TulizasMuseumNewsArticle by emadhafed


									     The “Museum Baby”
                          Grows Up:

                           Being a Curator of Color

                                                                                                   Left column: Courtesy of the author. Right: The Dayton Art Institute. Photo by Marin Pleiss.
                           in a Monochromatic
                           Art Museum World
                           by Tuliza Fleming

                         Clockwise from top left: The author with her mother, 1973;
                         The Dayton Art Institute’s exhibit “The Glass of Louis Comfort
                         Tiffany,” curated by the author; the author today; as a student
                         at the Atlanta University Center, Fleming dreamed of directing
                         an art museum. She is surrounded here by fellow graduates in
                         the art history/studio art program, 1994.

32                                                                  Museum News July/August 2005
                               Gallery shot from “Looking Forward, Looking Black,” when it appeared at the Dayton
                               Art Institute, July-September 2002. The author curated this installation.

                               The Dream                                                                            of Fine Art, said to me recently, I wanted “our nation’s art
                               As the daughter of a dedicated, politically active museum                            museums to become places where everyone—regardless of
                               administrator, I am what various people in the museum                                race, gender, religion, or sexuality—feels welcome, included,
                               world refer to as a “museum baby.” Like other “museum                                and represented.” Unfortunately, the reality of my experience
                               babies” of my generation, I grew up immersed in the world                            has been somewhat different.
                               of nonprofit cultural institutions. During my childhood,
                               I visited more museums, went to more exhibit openings,                               The Reality
                               and listened to more conversations and lectures relating to                          Since 1994, I have visited and worked in a wide variety of
                               museum practices and trends than most culturally engaged                             culturally specific and mainstream art museums. Over the
                               adults attend in a lifetime.                                                         years, I have become increasingly sensitive to the reality
                                   I initially resented having to be present at my father’s                         that American museums are not the culturally diverse
                               innumerable museum-related functions. But as I matured,                              institutions that I expected to find 11 years after my
                               I grew to love and appreciate the contributions museums                              college graduation. In 1996, I guest-curated an exhibition
                               make to our nation’s cultural environment. This burgeoning                           titled “Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the
                               passion for museums and my recognition of their profound                             Harmon Foundation Collection” for the Smithsonian’s
                               impact upon society eventually inspired me to switch my                              National Portrait Gallery. This exhibition documented
                               undergraduate major from English/pre-law to art history/                             the contextual history of 42 portraits from the Harmon
                               studio art. I had decided to enter the museum field. At the                           Foundation’s collection of “Outstanding Americans of
                               age of 18, my future seemed clear—I was going to be an art                           Negro Origin,” which toured the country between 1944 and
                               curator, I was going to direct my own art museum, I was                              1954. Its goal was to promote the achievements of African
                               going to make a positive difference in the world of Ameri-                            Americans, encourage racial tolerance among white
                               can art and art history.                                                             Americans, and assist in the eradication of segregation.
                                   My professors at Spelman College, which is part of the At-                       Yet 50 years later, I am possibly the only African-American
                               lanta University Center, gave me a sense of pride and admira-                        curator heading an American art department in this
                               tion for the contributions made by African-American artists                          country, and one of approximately 11 black curators
                               to the canon of American art, and I also began to develop                            working in mainstream art museums today.2
                               a strong interest in issues of diversity and representation.                             During the nearly four years I have worked as a cura-
                               However, when I visited various “mainstream”1 museums,                               tor of American art at The Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, at
                               I quickly recognized that not everyone shared my admira-                             least 50 people have asked me about some issue relating to
                               tion for art created by people of color. Such works often were                       African art. At first I couldn’t figure out why I was continu-
                               omitted from or marginalized in the primary visual narra-                            ally being asked to comment about artwork outside of my
                               tive of “American” art. So as I continued my education, I                            field. Then one day it dawned on me; these people weren’t
                               also conducted research and pursued professional projects                            responding to my title; my exhibitions on Louis Comfort
                               that sought to increase the public’s awareness and apprecia-                         Tiffany, contemporary American art, or American Impres-
Photo by Renee Roberts.

