Last week, the New York–based Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation (AAMC) announced that it would launch the Professional Alliance for Curators of Color, a new program meant to empower curators of color from around the world. The consortium will connect the first cohort of curators not only with each other but with the AAMC’s vast network of professional contacts within the curatorial field and beyond. In its press release announcing it, the AAMC said the new program “seeks to address issues of isolationism, racism, inequity, and lack of access that are far too often the experience for BIPOC curators.”
The Professional Alliance for Curators of Color will be open to 30 emerging curators from around the world who have between two and five years of professional experience. As part of the program, they will be paired with another cohort member and receive a stipend for the length of the 10-month program. They will also meet regularly with the AAMC’s executive director, Judith Pineiro, and the program’s curatorial adviser and partner, Kelli Morgan. Additionally, the group will have three sessions with Tanya M. Odom, a DEAI consultant.
To learn more about the program, ARTnews spoke with Pineiro and Morgan by Zoom.
ARTnews: Judith, can you briefly explain what the Association of Art Museum Curators does and how the Professional Alliance for Curators of Color developed?
Judith Pineiro: The Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) and the AAMC Foundation have been in existence since 2001. Our mission is to support and advocate for the curatorial profession. In 2015, our strategic plan had as its pillars diversity, inclusion, and advocacy, and we have centered our work on those pillars and that vision since then. We, of course, recognize that there is a great deal more to do, and that certainly was highlighted as we entered into the summer months [last year] here in this country.
The idea for the program began in June as part of an internal action plan being developed here at AAMC that we were working on to support our June 2 statement against racism, bias, and violence and hate in our communities and in the visual arts. Between then and December, we had many conversations with curators of color around the world, including Kelli, learning and listening to recognize what more needed to be done and how AAMC could leverage our experience, our network, our tools, our capacity. We are a small organization, but we have the ability to help create a community. We also did anti-racism training at the board level over the summer and into the fall, and all that helped inform the development of the project, basically listening and responding. At AAMC, we are taking our responsibility—because it is a responsibility—to ensure that the field is diverse and inclusive and accessible, and this program is critical to building and sustaining those starting out in their careers. We hope we can change the field, so that they don’t leave it. The field will not be diverse if we’re not being an inclusive profession.
Kelli, how did you become involved as the program’s curatorial adviser and partner?
Kelli Morgan: My conversations with Judith over the years have been instrumental in helping me figure out how to formulate the fact that I’m a critical race scholar steeped in an anti-racist curatorial practice. We began talking about what was happening to Black curators—and Black people, in general—after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We just needed to do something. The more we thought about it, we realized that we had to create something that was all encompassing, that would also include Asian curators, Latinx curators, and Indigenous curators. There’s no better organization to do that than the AAMC. We really wanted something where curators of color could feel safe. I am very adamant about the safety of my colleagues and just calling things out. So the role of adviser and partner came about in that regard, not to sit in the background, but as somebody who adds another layer of advice, protection, and guidance for the cohort.
How will you structure the program to create safety and genuine support for curators of color?
Morgan: I just want it to be a safe space where I can talk with curators, to see what’s going on with them, what they need, and where we can help them strategize how to work through what they’re going through. I think right now the culture of fear and the culture of silence among curators, period, but especially among curators of color, is so bad. I want it to be an established space where they know they can come and share what’s happening to them, in whatever way they want to do so safely, and then get the tools that they need to address those things.
Pineiro: It’s a pilot program, so we’ll learn from this group. First, it’s giving access and community. We hear so often that curators of color often don’t have anyone to talk to—there’s no one to reach out to. This program will give access to that community. We’re also hoping that as the program evolves, those who are in this year’s program will be advisers in another year and be able to continue that giving back cycle and access. We think of the visual arts community, particularly museums, as small, but to have access to an experienced curator to turn to and ask a question to confidentially—that’s really rare. So, we’re hoping to build and expand networks and connections.
The curators will also have time with a DEAI consultant, Tanya M. Odom. This will give them access to an expert in the field of how to work through those issues and experiences. Having access to these resources and being able to share experiences with each other, I’m hoping this will be career-changing for these curators, and hopefully through building a community, this cohort will continue to learn and grow together. It combats isolationism. To know you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing, in the forms of racism, bias, sexism—the more we can highlight that and bring that forward will help change the field in a larger way. No pilot program is ever perfect. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot and we’ll probably change a lot, but we need to start somewhere, and this is where we are.
What are the three sessions the group will have with Tanya M. Odom, and why was meeting with a DEAI expert key to the resources the program would offer?
Pineiro: Tanya will be at the beginning, middle, and end of the program, to help be there for the group as they evolve through the program, as they have more comfortability with each other and have open forums with Kelli. So much of the DEAI training in museums isn’t focused on how it impacts curators of color. This offers that opportunity to get the perspective from a leader that’s worked in the cultural and non-cultural sector and get advice from her directly.
