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Clark Atlanta University Receives Funding to Increase Diversity in Art Museum Leadership

The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum is one of 20 U.S. art museums that will receive funding from the Walton Family Foundation and Ford Foundation as a part of the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI), an effort to increase diversity in curatorial and management staff at art museums nationally.

Dr. Maurita Poole, director of the CAU Art Museum (CAUAM), will use the $139,432 allotted to the institution to establish the Tina Dunkley Fellowship in American Art to not only commemorate the legacy of the art museum’s curator emerita, Tina Dunkley, but also to train and prepare the next generation of students of color who aspire to be art museum directors and leaders. The two-year fellowship will be a joint post-baccalaureate program with Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

Dr. Maurita PooleDr. Maurita Poole

“I was pleasantly surprised that the Ford and Walton Family Foundations decided to fund the DAMLI Tina Dunkley Fellowship in American Art,” Poole said. “Their decision to fund this project – as well as The Zuckerman Museum of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s willingness to form a partnership with Clark Atlanta University Art Museum – suggests to me that there is now a true desire to transform the landscape of museum leadership.”

Within the last five years, Poole says there have been ongoing discussions among museum directors and arts organizations about how to change the museum leadership landscape. However, change has been gradual.

“Even if they open up job opportunities, the pool of applicants is not diverse enough for us to diversify the profession because people don’t have the training,” Poole said. “They don’t even consider it as a possibility even if they visit museums.”

Poole hopes that the creation of the Dunkley Fellowship at CAUAM will create a pipeline and become an avenue for students of color who would like to become involved in the management of museum or art galleries, but who may not know where to begin.

The fellowship will provide two recent graduates with an in-depth training in both museum practice and the field of American art. Dunkley Fellows will also receive mentorship from high-level museum management and curatorial staff, participate in the development of exhibitions, work with museum collections, conduct research and complete a final project.

This will make them competitive in the museum field, knowledgeable about the strategies needed to succeed and competent in creating spaces that “seriously and thoughtfully engage the work of artists of color” should they decide to enter the field, Poole said.

Poole said that her colleagues at the Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA) at Kennesaw State – Justin Rabideau, Dr. Teresa Reeves and Sarah Higgins – played critical roles in the initiative’s development. Her museum’s local partnership with ZMA will be central to the training of the fellows.

Fellows will spend half of the week at CAUAM and the other half at ZMA to determine their specific interests in museum practice and to see how museum professionals work depending on resources, institutional culture and personalities. Once the fellows determine their interests, staff members of both museums will work with fellows to develop an exhibition or a public program.

Poole says the partnership with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art is evolving . But at minimum, a one-week intensive seminar will provide fellows with exposures to museum practices of larger institutions of American art with the possibility of travel to PAFA for the summer or semester for additional training.

Because museums are “increasingly shifting to become centers of engagement,” Poole, says it is necessary for students of color to see themselves as professionals who can develop exhibitions and programs that are “meaningful to diverse communities  comprised of people from various ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

And just as important, she acknowledges the need for more people of color who can place the work of artists within the context of their cultural productions as well as “in the multiple histories of art and expressive culture,” she added.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, similarly emphasized the need for a diverse range of art leaders. “To ensure the future health and vibrancy of the arts in America, we need more arts leaders who understand and relate to the deeply varied perspectives and life experiences that weave the rich fabric of our nation,” he said in a statement.

A 2015 national study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that the makeup of staff and leadership at art museums does not reflect the current racial and class demographic of the country: Only 16 percent of art museum leadership positions were held by people of color although 38 percent of Americans identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic or multiracial.

As a part of DAMLI efforts – which is sponsored by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors – the Ford and Walton Foundations will each commit $3 million over a three-year period to the 20 schools selected to support “innovative” approaches to increase hiring, mentoring, career development and fellowship opportunities for diverse professionals in art museum leadership.

In her role as director of CAUAM and the new fellowship, Poole will continue the work of her predecessor, Tina Dunkley, because Dunkley’s story “fully embodies or makes tangible the goals of DAMLI,” she said. Over the years, she recalls hearing Dunkley’s concerns with the politics surrounding the “valuation of fine arts” in addition to factors that influence which artists are highlighted and which ones are ignored.

As a graduate student at CAU in 1979, Dunkley understood the value of the museum’s collections of African American art at a time when no one else did, Poole said. The curator emerita then went on to serve as director of the museum for 25 years and increased the permanent collection from 291 to more than 1,200 works until her retirement in 2015.

While the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum has a historically significant collection of American art, it has largely been overlooked by even local Atlanta residents and students at neighboring Atlanta schools. “It’s really incredible that people don’t know what a treasure is right there at Clark Atlanta University,” Poole said.

Its prestige, nonetheless, has not escaped the gaze of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, where the collection’s Disciple Healing the Sick artwork by Henry O. Tanner is on loan. Additional works have been sent to exhibitions around the world, including to London, Paris and São Paulo.

Going forward with the spirit of Dunkley’s legacy, Poole wants people to think of CAUAM as “an institution that’s a center for training the next generation of museum professionals in helping them to really foreground  and understand the significance of African American art of the 1940s and 50s, which is the strength of the collection,” she said.

Mostly, she hopes interested students will see the field of art museum leadership as engaging, interesting and fun.

“That’s one of the things that I hope will happen with the young people – or the emerging professionals – who participate in this fellowship,” she said, “because if they’re passionate about what the museum field is about and they’re passionate about giving artists opportunities, then the career path will structure itself and take shape.”

Calls for applications for the Tina Dunkley Fellowship in American Art will start in January 2018. The two individuals selected will begin their paid, two-year placements at the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum and the Zuckerman Art Museum in July 2018.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.


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