Case Studies in Museum Diversity: Part II

Part II: How can museums work towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive future?

The Mellon Foundation recently released a set of case studies on American museums – including two NYSCA grantees, the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem – who serve as models in the field.

Addressing these issues is a priority at NYSCA and we encourage you to read on for ideas as to how your organization can achieve its goals to become more welcoming to people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities. Below, read Part II of our overview of what these studies observed about our grantees, focusing on the Studio Museum in Harlem, a grantee in our Museum and Special Arts Services Programs. If you missed it, you can also read Part I, which focuses on successful strategies at the Brooklyn Museum.


Mellon’s Liam Sweeney and Roger Schonfeld title their study “An Engine for Diversity.”

They write, “The Studio Museum in Harlem is a contemporary, culturally specific, artist-centric museum located in New York City that has played a singular role in defining and promoting the art of African Americans and the African diaspora. The museum has contributed substantially in bringing this art into the canon and equally in providing opportunities for African Americans to gain access to the cultural sector, especially for artists and curators.”

Studio Museum in Harlem
Guests at the opening reception for the Summer 2017 exhibition season.
Photo: Will Ragozzino

In the museum field at large, Mellon and partner researches identified 28 percent of museum staff as people of color (POC). But in the intellectual leadership positions, identified as educators, curators, conservators, and senior administrators, POC composed only 16 percent. At the Studio Museum, 77 percent of the 56 employees and 92% percent of the intellectual leadership positions identified as POC.

Through a two-day site visit, which involved interviewing eight people, participating in an operations meeting, exploring galleries, and attending public programs, Sweeney and Schonfeld identified three main strategies: Redefining Diversity, Building Partnerships and Cultivating Artists and Curators. Summaries and key programs are below:

Redefining Diversity:

  • Rather than dismissing diversity concerns as a non-issue, leaders and staff at the museum have developed a more nuanced view of the term, taking into account cross-cultural diversity, diversity of age, positionality, and ideas.
  • Shannon Ali, director of visitor services, underscored the importance of focusing not just on developing a primarily youth audience—an issue she saw as all too pervasive in the broader museum sector—but also bringing into the museum the wealth of experience of a more senior audience
Studio Museum in Harlem
Educators lead a group tour of the Studio Museum

Building Partnerships:

  • Since its early beginnings as a community-oriented organization, the Studio Museum has grown and honed its mission to represent the full African diaspora and has become an international tourist destination.
  • The museum is now refocusing on its local audience and community – especially important as the museum will be without a physical building, starting in 2018, for at least two years.
Programs include: inHarlem, in partnership with the New York City Parks Department and New York Public Library, creates site specific public art in neighborhood parks and builds collaborative partnerships, which create multiple entry points to the museum. One such event, Studio Salon, a partnership with the George Bruce Library, has created an opportunity to explore intersections between creative writing and contemporary art. Studio Squared, informally known as “drink and draw,” offers hands-on art making workshops for adults. In many cases an artist affiliated with the Studio Museum will talk through their process and give the attendees a chance to create an art object using a similar method. Expanding The Walls: Youth train with an artist, using Harlem as their subject matter, to learn the basics of photography. Inspired by the famous Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee, the program concludes with an exhibition of his work alongside the students.

Cultivating Artists and Curators:

  • The museum's Artist in Residence (AIR) studios are above the galleries, and the museum typically purchases one of the pieces resulting from the residency to add to its collection. The residency provides financial support, studio space and a thriving creative environment and serves as an access point for emerging artists to New York galleries.

  • Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden cultivates curators through professional development initiatives – this year, the Museum brought ten curators at varying stages of their careers from around the country on a traveling curatorial development program aimed at fostering cross cultural dialogue.

  • Former studio Museum curators and staff of the past decade have since progressed to MCA Chicago, LACMA, MoMA the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, among others, demonstrating the Studio Museum’s influence on the staffing of arts administrators of color in the broader field.

Cover image: Museum visitor enjoys Jamel Shabazz: Crossing 125th, on view at the Studio Museum April 20–August 27, 2017. Photo: Will Ragozzino