With the support of a recent Helis Foundation grant, Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) will develop a new master’s degree in Curatorial Practice and Exhibition Management.
The initiative places XULA among a host of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that are working to increase diversity in museum and curatorial fields, while expanding representations of African-American and African Diaspora art.
XULA officials will use the $50,000 Helis Foundation award for the initial planning and research phase in the development of the program that will ultimately prepare students and expand their understanding of museum curatorship and exhibition preparatory work.
“For [the program] to be at an HBCU is extremely important because we don’t often see ourselves in those kinds of positions, particularly writers, curators, people who work as registrars, etc. at museums,” said Ron Bechet, the Victor H. Labat Endowed Professor of Art and co-lead of the program development project at XULA. “We’re hoping to open an opportunity for young African-Americans or people of color to have that as an opportunity for them to see it as a career.”
In addition to the practice of “making art,” students in XULA’s art department have the opportunity to work with curators and directors of local museums and art exhibits in New Orleans through internships and other experiential learning opportunities.
“We will continue that, obviously, but we wanted to make an opportunity open for those students who are further interested in working at a higher level once they do their undergraduate work,” Bechet said.
Dr. Sarah Anita Clunis, assistant professor of art history, gallery director of the Xavier University Art Gallery and co-lead of the development project at XULA, added that the new program is meant to be “a two-track program with people choosing if they want to focus on the theory – curatorial studies – or the practice” of putting an exhibit together, she said. “They’re going to need to have both.”
“Our students are really, really incredible when it comes to sculpture and building things,” Clunis said, adding that the master’s program will train students in exhibition preparatory work, such as building film sets or theatrical sets, for example. “It’s going to really bring back strong vocational skills.”
The program will be motivated by the voices and heart of students and the surrounding community at large, Clunis said, noting that there will be specific focuses on African Diaspora and African-American artists and the art they produce.
“These are areas that we really need students to be interested in and to go out into the world and have their voice be heard,” she said.
Preliminary outcomes for students in the Curatorial Practice and Exhibition Management program will include a knowledge and thorough understanding of what it means to be critical about viewing and understanding and seeing artists and how they work; being able to write proficiently and critically about those things; and being able to understand all the opportunities and positions for careers in the museum and the curatorial field, Bechet added.
“We’re still working things out. This is brand new to us,” Bechet said. “The Helis grant is going to afford us the opportunity to actually do the research that we need to do in curriculum and in development of the ideas that we want to pursue in terms of what we will ultimately use as our goals and for outcomes.”
In a statement, Jessie Schott Haynes, managing director of the Helis Foundation – a private, Louisiana family foundation committed to advancing access to the arts – noted people of color’s historical underrepresentation in the field of curatorial practices and in museum fields.
“It has been demonstrated that increasing diversity among curators and preparators will generate new ideas, innovation and engagement with art and serve audiences in a more authentic way,” Haynes said.
Clunis added that the program will emphasize community and collaboration – the latter of which is an element found in her working relationship with Bechet.
“He helps me bring to life my ideas,” she said.
In creating the master’s program, the two arts leaders will develop ways to utilize the strengths and talents of students and the community. They will also consult artists, patrons and collectors such as actress CCH Pounder who will advise the department on what students need to know about working with collectors and museums.
“They allow us to get ideas that we may not have had otherwise,” Clunis said of the community of voices. “I want to hear from as many people as possible.”
Bechet said that the art department will have to continue fundraising for the new Curatorial Practice and Exhibition Management program to complement its Helis Foundation award.
“It’s a start for us to really take ourselves seriously in forming this particular opportunity for students,” he said. “We’re looking forward to it. … We hope that it will make the museum field and the curatorial field stronger by having more diverse voices that are prepared to take on those roles.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.