Are art museums far too white? Well, yes. According to the American Alliance of Museums, about 80% of museum workers are white. Okay, so it’s clear to see there’s not a lot of diversity in the field. In order to help change this situation, the Andrew K. Mellon Foundation has initiated a two-million-dollar diversity fellowship to help students from underprivileged backgrounds receive hands-on curatorial training in major art museums across the United States.
Chicago-based critic Jason Foumberg just published a pretty thorough report on this fellowship in advance of its debut next year at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the High Museum (Atlanta). No New York institutions are involved. Outlining how the program will work, Foumberg writes:
The pilot program establishes a paid fellowship for twenty college undergraduates. That’s four students in each participating city. In addition to the one-on-one mentoring and academic advising with established curators, the students will receive $10,000 each summer, for four summers, to work a museum internship. (Paid museum internships for undergraduates are quite rare; typically, college interns pay tuition for one.) The four-year program guides students through their first year of graduate studies in art history, in preparation for the PhD required to work in most curatorial offices.
This small step (just twenty students overall will end up completing the program) has potential; sometimes it takes just one curator to transform the types of programs and exhibitions a museum produces. Still, it’s disappointing to think that American museums need an outside granting institution to change what’s become an increasingly closed system—Foumberg points out that museums often hire internally.
I’ll take whatever method works (and cross my fingers that museums will change their current hiring processes in the meantime). If not, and we continue to sit still, museums will be well on their way to becoming bastions for the elite. As art critic Ben Davis points out, over the last few years diversity in museum audiences has been dwindling—about 92 percent of frequent museum-goers are white.