In autumn 1991, for my first job after college, I was the recipient of a prestigious nine-month, salaried post at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC., through a program titled “Internships in the Museum Profession for Minorities.” This job began my long career in curatorial work and I remain in the field today. As an independent curator for more than a decade, I have organized exhibitions for museums around the country including DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, AZ, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, CA, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
My experience as a “minority intern” has been on my mind lately, as I’ve read press coverage of newly established, diversity-based internships and fellowships and seen colleagues promote these programs at conferences. Museum leaders are concerned about the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the profession, yet after 30 years of diversity-based internships and fellowships, these entry-level programs are still treated as a primary solution. Just a few weeks ago, the National Gallery of Art announced a new program to “create pathways to careers in museums … for students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions that serve populations that are underrepresented in the museum field.” On social media platforms, however, I’ve seen anecdotal and anonymous stories critiquing these initiatives and sharing personal experiences from these programs. My career went straight through a “diversity pipeline” yet the institutions that created the bits of pipe have not tracked the long-term outcomes. Without a study of how these programs have affected the individual recipients, our profession fails to understand why diversity internships and fellowships have not resulted in a strong network of alumni now ready to fill leadership roles in museums.
There were three “minority interns” at the NGA in 1991. I was the “Hispanic” in the group; my two intern-colleagues were African-American and Native American. My father is an immigrant from Nicaragua and my mother comes from French-Irish-Canadian ancestry. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. Mountains of financial aid enabled me to attend an elite school, where I learned about art history, and started to glimpse the elite money that defines much of the artworld. The NGA is a rarefied and privileged museum space, and I felt lucky to be there. I worked in two curatorial departments, on a retrospective of photographer Robert Frank and a catalogue raisonné of the prints of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The NGA had a well-organized internship program that included the minority program as well as other interns throughout the year. Interns met together once a week, talked with colleagues in every department, learned about the museum’s decision-making structures, and had full access to the NGA’s spaces of research and informal networking. I recall meals at the homes of my supervisors, lunches with colleagues across the museum, and a group field-trip to New York to visit El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as Exit Art and the New Museum. My experience at the NGA was overwhelmingly positive, and I still keep in touch with colleagues who were supportive mentors.
However, I also reflect on the complicated status the three of us carried as minority interns that year. Someone on the NGA staff suggested that we each work on an independent project related to our ethnic or racial identity, and I remember that the three of us grappled with that kind of essentializing for our own research. That project went nowhere, but we soon felt emboldened to evaluate the lack of diversity in the NGA’s collection. We sensed the tokenism in our hiring, but would use the opportunity to pursue greater institutional accountability toward what we thought of as real diversity—more non-white artists in the NGA’s collection, with more non-white curators and administrators guiding all decisions at the museum. After months of collaborative work, in addition to our specific projects in different departments, the three of us produced a report that critiqued the acquisition and exhibition programs at the NGA, and proposed institution-wide changes that could increase diversity. We presented the document at a meeting for the entire senior staff. Two of us remained at the NGA for a second year, and were able to continue those conversations. I am proud of that work, and look back on it as a crucial early moment in my own journey to find my place as a Latina in the privileged spaces of the artworld.
I also cringe at our naïveté and optimism that three interns could activate substantive change in the policies of a major museum. Although curators, educators, exhibition coordinators, and administrators all provided sincere support for our work, I recognize now that the institutional support we received was inherently patronizing and ultimately degrading to the cause of a more diverse NGA. The staff listened and agreed about aspiring to build diversity. I suspect we got further in conversations, and had more resources, than many colleagues who have pushed the same efforts forward at other institutions. Yet we had no real power. Comprehensive changes to collecting practices, exhibition programs, and staffing goals are never made by interns, and the weight of addressing those issues should not have been on our shoulders. The very fact that three interns initiated and led the conversation on such an important topic ensured that there would be no long-term institutional investment in the issue.
Almost 30 years have passed since I was a minority intern at the NGA. As a Latina, my graduate education and early career benefitted from several opportunities intended to increase the representation of ethnic and racial minorities in academia and museums. I spent my 20s and early 30s as an often lonely voice of diversity in meetings and classes. When I drafted and updated my CV in those years I sometimes dropped the word “minority” from the official titles of fellowships and internships I had held. Not only did I feel a complex mixture of shame and defiance about carrying that identity through my career, I could also never be certain how a prospective employer might respond to that decontextualized biographical detail. I am grateful for the “pipeline,” and there is no question that without those financial and professional opportunities, I could not have become an art historian and curator. By my mid-30s I chose to work independently, rather than with a single institution. I also chose to work broadly across modern and contemporary American art, and did not develop a specialty in topics related to my ethnicity. For almost 15 years I have worked with a variety of museums across the country on exhibition projects, research, and publications; it has been liberating to be hired only for my curatorial expertise. I am deeply proud of my mixed-ethnic identity but it is a mixed blessing to fill implicit staff diversity quotas or be expected to speak for Latinx culture.
By 1990, if not earlier, museum professionals with well-meaning goals recognized the need—and assembled the funding—to establish opportunities for non-white college graduates to try out a museum career. Whatever happened to the “minority interns” of 1990s? Where is the proud, visible network of alums from these programs?
I have tried to investigate the origins of staff-diversity initiatives at museums, but the internet provides scant details. I suspect that many of the early programs were re-named or discontinued.
I have introduced myself to museum colleagues who administer new programs at their museums. I have contacted the professional organizations of our field such as the AAMC and AAMD, as well as the Mellon Foundation, to ask whether they have interviewed alums from these programs or assembled statistics to measure the outcomes of these early initiatives. According to the widely circulated 2015 Mellon report, updated in 2018, those opportunities are still needed. Next month, a national summit organized by the St. Louis Art Museum will provide some insights on the past and present of these initiatives. Our profession needs to investigate the successes and failures of those early programs, to understand how and why experiences inside the museum caused us to stay in the field or, more importantly, leave altogether.
Without long insights into the early diversity programs, our profession cannot address the structural inequities that perpetuate the need for entry-level opportunities targeted for non-white individuals. Museums must acknowledge the stigmatizing, tokenizing, and economic effects of these programs, in addition to the opportunities they offer. Individual institutions, and the museum profession in general, need to establish a structure of long-term accountability to better understand the complicated outcomes of these experiences. Somewhere out there is a network of museum colleagues, united by our tenure as “minority interns” and “diversity fellows.” It is time for museums and granting agencies to do the research, hear our stories, and reckon with the complex repercussions of “minority internships.”
My fellow minority interns at the National Gallery of Art in 1991–1992 were Heather Peeler and Marie Watt. I would like to thank them both for reading a draft of this essay.