                               tion of diversity in American art. I nurtured these interests                        sionism; or even my research on the white male 19th-cen-
                               throughout my work in cultural institutions, museums, and                            tury artists who painted images relating to slavery, escape,
                               art programs. As my friend Tosha Grantham, assistant cura-                           and freedom. When people asked me about African art,
                               tor of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum                            they were responding to the color of my skin, which even

                               Tuliza Fleming is the associate curator of American art, The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

                          Museum News July/August 2005                                                                                                                              33
     in the 21st century has yet to be fully accepted as visually rep-       able either in the formal or informal education sectors.
     resentative of a true “American.” This recent realization of how        . . . Accordingly, it has been suggested that differential
     I am often perceived within the museum world has prompted               early experiences with educational activities or attitudes
     me to reflect upon the prospects of a national and collective            towards out-of-school learning on the part of both chil-
     reevaluation of our history, current practices, and future goals        dren and their parents may be significant contributors to
     for diversity in our nation’s art museums and other cultural            current observed differences in black achievement. Many
     institutions.                                                           individuals have concluded that informal education in-
         It is true that The Dayton Art Institute has an unusually di-       stitutions such as museums are important for enhanc-
     verse curatorial staff. Our curator of Asian art is Chinese. Our         ing both early educational experiences and attitudes, and
     curator of textiles is Indian and was born and raised in Ke-            hence educational performance.7
     nya. Our former curator of African art is from the Democratic           U.S. art museums must look beyond merely attracting a
     Republic of the Congo.3 Unfortunately we are an anomaly             large number of visitors and more critically at what art and
     within the art museum field. Issues related to diversity—visi-       culture really means—to us and to our communities. Ameri-
     tor comfort, community inclusion, and visual representation,        can art is a product of a diverse mix of individuals and groups
     etc.—have been acknowledged and discussed by art museum             with unique historical, economic, and ethnic heritage. Under-
     professionals on a regular basis for more than 30 years. But ex-    standing these communities—their differences and their simi-
     cept for the dramatic percentage increase of Caucasian women        larities—and their connections to our national art museums is
     in decision-making positions, very little substantive progress      key to improving the visitor and educational experience for all
     has been made toward diversifying museum staff—beyond                Americans. Several museums have recognized the need to im-
     those departments in charge of building maintenance, food           prove audience diversity and have instituted diversity-based
     service, and security.                                              programming such as innovative community outreach, com-
                                                                         prehensive educational programming, and culturally specific
     The Effects                                                         exhibitions. However, in light of Falk’s analysis, it is clear that
     Given the paucity of art curators of color in mainstream            the art museum community can further enhance its relation-
     institutions, it is not surprising that although museums in         ships with underserved communities in a manner that is both
     general draw more of the American public than do other              productive and sustainable over the long term.
     cultural activities—such as live arts performances—art                  First, art institutions should identify the specific audience(s)
     museums do not attract an audience representative of minority       they want to attract and honestly assess the degree to which
     groups.4 This is especially pertinent when you consider that the    they have or have not met the needs of those audiences. This
     nation’s largest, most esteemed, and most influential museums        is particularly important for museums located in major urban
     generally are located in urban areas with large minority            areas with significantly diverse populations. About six years
     populations.                                                        ago I was a “diversity intern” at one of the largest and most re-
         In the United States introducing art to a larger public often   spected art museums in the nation. One day I walked past the
     has been justified on the grounds that it has moral or civic val-    education department and noticed a woman frantically sifting
     ue. What that means is that if museums aren’t conscious of the      though postcards of artworks on display in the museum. When
     manner in which they engage (or ignore) all segments of their       I asked her what was wrong, she replied that she was scheduled
     communities, they can easily create and reinforce inequalities      to meet with a group of elementary students from a primarily
     in society.5 According to Leisure Decisions Influencing Afri-        African-American school. To help the students understand the
     can American Use of Museums (AAM, 1993), a report written           history and relevance of art to their lives, she had intended to
     by John Falk, although the museum-going habits of African           give each one a postcard containing African-American faces.
     Americans are basically similar to those of other racial groups,    But she was unable to locate any examples; instead she gave the
     there is a distinct under-representation of African-American        children postcards that depicted animals. I will never forget the
     visitors at many museums.6 This finding reveals as much about        irony of a national art museum located in a city whose popula-
     the nation itself as it does about the typical museum visitor. As   tion was 60-percent black that, at the time, did not have a single
     Falk noted:                                                         image of an African American on display.
         [A]lthough American society appears to provide an “un-
         even playing field” for many segments of society, one            The Hope
         racial minority has been consistently identified as ‘at          Art museums must move out of their comfort-zones and
         risk.’ By virtually any measure one wishes to use, Afri-        reflect the full diversity of our communities on multiple
         can Americans, as a whole, do not appear to be receiving        levels. My hope is that art museums will join together—
         equal benefits from the educational opportunities avail-         either through AAM or the Association of Art Museum

