Earlier this month, I traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas with a group of emerging curators and students from the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUC), which comprises of students from Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College. Traveling along, President Dr. Mary Schmidt-Campbell of Spelman College, joined the group considering her instrumental work as the executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem from ‘77 to ’87.
For its opening debut, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art hosted artists and curators of Soul of A Nation: Art In the Age of Black Power, along with a hosts of critics and scholars during the day-long symposium. Over the course of nine hours, artists sat with panel moderators to talk more about their practice, but also what it meant to be an artist making art in that period.
The 60s, 70s, and 80s weren’t the easiest time for Black folk, especially not artists seeking to depict what was going on at that time amidst turmoil and riots in major Black cities in the US. For the artists, they’d been fighting so long for representation and inclusion in so many ways. Despite the recent mounting of shows within these last five years, they spoke about how there’s so much more to be done and seen because there’re so many artists who’ve been ignored.
What stood out to me was there willingness to talk, but also their embrace.
Over the weekend-long trip, both artists and curators were so willing to exchange contact information and talk more about what they were doing and share their new work. And with us being the group of “emerging curators” others were eager to know what we were doing, but also how we found our way to art and wanting to be a curator among everything else.
Within the last four years, several reports have come out sharing the numbers that analyzed the ethnic and gender diversity of the staffs of museums across the United States. Not surprising, only 4 percent of African Americans represent curators, conservators, educators, and leaders in top tier museum positions, while 28 percent represent those museum staff workers who concentrate in security, facilities, finance and human resource.
However, the under representation of Black people employed in art museums at top tier positions isn’t anything new, but rather another reminder that a lot of work needs to be done. But thankfully, several diversity and leadership training fellowships have popped up to develop a more forward thinking school of curators and museum professionals that mirror the world.
Much like the one here at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, they’re being developed and instituted to be around for many years because it isn’t going to take a few decent cohorts of professionals to completely uproot the old make-up of museum staffs.
And luckily, it’s with that effort that make older Black artists more willing to reach back and lend a hand. While speaking to the racism they faced, but also the blatant omission from group and survey shows, several artists are making sure they give access to young and new Black curators who are in some ways wanting to bring visibility to their work and scholarship. For me, it gives me great honor and pleasure to call these folk my mentors, family, and friends.