Spotlight on University Art Museums: Andrea Barnwell Brownlee (director, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta)

“A looming challenge, that I think that museum directors as a whole have not really reckoned with, is the future of museums—who they serve and why the serve.”

I think one of the most exciting aspects of working in a college or university art museum is the multiple stakeholders that we serve on a regular basis. We have the opportunity not only to work with, and respond to, faculty members and students pursuing various investigations in their courses, but we also get the opportunity to work with the general public in a number of different ways. Our stakeholders are extraordinarily eager to synthesize information that they are getting from classes, from popular culture, from a variety of sources. And when you couple their interest with programmatic opportunity, it is really a perfect storm.

Like all museums, the Spelman is preoccupied with numbers. However, while we are definitely interested in how many people come through the door, we don’t consider that the principal measure of our success. We want to know, for example, how many people picked up a comment card and left a response to an exhibition. We also have a tell-us-what-you-think board, with twelve different questions that we ask visitors to respond to—questions like “describe this exhibition in six words” or “what is a question you can’t get out of your head?” or “what work did you find most compelling, and why?” So certainly, the gate is important to us, but we are more interested in seeing the numbers go up in terms of people being engaged. College and university museums are uniquely able to offer a really personalized, transformative experience when it comes to art. I’m not at all suggesting that public museums aren’t interested in individual experiences, but we are very much interested in what happens when a museumgoer experiences a program or a work in ways that, I would argue, are richer and deeper.

The museum opened in 1996, so we are very young. As you probably know, our focus is art by and about women of the African diaspora. In the early 1980s, we had a college president who said, wait a minute—we are a liberal arts college for women of African American descent. We need to concentrate on acquiring art by black women. Before the museum opened, the Spelman College art collection lived in its dorms and classrooms. In that sense, our history is not so different from that of a lot of other university art museums, which also started as repositories for art already owned by the institution. But what made our collection different is how specific it has been from the beginning.

We want to be the number one destination when it comes to art by women of the African diaspora. It’s quite humbling to look at the number of supporters we now have outside the Spelman or Atlanta communities. Going forward, our challenge is not only to let people know that we exist, but that we are offering something here that all audiences can benefit from, not only black women.

We are also a bit different from other university art galleries in that Spelman College, as part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, is affiliated with three other historically black colleges and universities: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. We are all within a three-mile radius of one another, and while we have very different histories and very different cultures, together we represent an incredible brain trust that no other college or university town can match.

The museum is very proud of playing a leading role in establishing the Atlanta University Center Collective for the Study of Art History & Curatorial Studies, an incubator of African American museum and art world professionals. The AUC’s art legacy is rich. In the 1960s, the Consortium created a coordinated art program, with Spelman offering art history and painting, Morris Brown (at that time a member) doing art education and ceramics, and Clark Atlanta giving classes in photography and printmaking. It was a remarkable moment. But even earlier than that, beginning in 1931, Hale Woodruff was here, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet came a few years later and they established an important art presence in the AUC. Although, over time, different institutional priorities have come to the fore in the AUC, there is a longstanding emphasis on the arts. The Museum is a leading and core part of its current trajectory.

We still found a need to think about the future of the field and how African Americans are underrepresented in it, as they are in so many other areas. So, to make a very long story very short, the college, which has had a relationship with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for decades, enthusiastically heard and supported my interest in changing the face of museums over time. They gave us a grant that has allowed us to really think through how we might be a part of that process through collaborating with Spelman’s Department of Art & Visual Culture to pilot a curatorial studies program, which is fueled by paid summer internships, academic courses, and mentoring by people already in the field.

In the meantime, a grant from the Alice L. Walton Foundation really allowed us to dream bigger by enabling Spelman’s Department of Art & Visual Culture to offer an art history major and a curatorial studies minor, upgrading curatorial studies from a program to an academic discipline. The curriculum, which we kicked off last August, makes use of our museum, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, and the liberal arts programs on all three campuses and is open to students across the Consortium.

So now, the director of the program, Dr. Cheryl Finley, is charged with ensuring that it has representation from all of the schools and that it continues to expand in terms of art history offerings and curatorial study offerings. One example is a summer program we offer for high-school students, where they can explore the idea of training for a museum career. We have paid internships for Consortium undergraduate students, where they have meaningful summer work experiences with leading museum professionals. Unpaid internships were simply not feasible for the majority of our students, especially internships in museums in New York.

In one of our recent meetings there was a very exciting moment when we started looking beyond curatorial studies to other museum jobs—whether in conservation, or education, or registration—that we need African Americans to think about as career paths. So if you ask me how we might differ from other university art museums, it’s really our focus on the future.

A looming challenge, one that I think that museum directors as a whole have not really reckoned with, is the future of museums—whom they serve and why they serve. One of my mentors is Johnnetta Cole, the first African American woman president of Spelman College, and I will never forget a keynote speech she once gave in which she talked about how we don’t think enough about the people who come through our doors and who we want to come through them.

Museum leaders think about balancing our budgets, and about marketing and visibility, and about mounting exceptional shows, but we do not future-proof well. We have not been at the forefront of thinking about what museums could, or should, look like going forward. And that is where I think college and university museums and galleries can play a leading role, because our primary audience is 18- to 25-year-old students. We have a front-seat view into what they are thinking and how they want to engage with museums in the future. And shame on us if we don’t pay attention to that and use it to propel ourselves forward.