This “Perspectives” column was written in April and appears in the Summer 2020 issue of ARTnews.
Over the past few years there has been much discussion about the art world’s pipeline problem: that there are not enough paths to professional success and achievement for people of diverse backgrounds. This has galvanized efforts by numerous foundations to create curatorial fellowships at museums and institutions in order to diversify their curatorial ranks.
It was this kind of necessary thinking that in 2017 led to the creation of the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI) at 22 museums across the country, with funding from the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The undertaking followed a 2015 study led by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation whose findings included the fact that only 16 percent of art museum leadership positions were held by people of color. By advocating for career development opportunities for young professionals from historically underrepresented groups, DAMLI was an attempt to correct for that.
As part of the initiative, I was named a postgraduate curatorial fellow at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2018. After working in the art world for nearly eight years at museums, galleries, artists’ studios, and private collections, I had built a network of friends and mentors. But I found it hard to sustain myself, given low wages, lack of job stability or any kind of safety net, and had difficulty finding real opportunities, which can be scarce in the art world. Upon receiving the fellowship, however, I felt seen and supported. My enthusiasm was renewed—I was ready to dig in and get to work.
During the first few weeks I listened intently, trying to gather an understanding of the needs of the museum and how my skills could be best applied. I arrived at PAMM with a curatorial practice that prioritizes the sharing of information and resources with the public as a way to support Black and Brown artists. I believe it is important to consider how museums can perpetuate the canon of art history but also propose new means to make that canon more open and accessible.
I found meaningful support at PAMM from director Franklin Sirmans, to whom I reported. Even if he didn’t always get my vision at first, he encouraged my ideas and trusted me in ways that were invaluable. We had weekly meetings, and whenever possible, I shadowed him as he did his job working with different departments—all while gaining a bird’s-eye view of the many moving parts of a museum.
My first curatorial project was to organize “The Gift of Art,” an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 35th anniversary by looking at its unique history as a collecting institution with a commitment to artists of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. I also co-organized Latinx Art Sessions, a two-day workshop aimed to engage Miami’s creative community in a conversation about the state of Latinx art in the United States and how it could be supported. In addition, my research informed the creation of an affiliate group called the Latinx and Latin American Art Fund specifically to commit resources toward U.S. Latinx–related programming, exhibitions, and publications.
One component of the DAMLI fellowship called for connecting with local communities outside the museum’s walls. With that in mind, I joined Voices: Poetry for the People, a workshop series founded by community organizer Aja Monet, and helped organize a poetry festival in Liberty City. And among many other pursuits, the last public program I organized at PAMM was “M (Miami) – Files,” for which 20 area artists met with the museum’s curatorial team for critiques of their work.
As I worked on these projects, it seemed clear to me that at the heart of any real institutional change is the need for a deepened relationship with the public that is both sincere and genuinely devoted to service beyond a mere museum mission statement.
Throughout my tenure at PAMM, I found myself reflecting on my previous experience venturing down rewarding but also uncertain paths toward a goal of giving underrepresented people guidance for a future of professional achievement and success.
Years before I started working in the arts, I was awarded a life-changing scholarship from the Posse Foundation, an organization initiated to help inner-city students and serve as a possible corrective to the lack of diversity on predominantly white college campuses. My path to the scholarship was unlikely. Growing up, I moved around a lot and navigated an interrupted education: four elementary schools, two middle schools, three high schools. It was frustrating, but I understood that my parents were doing the best they could—and I was grateful that I was never separated from my family.
My mother, who had me at 19, arrived in New York from Puerto Rico in the late ’80s. My father, from the Dominican Republic, made his way to the city around the same time. I was raised mostly by my father, who split his time between New York and Santo Domingo. At 16, as a senior in high school, I moved back from there to the Bronx, painfully behind. No matter how hard I tried, I remained a C-average student, at best.
In order to graduate on time, I had to pass six regents exams in one year. I asked my English teacher for a list of the books my classmates had read since 9th grade. I read them all as fast as I could and visited her after school to discuss them. I worked hard and managed to pull up my grades, but nonetheless you can imagine my surprise when I received a call telling me that, from a pool of more than 3,000 nominated students, I had earned a full-tuition scholarship at DePauw University in Indiana.
Becoming a Posse Scholar meant that for at least five years I would be supported by a real sense of investment and advocacy, and it put me on the path to learn a lot about the possibilities—but also the limitations—of helping underrepresented populations through fellowships of the kind I would later experience at PAMM.
An aspiring museum professional who embarks on a diversity-focused curatorial fellowship occupies a curious position. You are counted among the staff—but are not in a permanent position. You are tasked with responsibilities—but also feel pulled between those and others that arise from the needs of the wider communities to which you belong. You are poised, in such a situation, between visibility and invisibility.
Diversity fellowships should be not only opportunities for those who receive them but also for the museums that administer them. Host institutions should be urged to challenge and confront their own histories of exclusion. But such a project requires investment beyond short-term fellowships of one or two years, and those who participate would benefit from a formalized network to connect with other fellows, as well as clear measures as to what might—or might not—count as success.
During my time at PAMM, I worked a second job as a nanny to help supplement my curatorial pay, which often meant 12-hour workdays. And when I started thinking of prospects for real jobs in the future, it felt as though the fellowship ended almost as soon as it began. During my second year, with my sense of momentum slowing, I applied to Ph.D. programs and, after returning to New York, I had a hard time finding a position based on the work I’d done. I took a job as a hostess at a steakhouse near Wall Street to support myself through a time of transition.
I am proud of the work I did during my fellowship at PAMM and remain touched by the many different kinds of relationships I formed. But for now, in a welcome pause of museum work, I am looking forward to a different path in academia—toward a future that will reveal itself in time. (In the fall, I begin as a doctoral student in art history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.)
In March, the steakhouse I worked at was shut down because of the coronavirus. Also affected was a planned gathering of DAMLI fellows with leaders from their host institutions and supporting foundations. I imagine we fellows would have shared our experiences working in an elusive pipeline toward diversity and found ways to stay connected as we travel our separate paths, wherever they all lead. And I hope we still do—because we have a lot to talk about.