Cleveland Museum of Art wins grants to diversify majority white leadership in art museums

Saturday, 02 December 2017, 07:56:36 AM. The Cleveland Museum of Art has pulled in nearly $750,000 in grants to help launch a broad-based program aimed at diversifying leadership positions in art museums, where the vast majority of top officials are white.

CLEVELAND, Ohio - The Cleveland Museum of Art has joined forces with the Ford and Walton Family foundations and the Cleveland Foundation to diversify the art museum profession, a field long dominated by whites.

The Ford and Walton foundations announced this week that they are pumping $6 million over three years into their Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative to support programs at 20 institutions including the Cleveland museum.

"We're very proud to have received this support,'' museum Director William Griswold said Wednesday in an interview. "The relative homogeneity of the staff at this and other museums is a longstanding concern. We feel that it is inconsistent with our values and the wide range of our collections, and we as a field are determined to meet this challenge head on."

The Ford-Walton initiative will support strategies "including hiring professionals from under-represented populations and offering fellowships, mentorships, and other career development options for diverse professionals," the foundations said in a news release.

Other participating institutions include the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; the Art Institute of Chicago; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Newark Museum of Art; the Oakland Museum of California; the Phoenix Art Museum; the St. Louis Art Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York.

Matching grant from Cleveland Foundation

The Cleveland Museum of Art also announced that its $368,400 Ford-Walton grant is being matched by $368,520 from the Cleveland Foundation over two years to fund the Curatorial Arts Mastery Program, a new branch of an expanding effort that already includes programs for hundreds of Cleveland children in theater, dance and photography.

The curatorial program, which is just part of the museum's overall vision to create a pipeline for tomorrow's museum leaders, will reach 160 high school students over two years.

They'll work with mentors and educators to organize exhibitions at four Cleveland Public Library branches based on the museum's traveling collection and/or the library's Anisfield Wolf Collection, which focuses on winners of the annual literary awards devoted to works on racism and diversity.

Ronn Richard, the president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, said the organization plans to continue supporting its growing list of mastery arts programs while seeking additional funding, locally and nationally, to make sure they endure.

In addition to supporting the curatorial program, the Cleveland Foundation's grant to the art museum will support conferences there in the spring of 2019 and winter of 2020 to enable institutions participating in the Ford-Walton project to share what they're learning.

An historic pattern

The need for greater diversity in art museums is buttressed by a recent report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that showed that 16 percent of art museum leadership positions are held by people of color, while 38 percent of Americans identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic or multi-racial.

The goal of the Ford-Walton program is that by 2025, "30 percent of mid- and senior-level curatorial and management positions at U.S. art museums will be filled by talented leaders from historically under-represented and diverse backgrounds."

Realizing that vision will mean changing the structure of the museum field.

"Fundamentally museums were created out of an elite portion of our society," said Cyra Levenson, the museum's director of education and academic affairs. "We are still contending with those legacies of elitism."

Among other things, the lack of diversity has led American art museums to interpret their collections through what Griswold called "a Eurocentric lens."

"It is essential that we approach our collection in a multidimensional approach to the interpretation of our holdings, and we've not been very good at that," he said.

Despite its policy of free general admission, the Cleveland museum has long been viewed as a bastion with only sporadic interest in community outreach, especially to the city's African-American community.

Focus of strategic plan

But earlier this month, the museum completed a strategic plan that, in part, aims to broaden and diversify the museum's audience and to turn the institution into a "teaching museum" akin to a university teaching hospital.

To get there, the museum realizes it needs to break down barriers that have kept the museum field predominantly white and available primarily to people who are economically comfortable, Levenson said.

Such challenges include a virtual requirement that candidates for museum careers have "the ability to take unpaid internships or to afford very low paying positions...to even be able to apply for another low paying position," she said.

"We need to address those areas and structural challenges, but it's going to take more than one institution to do that," she said.

Levenson and Griswold said the museum's Diversity Initiative is designed to provide on-ramps at all levels of education, from high school to postgraduate.

"It's a holistic approach to the problem," said Lillian Kuri, the Cleveland Foundation's vice president for strategic grantmaking and arts and urban design Initiatives. "The issue of diversifying the field is looked at comprehensively. That's where Cleveland is likely to stand out."

Paul Silva, a spokesman for the Ford Foundation, called the Cleveland museum's program "certainly one of the biggest and most comprehensive of the 20 grants" in the national initiative.

In addition to Curatorial Arts Mastery Program, which starts in January, the museum's diversity initiative includes the following programs and start times:

-      SPRING 2018: An undergraduate student guide program will target a total of 100 local community college, college and university students from underrepresented communities. Students will learn how to conduct art historical research and to create thematic public tours that relate to their interest and that offer new ways of view the museum's permanent collection.

-      SUMMER 2018: The museum's Director's Fellows Program for undergraduate students studying at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), established in 2010, will expand from two to four career apprenticeships.

-      SUMMER 2018: Seven competitive graduate student fellowships will encourage scholarly work through a public humanities summer institute, in which the fellows will mentor high school students and have access to senior scholars through the museum's scholars-in-residence program, as well as opportunities to publish or otherwise build their curriculum vitae.

-      SUMMER 2018: Two to three research residencies for senior scholars, museum professionals and artist-scholars will support research that could only be conducted using the Cleveland museum's unique collections. Participants will contribute to discussions with graduate fellows to help steward their careers. 

Of the total package, Griswold said: "We're proud of what we can offer, and I'm very optimistic we will be creating new opportunities for future professionals and for audiences whom we have historically perhaps served less well, and I'm thrilled about this."

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