Launching a career as an art curator is no easy task.

Academic and economic barriers abound (museum curators must have a doctorate). Most institutional curators are white (only three of 15 curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the state’s biggest art museum, identify as people of color).

Twin Cities-based artist Jehra Patrick decided to do something about it. She founded the Emerging Curators Institute (ECI), a yearlong fellowship designed to support curators from diverse backgrounds through research and professional development. The final product is an exhibition.

A native Minnesotan, Patrick has a deep understanding of the Twin Cities art scene but approaches curating from a nontraditional route. She has a BFA degree, but wanted to do more than make art. So she opened two galleries: the Waiting Room and its sister space, WorkRoom. She is currently the director/curator of Macalester College’s Law Warschaw Gallery, and also worked for 10 years in the Walker Art Center’s education department.

She did all this without a curatorial master’s degree or Ph.D.

She saw that the state had many resources for artists, like grants from the Jerome and McKnight foundations, but nothing for emerging curators aside from the traditional academic route.

“The Emerging Curators Institute is different than a fellowship one might have in a museum, [where] you are getting excellent training, but you’re really working on behalf of the museum, and the objectives passed on to you are not your own path.”

This year’s ECI fellows are Alexandra Buffalohead, Amirah Ellison, Xochi de la Luna and the duo of Gabby Coll and Adrienne Doyle. Each received a stipend of $3,000 plus an exhibition budget, and then were paired with a curatorial mentor in the Twin Cities.

They meet once a month (digitally now) as a cohort. ECI also hosts a series of public programs, giving local audiences a chance to learn more about contemporary curatorial projects.

It’s a vastly different world than academic programs like the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York that students must pay for.

ECI’s inaugural year was funded through grants from the Knight Foundation, the State Arts Board and the Metro Regional Arts Council, among others, as well as contributions from program partners.

A huge turnout

In its first year, ECI received a whopping 118 applicants. Patrick discovered that 90% identified as women or nonbinary, and an additional 54% identified as BIPOC (black, Indigenous or people of color).

“They were telling us in their applications, ‘I don’t see opportunities like this for myself, either because I don’t have access to this kind of art world — it’s [largely] white — or they don’t feel that’s a world they want to be part of.”

For Buffalohead, who graduated from the museum studies program at the University of St. Thomas and is currently Arts and Cultural Engagement Manager at the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) and All My Relations art gallery, ECI is a real confidence-builder.

“I feel there is still a continued battle between the white male curator and everyone else” said Buffalohead, who is Bdewakantowan Dakota.

She curated her second-ever exhibition, “Revitalizing Symbols” at Artistry in Bloomington, featuring 13 emerging and established Indigenous artists. It closed Feb. 14 before the pandemic was declared. ECI helped her through the process, from naming the show to writing statements and learning how to take care of the artists throughout the process.

Looking ahead

Coll and Doyle are planning an exhibition that’s a spinoff from Burn Something Zine, a submission-based, queer- and trans-inclusive media project. Doyle ran the ’zine from 2014-2016 with the purpose of lifting up voices of women of color and gender-nonconforming people of color in the Twin Cities.

They re-energized the ’zine in an Instagram account (@burnsomethingzine), then put out a call for artist submissions. They meet regularly with their ECI-appointed mentor, Esther Callahan, who recently finished a yearlong curatorial affairs fellowship at Mia.

“ECI is a happy medium,” said Coll, who has an art history degree from St. Olaf, and works by day as communications manager at North Side nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts. “There’s still that academic rigor and curiosity, but it is without the systemic and oppressive institutionalization of curation that comes from white supremacy.”

Their show was scheduled to open in late May at Modus Locus art gallery in south Minneapolis, but will likely be rescheduled for early summer due to COVID-19.

Similarly, an exhibition by ECI fellow Ellison (who is the daughter of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison) was scheduled to open March 16 at Film North in St. Paul, but has been pushed off until possibly late spring. “We Are New Again” is an exploration of home, lineage and ritual by local black artists.

De la Luna organized a two-night, multidisciplinary horror festival, “Flores Oscuras,” highlighting black, brown and Indigenous artists challenging the idea of “horror.” Scheduled for May 9-10 at Strike Theater in northeast Minneapolis, it has been postponed until late spring or early summer.

ECI brings the vision back to the curators, and also allows them to not box themselves in as solely curators. For some, like Patrick, curating is an aspect of their practice, but for others it’s their career path.

“I think the word ‘curator’ comes with a sense of authority,” she said. “I think it’s important to bestow that curatorial title and leadership and expertise to those who are not necessarily being groomed by the Bard or Yale route, or even have museum experience.”