34                                                                                                              Museum News July/August 2005
                                                               Directors (AAMD)—and truly open                                                                       abled, the physically disabled, lower-in-
                                                               themselves up to the process of critical                                                              come families, etc.?
                                                               evaluation. Only when art museums                                                                        Even though I imagine that very
                                                               have systematically and realistically                                                                 few of our nation’s art museums could
                                                               assessed the current state of diversity                                                               answer yes to all of these questions,
                                                               in their institutions, both the strengths                                                             we must all strive to incorporate these
                                                               and the weaknesses, will they effectively                                                              practices in our normative routine.
                                                               establish and initiate concrete goals for                                                             These important structural changes and
                                                               nationwide inclusion. In the words of                                                                 improvements can only occur when our
                                                               Lonnie Bunch, “If museums are to be              Kevin Cole’s Hip Hop Musicians, 2002, from the       institutional leaders acknowledge and
                                                               welcoming places for people of different          exhibition “Looking Forward, Looking Black.”         seek to address the problem of cultural
                                                               racial, ethnic, social, economic, and                                                                 homogeneity within the field.
                                                               educational backgrounds, and if they
                                                               are to use their collections to present a variety of perspectives, The Plan
                                                               they must recruit, hire or select, and foster the professional One of the most important strategies museum leaders can
                                                               growth of trustees, staff, and volunteers who reflect diverse institute is the training and hiring of diverse staff for curatorial,
                                                               audiences and multiple perspectives.”8                                        marketing, finance, development, and administrative positions.
                                                                   The diversification of museum staff and community volun- Implementing paid diversity internship programs—geared
                                                               teers, across all levels of management and administration, is a toward people of all ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic
                                                               crucial and necessary step if museums truly hope to reflect and backgrounds—is an extremely effective method of introducing
                                                               respond to the changing dynamics of America’s population. Of underrepresented groups to the variety of careers available in
                                                               course, the implementation and success of any diversity initia- the museum field. These internships give students with limited
                                                               tive depends upon the commitment of ongoing interest and financial resources the opportunity to explore their interests
                                                               resources from the museums most powerful and influential in museums without creating undue financial hardship on
                                                               leaders—members of the board of trustees, directors, CEOs, themselves or their families. I benefited tremendously from
                                                               and COOs. Our museum leaders must go further than merely my internships in a wide variety of museums, which led me to
                                                               stating the need for diversity and ensure that diversity occurs my current career as a curator at a mid-size, mainstream, and
                                                               through the process of re-envisioning museum missions, goal- encyclopedic art museum.
                                                               setting, accountability, staff development, community inclu-                      Given the financial constraints faced by many of our na-
                                                               sion, and most importantly, inreach.9                                         tion’s museums, I suggest that professional organizations such
                                                                   If we are truly dedicated to increasing system-wide diver- as AAM, AAMD, and the Association of African American
                                                               sity within our art institutions, then we must regularly assess Museums (AAAM) work together to expand upon existing
                                                               the unique population statistics of our region, compare the re- programs such as the National Museum Fellowship Program.10
                                                               sults to our own institutions, and ask ourselves the following The result could be a national, long-term, multidisciplinary
                                                               questions:                                                                    internship/fellowship program specifically geared toward in-
                                                                 • Do our employees reflect the diversity of the region or the creasing staff diversity and diversity awareness in America’s
                                                                    nation?                                                                  cultural institutions. It would differ from other existing pro-
                                                                 • Are the majority of our minority employees concentrated grams by providing both a stipend for expenses and also need-
Courtesy of The Dayton Art Institute. Photo by Tom Meyers.

