This production is part of WFPL News’ year-long project The Next Louisville: Race, Ethnicity and Culture.
Julie Tallent leads me through the hallways of DuPont Manual High School — past cork boards covered in pencil sketches and sprawling paintings stretched overtop the lockers.
Tallent has taught classes here — namely advanced placement art history — at the visual arts magnet for nearly 16 years, but there is one teaching moment from several years back that really stands out.
“At a certain point, when I taught the class three or four years ago, I had a student just stand up and say, ‘Ms. Tallent — where are the brown people?’” she says. “And I had to say, ‘Well, they’re not there so much.’”
Eventually, the steering committee of the AP College Board — which Tallent served on –redesigned the art history curriculum nationwide to focus less on the traditionally accepted, and incredibly Eurocentric canon. The curriculum now features 250 works from all across the globe.
As Tallent flips through the textbook today, we see sculptures from South America, vivid tapestries from Southeast Asia and splashy contemporary European pieces.
“It’s interesting, with the new curriculum, there are fewer items and we are supposed to go deeper, and with a more limited curriculum we can spend a little more time with the items,” Tallent says. “And I think kids are being introduced to cultures that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
As a result, Tallent says students from all backgrounds can see people like themselves when they read through high school art history.
But the art world’s diversity problem isn’t just restricted to textbooks. It’s a very real issue that spans decades and venues: elementary schools, high school art classrooms, colleges, and one of the most obvious places — museums. The lack of diversity at art museums is especially noticeable when it comes to staffing.
According to a 2015 report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, mid- and upper-level museum and curatorial positions are overwhelmingly white. Non-Hispanic whites constitute 84 percent of near-top-tier positions, while Asians represent 5 percent, Blacks 4 percent, and Hispanics 3 percent.
While the Foundation acknowledges the 2015 demographic survey is discouraging, it provides baseline data against which future surveys can be measured and, hopefully, progress tracked.
Like most museums across the country, Louisville’s visual arts institutions have a diversity problem. Looking at the local upper-level museum leadership, it’s almost all white — from executive directors to curators.
Ramona Lindsey is the director of education at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. She is African-American.
“I had a coworker tell me, ‘Oh that’s great that they’re interviewing you, you’re the only one in the city!’” Lindsey says. “And I was like ‘What?’ But she’s right. I’m the only one in the city.”
Many arts professionals say it’s a cycle that needs to be broken — but what are local leaders doing about it?
Diversity By The Books
In the introduction to the Mellon Foundation’s 2015 study, Vice President Mariet Westerman, says the numbers don’t come close to representing the current racial makeup of America.
Well, there could be a few reasons.
First, let’s talk about the term “white space.” Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson coined the phrase in his paper “The White Space.”
According to Anderson, since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, many African-Americans have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites, though their reception has been mixed.
But overwhelmingly white public spaces — places like neighborhoods, schools and workplaces — still remain. Anderson says Blacks perceive such settings as the “white space,” which they often consider to be informally ‘off-limits’ for them.
This, Anderson says, results in spaces where people of color are typically “absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.”
Following the 2015 opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, First Lady Michelle Obama linked ‘white spaces’ and arts institutions during her comments for the dedication of the building:
“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the Southside of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.”
The ‘Arts And Staff Diversity Pipeline’
The American Association of Museums says just 9 percent of core museum visitors are people of color. Going back to those Mellon Foundation results on staff diversity percentages, the reason seems obvious: Why would you aspire to work in a place where you have never felt welcome?
But Chris Reitz, an assistant professor of critical and curatorial studies at U of L, says the problem (and its solution) is more complicated. He says there are many nuanced social factors that come into play — income, social class, access and expectations.
Reitz sees two main problems affecting the “arts and staff diversity pipeline.”
“One is that young arts workers need to see themselves,” he says. “They need to see people that they can identify with either in positions producing the work or facilitating its production or in some way running the organizations where that work is being shown.”
He says the situation is sort of a Catch-22. For a more diverse body of workers to pursue jobs in the upper echelons of museum leadership, they need to see people like them in those leadership positions. But they’re not there.
