As a teenager growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Akili Tommasino used to cut class to visit artworks like the ancient Egyptian “Head from a Female Sphinx” with gaping eye sockets at the Brooklyn Museum, or Umberto Boccioni’s striding bronze figure, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” at the Museum of Modern Art.
Wandering through the galleries, Mr. Tommasino also couldn’t help noticing that the only people of color he saw were the security guards; it wasn’t until he later studied art history at Harvard that Mr. Tommasino realized African-Americans like himself could also be curators, or even museum directors.
For decades the country’s mainstream art museums have excluded people of color — from their top leadership to the curators who create shows to the artists they display on their walls.
Now, eager to attract a broader cross-section of visitors at a time when the country’s demographics are changing — and, in New York, facing an ultimatum linking city funding to inclusion plans — a growing number of museums are addressing diversity with new urgency. From the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), they are hiring more minority staff members, offering paid internships and partnering with foundations and universities that fund curatorial jobs, to ensure that the next generation of leaders of color get into the pipeline.
“You do see change,” said Naomi Beckwith, who has just been promoted to senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and recently organized the first major survey of the African-American artist Howardena Pindell. Ms. Beckwith, one of numerous black curators nurtured at the Studio Museum in Harlem, said museums need to make sure curators of color “feel embraced and emboldened.”
That has not historically been the case. According to a national study in 2015 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, only 16 percent of leadership positions at art museums are held by people of color, although 38 percent of Americans identify as Asian, black, Hispanic or multiracial. Among museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders, the study found that only 4 percent are African-American, and 3 percent Hispanic.
“The situation was worse than in almost any sector I’ve seen,” said Mariët Westermann, executive vice president of Mellon.
Mindful of this wake-up call, a number of museums have collaborated with mentoring programs like the Prep for Prep/Sotheby’s Art Academy, which Mr. Tommasino founded this summer to give disadvantaged high school students an earlier window into the art world. “American museums need to do a better job of hiring, cultivating, retaining and promoting curators of color,” Mr. Tommasino said. “People of color don’t have exposure to arts as viable careers.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has been steadily building an inclusive roster of curators as a way to attract new audiences and rethink the narrative of art history typically framed around Italian Renaissance and Western European ideals. “Who you choose in organizing the program has an impact,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum’s director. “You are responsible for correcting a canon.”
Museums have tended to explain away their lack of diversity by bemoaning a scarcity of qualified curators. But art professionals say museums just have to look a little harder for help — perhaps to Spelman College’s new Curatorial Studies Program or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Teen Curators program. “We go to state schools to get them,” Elizabeth W. Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York City, said of young job candidates. “When people say it’s so impossible, that isn’t true.”
People of color have had difficulty entering the pipeline, facing barriers that include exclusion from informal mentoring networks, resistance to alternative perspectives on art history, and financial hurdles: many entry-level internships are unpaid.
“I had to turn down a curatorial assistant offer at the Guggenheim in 1999 because of how little the pay was,” said Christine Y. Kim, now an associate curator of contemporary art at Lacma. “For many marginalized young people interested in art, museums still represent authority, whiteness and power — places where we do not belong.”
Several institutions are trying to address the compensation issues. Lacma, for example, recently selected two college graduates for a new paid fellowship, and teamed up with Arizona State University for a three-year program that combines academic training and work experience to develop a diverse pool of curators, directors and other museum professionals.
The Ford Foundation, with the Walton Family Foundation, last November committed $6 million over three years toward diversifying curators and management at art museums nationwide. The effort funded 20 programs, including those at Lacma; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Pérez Art Museum Miami; and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Darren Walker, Ford’s president, said, “Museums can’t be excellent if their staffs are not diverse.”
Mr. Walker was particularly frustrated to learn that Denise Murrell, an African-American curator with a Ph.D., had been unable to place her exhibition, which explores the black figure in modern art. Finally, with Ford’s support, the show, “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” is coming to the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in October.
“I spent a year and a half making applications for funding — there was no interest, period,” Ms. Murrell said. “If someone comes along with a topic not within the canons of traditional art history, you have to find a sponsor to take the project on.”
Diversity issues can be divisive. The Brooklyn Museum recently came under fire for appointing Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a specialist in African arts at the Princeton University Art Museum, who is white, as an African art consulting curator. An activist group argued the selection perpetuated “ongoing legacies of oppression.” The museum stood by its choice, calling Dr. Windmuller-Luna an “extraordinary candidate with stellar qualifications.”
At the Brooklyn Museum, seven of 18 curators are people of color, which has broadened the institution’s programming. The museum gave Kehinde Wiley his first solo show in 2004, and early shows to Mickalene Thomas (2012) and LaToya Ruby Frazier (2013).
“When you have people in an institution who have a range of perspectives, you have a much richer program,” said Eugenie Tsai, a curator of contemporary art there, citing “openness to consider exhibition proposals, to consider programming, to consider hires, to consider things another group might want to dismiss as not what’s important.”
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio last year gave cultural institutions an ultimatum, linking future funding to the diversity of employees and board members. City-owned museums must adopt inclusion plans by next February or risk having their funding cut by 10 percent.
“The whitest job in the entire cultural community in New York is curator,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs. “That’s changing.”
Some major New York institutions are already looking markedly different. The Whitney Museum of American Art has in the last few years added four curators of color: Christopher Y. Lew, Rujeko Hockley, Adrienne Edwards and Marcela Guerrero, whose current show features the work of seven emerging Latinx artists.
“It’s a really exciting moment and hopefully not a moment,” said Ms. Hockley, one of two curators selected to organize the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
The goal isn’t simply to hire more curators of color or to do more shows featuring diverse artists, experts say, but for museums to fundamentally alter the artwork they acquire and their approach to exhibitions, “shifting the way our stories are told,” said Thomas J. Lax, an associate curator at MoMA.
Challenging the canon is not a zero sum game that requires abandoning art historical standards, he added, but one that adds depth to programming. In presenting the narrative of modernism, for example, Mr. Lax suggested museums should include the history of artists throughout the world — like hanging a Jacob Lawrence next to a Mondrian. ”We don’t want to fuel the idea something is being taken away,” he said.
Had there been more curators of color in senior positions, Mr. Walker of the Ford Foundation argued, perhaps the Tate Modern’s landmark “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which looks at black artists’ work from 1963 to 1983, would not have struggled to find an American home. (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., ultimately took the exhibition, and it will open at the Brooklyn Museum Sept. 14 before traveling to the Broad in Los Angeles in the spring.)
“The show almost never came to America,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s shameful.”
Having spent the summer meeting artists, critics, and conservators through Prep for Prep/Sotheby’s Art Academy, Liam Garcia-Quish, 17, a rising senior from Queens, is now considering becoming a curator. “This program really opened my eyes to the various opportunities in the art world,” said Mr. Garcia-Quish. “It’s giving people of color the opportunity to shine.”