                                                                    in hourly wage, part-time, and/or support positions?                     based housing (in a dorm-like environment), particularly in
                                                                 • Do we have a diverse presence on our board of trustees?                   museum-rich but prohibitively expensive urban areas such as
                                                                 • Do we partner with representatives from local schools, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Los An-
                                                                    universities, and cultural groups when we plan educational geles. Participating museums, universities, and other cultural
                                                                    programs and exhibitions?                                                institutions could work collectively to raise money, create rel-
                                                                 • Do we actively encourage underrepresented groups in our evant programming, and provide the housing. The program
                                                                    community to participate in internships, volunteer pro- would simultaneously encourage young students to enter the
                                                                    grams, and docent programs?                                              field and provide museums with trained young professionals
                                                                 • Do we incorporate a variety of viewpoints in our perma- from a variety of backgrounds.
                                                                    nent and special exhibitions?                                               It is also equally important that current staff, particularly
                                                                 • Do we own and display art that reflects the diversity of the those in leadership positions, are encouraged and, if need
                                                                    nation and/or the region?                                                be, required to learn about and respond to the pressing need
                                                                 • Are we accessible to all people—the elderly, learning dis- to diversify the art museum. For instance, while working as

                                                             Museum News July/August 2005                                                                                                                        35
     a curatorial intern at a major art mu-                                                                   reciprocate by inviting their staff to
     seum, I was invited to have lunch with                                                                   attend our events. When directors
     a museum contractor of Asian de-                                                                         and administrators visit the leaders
     scent. During our conversation, she                                                                      of local cultural, religious, and so-
     asked me about my career aspirations.                                                                    cial-service institutions to discuss
     When I discussed my desire to become                                                                     community concerns, improving
     a curator of American art and eventu-                                                                    the museum, and possible future
     ally direct a major American art mu-                                                                     collaborations, they must treat these
     seum, the woman replied that she did                                                                     leaders as they would any other pro-
     not believe that black people should                                                                     fessional. Far too often, we bring in
     be encouraged to hold decision-mak-                                                                      members of our underserved com-
     ing positions in museums. “Blacks are                                                                    munities, pick their brains for ideas,
                                                    The Dayton Art Institute acquired this painting by Hughie
     not emotionally equipped to handle             Lee-Smith after hosting “Looking Forward, Looking Black”  and then neglect to compensate
     the rigorous research, long hours, and         in 2002.                                                  them for their critical contribu-
