The “Museum Baby”
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
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