The second point of breakdown starts much earlier, he says. Schools need to introduce students to museums — but not just as a one-off cultural field trip. According to Reitz, it’s about making sure students of all ages and backgrounds recognize the arts as a viable path to employment.
“Lately the push in the United States has been towards the STEM field, and this can be great, but this can also be problematic,” Reitz says. “If your natural affinities are for the arts, going into a STEM field may not work out. It may lead to financial success, but it may not also lead to happiness, which is important.”
(STEM fields refer to science, technology, engineering and math.)
This, Reitz says, holds particularly true for college students.
“Especially those first generation college students, who are looking to leverage their education into a career, making sure that they see a path from the arts to work,” he says.
Recent studies have found college students of color have the highest percentage of parents with a high school education or less — nearly 50 percent. Of students who identified themselves as Caucasian, only 28 percent were first-generation college students.
Filling Top Positions
Ghislain d’Humieres, the executive director of the Speed, slides a long spreadsheet across his desk.
This spreadsheet has garnered national attention, including a write-up in the New York Times. It’s d’Humieres’ surprisingly simple solution for diversifying the Speed Museum’s board.
Candidates for board positions are listed to one side, while d’Humieres’ “board matrix” categories line the top. These range from more concrete demographic considerations like age, ethnicity and gender, to characteristics like “creative thinker” or “access to neighborhood leaders and community.”
“Every category with less than three people was marked red, which means weakness to me,” d’Humieres says. “We only nominate people who fill these weaknesses.”
Currently there are a combined 66 board of trustees and board of governors members (though the museum has the capacity for 90). As of January 2016, there were four outstanding areas lacking diversity — Hispanic American, Native American, Artist, and Religious/Spiritual Leader.
d’Humieres is confident they will be filled within the next election cycle. Especially since over the last two years — since he’s been in Louisville — d’Humieres has filled all other areas of board “weakness.”
The Speed’s upper-level staff, like the national average, is predominately white. Still, d’Humieres stresses the importance of a diverse board.
“If you really want to be meaningful for the community, the staff is going to need be ready for that — and they need an example from the leading corp of an institution,” he says. “So we start at the top with the Trustees and Governors.”
The Speed board helps make decisions regarding funding and programming. It sits at the very top of the museum chain of command and pushes the “go button” for initiatives to involve more diverse patrons, like free museum Sundays.
And, going back to Reitz’s first point — having a more diverse board is a way for potential future museum staffers of all backgrounds to see someone they recognize in leadership.
While d’Humieres acknowledges the diversity at the Speed isn’t perfect, it is a step in the right direction.
d’Humieres is addressing the lack of diversity at the top of Louisville art museums, but what about at the very beginning level with students?
That’s where Ramona Lindsey of KMAC comes back in. Lindsey didn’t come from a typical museum background — the kind where you step through the ranks from art history student to museum intern all the way up to upper-level administration.
Instead, she has her business degree and masters of education. She taught 4th and 5th grade in Chicago — making art a central point of her classroom experience — before stepping into a position at KMAC in education.
In her new role as director of education, Lindsey is in charge of facilitating the programs that reach youth and educators with arts in the city.
She says she is still looking for ways to help diversify the pool of potential incoming museum staff.
“I think, for me, some of the challenges have been when I put out a call for hiring, I’m still receiving applications from primarily Caucasians who have been trained in the arts or have backgrounds in art history or curatorial roles,” Lindsey says.
But she believes now that Jefferson County Public Schools has three magnet schools with a focus on visual arts — DuPont Manual, Ballard and Pleasure Ridge Park High Schools — more local students have access to the arts.
“I think that young people have to see that if they are creatives and they are interested in visual arts, that there are avenues besides just creating art and selling it at an arts festival,” Lindsey says. “There are those graphic designers, those museum professionals, curators and gallery owners. That those are other viable career paths.”
Ultimately though, Lindsey — like Reitz — says she feels it’s going to take a societal shift where arts professionals and instructors speak with students at earlier ages about the opportunities in arts-based fields. Otherwise, she says, the art world’s diversity problem, nationally and locally, won’t change.