     important decisions that are required                                                                    tions. If we want community lead-
     from art curators and directors,” she                                                                    ers to share their expertise with us,
     told me. “Blacks should restrict their careers to less-demand- then we should pay them the standard consultant’s fee and/or
     ing positions in museums so that they can express their natu- publicly recognize their contributions to our institutions.
     ral inclinations to have fun and be emotionally and intellectu-                  Art museums also have to critically evaluate and enhance
     ally carefree.” After I told her exactly what I thought of her the effectiveness of their marketing strategies to underserved
     ignorant and racist comments, I immediately recommended communities. We must ask ourselves questions such as:
     to my supervisor that the museum implement staff diversi-                       • Do we advertise on culturally specific radio stations, in lower-
     ty training. I am not sure whether this training actually oc-                     economic neighborhoods, and in community centers?
     curred, but I mention this incident to illustrate the insidious                • Are we marketing all of our exhibitions and programs or
     nature of racism and how it can taint some people’s perception                    merely the “ethnic” ones to our underserved communities?
     of individuals in the workplace.                                               • Are our shows advertised to non-English speakers?
         Human nature often compels people not only to judge oth-                     Even so, many museums make the mistake of reaching out
     ers based on social and ethnic stereotypes but also to gravitate to minority communities solely when they are featuring an
     toward those with a similar upbringing, ethnic heritage, and exhibition or program related to that particular group (e.g.,
     class background. To move beyond this tendency, we must mounting exhibitions on African-American art only during
     consciously place ourselves in situations that differ from our Black History Month). The problem with this strategy is that
     normal experience. More often than not, the museum staff it presumes that ethnic groups are just interested in art about
     who attend diversity-related conferences and workshops ei- or related to their own culture. It discriminates against white
     ther fall into the diversity category themselves or already have people as well by assuming that they would not be interested
     exhibited a long-standing commitment to expanding the field. in seeing art by or about people of color. Even if this assump-
     Their attendance tends to illustrate the old adage of “preach- tion is accurate, by catering to this limited viewpoint muse-
     ing to the choir.”                                                          ums inadvertently support it.
         But what if institutional leaders required all staff attending                If a museum installs and markets its exhibitions creatively       Courtesy of The Dayton Art Institute. Photo by Manu Sassoonian.
     such conferences to report on those sessions to their super- almost any subject can be made interesting and relevant to a
     visors and colleagues, thus aiding the continued growth and diverse American public. Art created by African Americans,
     development of the museum? And once the museum becomes Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latino and Hispanic
     more successful with its diversity efforts, staff members then Americans is by definition American art and can be equal-
     could chair their own panels at future conferences.                         ly appreciated by all Americans. In the same way, nonwhite
         Of course, staff participation in diversity efforts must go Americans have a profound appreciation of art from all eth-
     beyond the occasional conference. Museum leaders and staff nic groups and should be marketed to accordingly. In 2002, I
     also must show interest in the cultural activities organized by was the in-house curator for a traveling exhibition we hosted.
     the communities they wish to attract. The practice of part- “Looking Forward, Looking Black” focused on the controver-
     nerships and reciprocity is essential to gaining the trust and sial strategy, used primarily by contemporary African-Ameri-
     respect of any group. We must encourage all staff members can artists, of appropriating stereotypes as a method of post-
     (not merely the few minorities) in the museum to attend eth- modern deconstruction. Because this was an unfamiliar topic
     nic-specific cultural events organized by other groups and for The Dayton Art Institute’s audience base, I expanded the

