What's Behind Mellon's Latest Effort to Boost Minority Representation in the Curatorial Field?

Whenever we come across foundations giving money for a certain cause, we like to view the gift through the lens of supply and demand. Does the gift create a supply of something, be it a skill, program offering, or production? Or does the gift create demand for a specific skill, program offering, or production?

More often than not, if a foundation is trying to solve a specific problem, they'll have a difficult time at it unless they address both sides of the equation.

Such is the case with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and its efforts to boost minority representation in an American curatorial field that, according to American Alliance of Museums, is currently 80 percent white. The foundation just awarded $250,000 to Atlanta's Spelman College to pilot a two-year collaboration, dubbed the Curatorial Studies Program, which aims to prepare the next generation of African-American students for curatorial professions.

Designed for juniors and seniors in various academic majors, the program will be composed of 10 students selected through a competitive application process. Over the course of the program, students will complete two curatorial studies courses, summer internships hosted by museums across the country, sessions and workshops with seasoned curators and museum professionals who will serve as mentors, and spring break courses at partner institutions. During the final year, students will complete a culminating project.

This brings us back to the concept of supply and demand. Most university-level training programs create supply: graduates equipped for a career in a given field. But they often fail to address demand. This is fine, of course. There's only so much a foundation or university can do. But let's be honest. What good is an ambitious curatorial studies program if graduating students can't get a foothold in a museum, much less a job?

Well by now, the answer is obvious. By interning at museums and attending spring break courses at partner institutions, Spelman's program ensures that graduates will network with key players in the curatorial field.

Other foundations are getting in on the act as well. KeyBank Foundation, for example, recently announced a $400,000 grant to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio for the establishment of the KeyBank Fellowship Endowment Fund, which will support the creation of a KeyBank Fellowship for minority candidates interested in museum leadership careers.

Which brings us back to Mellon. Their gift to Spelman comes after the foundation recently rolled out its own fellowship to diversify the curatorial field at specific institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the High Museum in Atlanta.

We admit these fellowships are not explicitly creating demand. To do so, foundations like Mellon would have to, say, fund the creation of 25 brand new curatorial positions across the country that otherwise wouldn't have existed. And while that may sound tempting, such an effort would represent a potentially invasive and costly foray into the day-to-day operations of U.S. museums.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that the demand already exists. Museums hire new employees all the time.

And so Mellon, as well as KeyBank, are taking a far more pragmatic approach with an eye toward the long-term. They're systematically creating a pipeline of qualified candidates and matching them with museums to help populate a curatorial field in need of some diversity.