, Tommasino also couldn’t help noticing that the only people of color he saw were the security guards; it wasn’t until he studied art history at Harvard University that he realized African-Americans like himself could also be curators, or even museum directors.
For decades the country’s mainstream art museums have excluded people of color — from their top leadership to the curators who create shows to the artists they display on their walls. Now, eager to attract a broader cross-section of visitors at a time when the country’s demographics are changing, a growing number of museums are addressing diversity with new urgency. From the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), they are hiring more minority staff members, offering paid internships and teaming with foundations and universities that fund curatorial jobs, to ensure that the next generation of leaders of color enter the pipeline.
“You do see change,” said Naomi Beckwith, who has just been promoted to senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and recently organized the first major survey of African-American artist Howardena Pindell. Beckwith, one of numerous black curators nurtured at the Studio Museum in Harlem, said museums need to make sure curators of color “feel embraced and emboldened.”
That has not historically been the case. According to a national study in 2015 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, only 16 percent of leadership positions at art museums are held by people of color, although 38 percent of Americans identify as Asian, black, Hispanic or multiracial. Among museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders, the study found that only 4 percent are African-American, and 3 percent Hispanic.
“The situation was worse than in almost any sector I’ve seen,” said Mariët Westermann, executive vice president of Mellon.
Museums have tended to explain away their lack of diversity by bemoaning a scarcity of qualified curators. But art professionals say museums just have to look a little harder for help — perhaps to Spelman College’s new Curatorial Studies Program or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Teen Curators program. “We go to state schools to get them,” Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York City, said of young job candidates. “When people say it’s so impossible, that isn’t true.”
People of color have had difficulty entering the pipeline, facing barriers that include exclusion from informal mentoring networks, resistance to alternative perspectives on art history and financial hurdles: Many entry-level internships are unpaid.
“I had to turn down a curatorial assistant offer at the Guggenheim in 1999 because of how little the pay was,” said Christine Kim, now an associate curator of contemporary art at LACMA. “For many marginalized young people interested in art, museums still represent authority, whiteness and power — places where we do not belong.”
Several institutions are trying to address the compensation issues. LACMA, for example, recently selected two college graduates for a new paid fellowship, and teamed up with Arizona State University for a three-year program that combines academic training and work experience to develop a diverse pool of curators, directors and other museum professionals.
The Ford Foundation, with the Walton Family Foundation, last November committed $6 million over three years toward diversifying curators and management at art museums nationwide. The effort funded 20 programs, including those at LACMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“Museums can’t be excellent if their staffs are not diverse," said Ford's president, Darren Walker.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio last year gave the city's cultural institutions an ultimatum, linking future funding to the diversity of employees and board members. City-owned museums must adopt inclusion plans by next February or risk having their funding cut by 10 percent.
“The whitest job in the entire cultural community in New York is curator,” said Tom Finkelpearl, New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs. “That’s changing.”
Some major New York institutions are already looking markedly different, including the Whitney. The museum has added four curators of color in the past few years, including Edwards.
The goal isn’t simply to hire more curators of color or to do more shows featuring diverse artists, experts say, but for museums to fundamentally alter the artwork they acquire and their approach to exhibitions, “shifting the way our stories are told,” said Thomas Lax, an associate curator at MoMA.
Challenging the canon is not a zero-sum game that requires abandoning art historical standards, he added, but one that adds depth to programming. In presenting the narrative of modernism, for example, Lax suggested that museums should include the history of artists throughout the world — such as hanging a Jacob Lawrence next to a Mondrian. “We don’t want to fuel the idea something is being taken away,” he said.