36                                                                                                                      Museum News July/August 2005
  exhibition to educate our community about issues of racism,          cess or failure. Only then will the rhetoric of inclusion become
  stereotypes, and identity in American art. This included add-        the reality of experience.
  ing a significant number of works artists created during the
  1960s and ’70s to illustrate the differences and similarities be-     Notes
  tween the post-modernism of the contemporary artists and
                                                                       1. The term “mainstream” is used to indicate museums that do not con-
  the black nationalism of the previous generation. One gallery            sider themselves culturally or ethnically specific (i.e., their primary
  explored the social and economic history of popular racist               mission does not specify serving and/or representing “nonwhite”
  imagery. This section, which the audience viewed prior to see-           communities).
  ing the artworks, showed that racism and stereotyping have a         2. When I initially set out to write this article, I intended to begin with
  detrimental effect on all Americans—not just the groups that             a brief commentary on the state of diversity within the art museum
  have been the victims of caricatures.                                   field. After contacting representatives at AAM, AAMD, and the Col-
     “Looking Forward, Looking Black” allowed our entire audi-            lege Art Association, I discovered that there is virtually no compre-
  ence base to see the controversial issues it depicted as “Ameri-        hensive data on diversity within America’s art museums. Due to the
  can” rather than “African American,” and we were able to                lack of information relating to the number of curators in American
                                                                          art museums and African-American curators in particular, I relied
  engage a much broader community than we originally antici-
                                                                          on friends and colleagues to generate these figures.
  pated. In addition, the exhibition increased our staff, docents’,
                                                                       3. When The Dayton Art Institute hired Niangi Batalukisi in 2000, she
  and volunteers’ interest in African-American art. Since then,
                                                                          was the first African woman to curate an African art collection in an
  the museum has acquired seven works by Herbert Gentry,                  American art museum.
  a painting by Hughie Lee-Smith, a sculpture by Alison Saar,
                                                                       4. Vera L. Zolberg, “Barrier or Leveler? The Case of the Art Museum,” in
  a dance floor by Sanford Biggers, and a sculpture by Kevin
                                                                           Michéle Lamont and Marcel Fournier, eds., Cultivating Differences:
  Cole, many of which are featured in our educational programs             Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: Univer-
  and tours. However, perhaps our most influential discovery                sity of Chicago Press, 1992), 190.
  was the fact that ours was the first mainstream American art
                                                                       5. Ibid., 188.
  museum to mount a significant exhibition on the art of the
                                                                       6. Though in this article, which has been written from my personal per-
  Black Power Movement. This discovery, among other factors,
                                                                           spective and experience, I have privileged the “African-American
  prompted me to propose that The Dayton Art Institute mount               community” in my discussion of diversity in American art muse-
  a major retrospective traveling exhibition on AfriCOBRA                  ums, I do not want to imply that African Americans should be con-
  (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the artist collec-            sidered as a monolithic group. In addition, many of my suggestions
  tive founded in the late 1960s. The exhibit is scheduled to open         and criticisms can and should be applied to other underserved con-
  in 2008 and will travel around the country.                              stituencies, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino
                                                                           and Hispanic Americans, disabled Americans, American seniors,
  The Dream Revisited                                                      gay and lesbian Americans, and Americans of lower socio-economic
  Twenty-five years ago, professionals in the American museum
  field questioned whether women had the ability to enter and           7. John H. Falk, Leisure Decisions Influencing African American Use of
                                                                           Museums (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums,
  succeed in leadership positions in large-scale national cultural
                                                                           1993), 4-5.
  institutions. Today this question is no longer an issue as women
                                                                       8. Lonnie G. Bunch, “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, & the
  have not only succeeded in attaining and retaining leadership
                                                                           Will to Change,” Museum News (July/August 2000), 33.
  positions but are also the largest group currently working in
  the field. As an African-American woman who once dreamed              9. Bunch defines the term “inreach” as a “concept that challenges the
                                                                          profession to be more introspective, more deliberate, more honest,
  of becoming a director of a major national art museum, my
                                                                          and more explicit in its efforts to change itself.” Bunch, “Flies in the
  question is, How many more years do we have to wait before              Buttermilk,” 34.
  color, class, and other diversity-related categories cease to be a
                                                                       10. Formerly known as the Atlanta Museum Fellows Program, the Na-
  major barrier to success in American art museums?
                                                                          tional Museum Fellowship Program originally was developed in
      My hope is that within the next few years art museums will          1994 by Dr. Rick Beard and Dr. Billie D. Gaines. Its mission is to aid
  organize a network, perhaps in cooperation with other institu-          the diversification of the museum profession through field-specific
  tions sharing similar goals, and proactively begin to diversify         education, work experience, and professional contacts. Additional
  all segments of the field. As history illustrates, significant so-        information on the program can be found at www.atlantahistory
  cial change does not occur without courage or sacrifice. My              center.com.
  dream is that our museum leaders will find it in the best inter-
  ests of their institutions, staff, and communities to participate
  in the struggle and hold themselves accountable for their suc-

Museum News July/August 2005                                                                                                                         37

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