"Seeds of Inspiration." The Walton Family Foundation's Latest Push for More Diverse Museums

Last December, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation joined forces to launch the $6 million Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative. As I noted at the time, the pairing may have appeared somewhat peculiar to followers of each foundation.

Ford, after all, is the anti-inequality firebrand. Walton, of course, is the family foundation built on Walmart riches. But first impressions can be deceiving. Given the growing consensus among arts funders about the need to promote equity, both in terms of representation and access, coupled with the fact that Alice Walton—aka “America’s Most Important Arts Philanthropist”—serves on the Walton Family Foundation board, the partnership isn’t so strange after all.

Now comes word that the Walton Family Foundation is doubling down on its efforts to boost diversity in the museum leadership field in the form of a $5.4 million commitment to Atlanta’s Spelman College to create an art history major and curatorial studies minor at the Atlanta University Center.

“When we increase access to art, we plant the seeds of inspiration for the future,” said Alice Walton. “This grant to Spelman College and the Atlanta University Center will encourage and support greater diversity within the arts, expand inclusion efforts in the museum community and inspire the next generation of art and museum leadership.”

I’ll take a closer look at the initiative momentarily as it includes some interesting details differentiate it from other offerings in the space. But first, additional context is required.

The dearth of African-American curators, conservators, educators and leaders in the art history and curatorial studies field has been well-documented here on Inside Philanthropy. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in particular, has been at the forefront of this issue for quite some time. In a way, funders like Ford and Walton have simply caught up to Mellon’s line of thinking, and in light of the headwinds across the arts funding landscape, it’s easy to see why. The more diverse a museum’s leadership, the better equipped it will be to attract and serve traditionally underrepresented demographics—groups that make up an ever greater share of the American public, especially younger people who are still forming their cultural tastes and habits.

Alice Walton summed up this sentiment accordingly:

For museums to be truly inviting public spaces, they must better reflect the communities they serve. Achieving diversity requires a deeper commitment: to hire and nurture leaders from all backgrounds. This initiative creates the opportunity for museums to build a more inclusive culture within their institutions.

Walton has led by example. In 2015, her Crystal Bridges Museum of Art launched its Access and Inclusive Programs Department to work with partners who have deep relationships in the community. It expanded the role of Executive Director Rod Bigelow to include chief diversity and inclusion officer. The museum has also set hiring targets based not on the demographics of today, but of the early 2020s.

Meanwhile, the strategies behind Ford’s and Walton’s Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative include hiring professionals from underrepresented populations and offering fellowships, mentorships and other career development options.

Spelman’s new program will support scholarships for Atlanta University Center students to study art history and to minor in fields such as business and technology. This latter component is important, as it finds the Walton Family Foundation acknowledging the importance of STEM-like skills in today’s competitive employment landscape. (Nor is Walton alone here—all across the higher ed field, we’re seeing funders embrace a more blended approach towards the traditional liberal arts curriculum.)

The new initiative also calls for opportunities for hands-on experiences through paid internships at major museums, archives and other cultural institutions; hiring a distinguished visiting professor/director, a visiting associate professor of art history, and curator-in-residence, and launching a 2019 lecture series featuring at least three guest speakers who will deliver public lectures in the field of art history and museum professions.

Again, there are many other examples of funders experimenting with museum diversification efforts at the university level. But the ultimate goal is to position the Atlanta University Center as one of the leading incubators of African-American museum professionals in the United States.