Morgan: The curatorial field is very interesting because it didn’t originate from academia. Art history didn’t produce curators; it developed separately from the curatorial field. Most curators were major collectors or related to major collectors. It was a familial thing that grew out of kind of connoisseurship and the market. It didn’t really become a standalone field until around the ’60s. I give you that little bit of historical context because professional development for curators—just as a whole—leaves a lot to be desired. It’s very cliquey. You usually don’t get that professional development unless you’re part of a high-profile groups of curators, chief curators, deputy directors, or museum directors, or at major institutions in New York, for instance.
It’s 10 times worse for curators of color. Tanya is really important because she helps with that professional development piece. For a lot of curators, myself included, there wasn’t really anybody telling me how to advance my career. Outside of a seminar that the AAMC holds, it doesn’t really exist structurally for curators. For example, if you’re an assistant curator, do you decide to renegotiate your contract in five years or just wait and see if maybe the director will promote you? We hope to give curators the encouragement and the empowerment to build the careers that they want to build, not the career that the field says they should have.
Pineiro: I think a big part of this program is about empowerment to lead your career and take charge of it, and have a network of support as you do that.
Morgan: Absolutely. I recently had a conversation with a curator who has been in the field for as long as I have. She said she felt like she had to walk a very fine line, or she couldn’t pursue the shows she wanted or she couldn’t speak up for herself. If she feels like this, I can only imagine even how other curators feel the same way. At least, if nothing else, we hope to create a space where curators of color can find that encouragement, even if it’s just to say, “It’s okay to say the thing you want to say” or “It’s okay to push back,” or even that, if you are African-American and you want to be a curator of South Asian art, that’s fine. You don’t have to let the field or the institution push you into being the curator of Black contemporary art.
The initial cohort will consist of 30 curators of color. How will you go about creating this cohort, and how will you bring them together?
Pineiro: The program is global and will last 10 months, so it will be virtual. Sadly, I don’t see us gathering 30 people from around the world in one place in the next 10 months. For the application process, we wanted a bit of peer building, from people at the same stage of where they’re at in their careers. So it’s for curators in the nonprofit sector with two to five years of working experience, including fellowships. They will have a convening every six weeks or so in an open forum. They’ll be paired peer to peer, and then they’ll have that intergenerational access to the liaisons to ask questions and reach out to confidentially for advice in the curatorial museum/academia sector. It’s an open rolling process, so when we hit 30 curators with two to five years’ experience, the program’s full.
How did you decide on making the program open to curators with 2–5 years’ experience? How do you think that will impact the field going forward?
Morgan: We chose two to five years because most of the time [in curatorial initiatives] it is three to five or three to seven years experience, so it excludes the people who are in fellowships. Now, with curatorial initiatives like the ones funded by the Mellon Foundation, there are a lot of curators who are emerging, particularly curators of color. Five or six years ago, we weren’t being hired in any kind of significant capacity, which is why these fellowships were created. A lot of times, as fellows, oftentimes we’re the institution’s first Black person or Asian person in the curatorial department. So all of this institutional baggage is layered on top of you, and rarely is anybody in the institution helping you navigate it. You can probably guess I’m speaking from experience right now. We wanted to ensure that those folks could be a part of the program, whether they’re a year out of grad school or even a year after a fellowship.
Pineiro: We want to support them as they’re going forward, because if we don’t, we’re going to lose an entire generation of curators, if they aren’t given access to the professional development and the network building that they need.
Morgan: Trying to prevent the field from losing a whole generation of curators—that’s already happened. Hardly any of the curators or museum educators of color who were working in the ’90s are still working in museums today. We don’t talk enough about what happened to those men and women. I think we’re at a moment where we’re definitely at risk of that happening all over again, based on conversations I’ve had over the last three years with undergraduate and graduate curatorial fellows around the country. They say, “When this fellowship is over, I’m going to do something else, because this is crazy.” Creating this program is a way to create something that stops that.
And by retaining that generation of curators of color, how do you think that will impact the field and the art world more broadly?
Morgan: Younger curators and younger museum professionals in general have a very sound sense of equity. They have a much broader and more responsible knowledge of different value systems and how those value systems work, so they’re not married to this elite white value system. So the broader implication is a broader understanding of culture and people, because unfortunately, as institutions and the field are structured now, you have a very small group of people who are controlling the funding streams and the content we see, and that’s coming through a very myopic lens. This program will expand that lens and hopefully eradicate the traditional one. In empowering curators of color and then feeding the field, we can create an entirely new model.
Pineiro: Museums need to reflect the communities that they serve, and they’re not able to do that if their curatorial teams aren’t diverse and aren’t bringing together multiple voices, across races, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds. We’re only going to keep telling one story if the makeup of the field remains one-sided.