Embrace the Pipeline: Funders Adopt a Familiar Strategy to Address Museum Diversity

The Barnes foundation

The Barnes foundation

Not long after the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation commissioned a series of case studies to help museums improve diversity and inclusivity in their staffing practices, news emerged this spring the Barnes Foundation was stepping into the fray.

The non-profit educational institution is working with the Chester County, PA-based Lincoln University to prepare African American students for careers in the museum professions.

The news suggests that while foundations agree that museums have a diversity problem, they're increasingly bullish on finding ways to tackle this challenge with better data and actionable staffing models.

Mellon's research underscores the gravity of the problem. Back in 2015, it examined staff demographic surveys from 77 percent of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and 15 percent of the American Alliance of Museums' (AAM) 643 member institutions in an effort to gauge the state of diversity in the museum world.

Its two high-level findings were that women make up 60 percent of museum staff, and that non-Hispanic whites make up 72 percent of AAMD member organizations' staff. 

The Barnes Foundation liberally uses Mellon's data to contextualize its efforts, citing another study showing that only 4 percent of the nation's museum leadership is African American. Barnes' solution: The museum world needs "diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation and other art museum careers."

So let's turn to the Barnes/Lincoln program, shall we?

According to Blake Bradford, the newly appointed director of the Museum Studies program, the new Museum Studies major will provide students with "hands-on, project-based learning," paid internships, mentoring and career guidance. 

Another key ingredient of the program is that it's based at an institution that boasts extensive holdings of African American art. Students can access Lincoln's 3,000-piece collection of African Art and Material Culture as well as the Barnes Collection, one of the world's finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings.

Creating programs to boost diversity in the museum world isn't a new phenomenon. Mellon launched a fellowship program in 2014 with the goal of diversifying the curatorial field at a handful of major U.S. museums. And later that year, the KeyBank Foundation announced a grant to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio for the establishment of the KeyBank Fellowship Endowment Fund. There have been other efforts, too. 

That said, the Barnes/Lincoln program stands out because of its point of entry. It tackles the program at the university, rather than the museum, level. The underlying strategy focuses at the beginning of that "diverse educational pipeline."

It calls to mind a recent post alluding to what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls a philanthropy-fueled "education-to-work-to-life-long-skill-building pipeline." While the post looks at how funders are creating a career pipeline for STEM students, we're seeing more arts-focused funders adopt a similar approach. Mellon, not surprisingly, is one of them.

As for the Philadelphia-based Barnes Foundation, it is home to one of the finest holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings in the world. The collection was amassed by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951.

Barnes established the institution in 1922 to "promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture." Its programs include First Fridays, young professionals nights, tours, tastings, and family programs, as well as Barnes-de Mazia Education Program courses and workshops.

And while the Barnes Foundation is not a grant-making institution, diversity is clearly a huge issue for funders like Mellon across the visual arts space. As a such, Barnes' pipeline to equip African American students for careers in the museum world is both timely and instructive.