RK&A BLOG

How Museums Can Nurture Diverse Talent

On May 6, 2021, arts professionals from around the country convened to explore best practices for nurturing diverse talent within museums and cultural institutions. Advancing Change: The Future of Museum Leadership was a virtual summit that presented lessons learned from over 30 years of offering the Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellowship at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM).

In 2019, RK&A conducted the first ever multi-method evaluation of the Bearden Fellowship.  Results of the evaluation informed the development of a Case Study collaboratively produced by SLAM and RK&A that outlines seven key considerations for any museum interested in starting and sustaining a diversity-focused fellowship program.  As part of the summit, SLAM’s Chief Diversity Officer and Fellowship Director, Renée Brummell Franklin, and I had a conversation about the Case Study.  I talked generally about the importance of the seven considerations and Renée shared the ways SLAM has applied them.  Here, we provide a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of one of the presentations. You can find full videos of the presentations here.

Two headshots side by side. On the left is a black woman (Renée), on the right, a white woman (Stephanie).
SLAM’s Chief Diversity Officer and Fellowship Director, Renée Brummell Franklin (left) and RK&A’s Director, Stephanie Downey (right).

Stephanie
The first consideration [from the Case Study] is to “define fellowship goals and design fellowship structure to achieve those goals.”  It’s important to carefully consider the logic behind the design and structure of the fellowship and how it will lead to the goals you intend.   By structure, I mean things like the length of the fellowship, the area of focus, and whether you support one fellow or cohort.  You can’t necessarily rely on previous experience running other fellowships and internships because a diversity focused fellowship will have unique goals.  Renée, can you talk about the Bearden Fellowship structure and how it has changed since we did the evaluation?

Renée
Our program was set up so that we selected one fellow per year. The outgoing fellow and the incoming fellow overlap by two weeks.  We find that that overlap is very important, it starts to build the network. Following the evaluation study, we have extended the program. We are going from one fellow to two fellows at a time, and from a one-year program to a two-year program [which relates to other considerations discussed below].

Stephanie
The second consideration is to “align fellowship supervision to the fellowship goals.” We found in the evaluation that the supervisory structure of a diversity-focused fellowship has enormous influence on its success. Museums need to plan carefully for what department the fellowship is situated within, who will supervise that position and also provide training for supervisors and mentors, including DEAI training. These kinds of decisions are especially important for a fellowship for people of color in a predominantly white institution. What is the supervisory structure of the Bearden fellowship and how has it changed?

Renée
The intent of the Fellowship has always been to have Fellows work throughout the Museum on a variety of projects targeted at their interest and the Museum’s needs.  However, over time because the Fellows were supervised by the Director of Education and workspace was in the Education Department, the experiences became very Education focused [which was later changed to align with the program’s intentions].  Additionally, some Fellows often felt the additional burden of working only on Black initiatives [even though that was not the intention of the program].  And before I formally began to supervise and mentor Fellows as a senior staff member, Fellows often sought me out to discuss ways to navigate within the museum as a person of color.

Stephanie
Next is to “commit financial resources to the fellowship.”  This may seem obvious but not too long ago, many museum internships and fellowship across the country were low or not paid.  Thankfully, in the last few years there has been a shift away from no pay or low pay internships and fellowships to ones that offer a livable wage.  Can you talk about financial resources for the Bearden Fellowship?

Renée
I have to say that we have been very fortunate. A significant contributing factor to the Bearden Fellowship being one of the longest-running museum fellowships has been our continuous funding.  And thanks to a presentation that we made at a board meeting about the research [and evaluation], we are delighted that the Museum has received a generous gift from the Frost Family to establish a Romare Bearden Graduate Fellowship Endowment. In the future we will use the endowment’s harvest to support the Bearden Fellowship 100%.  Until that happens, we will continue to support the program with our operating budget and a modest endowment established by the original funders, Daniel and Adelaide Schlafly.

Stephanie
Number four is to “seek a wide range of applicants and define qualifications broadly”. The environmental scan [one evaluation method was a scan of similar diversity fellowships] and SLAM’s experience reveal that recruiting individuals from underrepresented backgrounds can be challenging. And if you go about it in a business-as-usual way, you might not be successful.  Diversity-focused fellowships require rethinking what makes a candidate eligible and where to promote opportunities so that you’re reaching your desired candidates. How does recruitment work at SLAM and what kind of changes are you making?

Renée
One of the great ways that we are able to get a broad variety of applicants is word of mouth, through the Bearden fellows themselves. But we do see the benefit of having a recruiter, an external person going out, building awareness for job opportunities. However, at the museum, we have just under 300 employees and after consideration, we do not feel that we could justify having a full-time recruiter as the study suggests [might be needed]. But, our director of HR is re-imagining the department and she is adding a new staff person, and that staff person will have, as one of their duties, the role of external relationship building and recruitment with the focus on increasing the diversity of museum staff overall.

Stephanie
Number five is to “provide opportunities for fellows to foster networks of support.” Networking both with professional networks and with peers is key to any emerging professional, but even more so for fellows of color working in predominantly white institutions.  Our study found that a peer network—especially peers who are also people of color—can foster a sustaining sense of community.  Fellowships that host one fellow at a time versus a cohort should consider ways to create that kind of network. Renée, what are you doing at SLAM to provide networks?

Renée
I’ll start with the good news. [As result of the evaluation] study, we are moving from one fellow at a time to two fellows, so we will have a cohort.   Prior to this move, one of the ways we tried to build a network for the Bearden fellows is that one of their first annual projects is to reach out to each of the previous Bearden alums, introduce themselves and establish a relationship. We also, for the past 8 years, have had a residency program with the Bearden Foundation in New York. So that gives our fellows an additional network.  From the RK&A evaluation, we [now] have local efforts underway to establish a St. Louis cohort of interns and fellows of color. And those fellows will be able to connect through the different arts organizations in St. Louis.

Stephanie
Number six is to “create an environment that embraces diversity.”  Attracting and retaining professionals from historically underrepresented backgrounds depends on creating an environment where individuals feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work. Creating that environment requires a commitment to equity across the entire museum on a structural level with initiatives like organization-wide diversity plans, as well as targeted training for staff, especially those who will serve as mentors. Could you talk about this at SLAM?

Renée
Starting this year, we have put forth a new structure to continue our DEAI practice with the creation of a DEAI department, which I lead.  Second, we have board support. According to a recent study, only 10% of museums’ DEAI initiatives include a board-level action plan. I am pleased to say that the St. Louis Art Museum is one of those 10%. I acknowledge that there is much work to be done, and I sincerely believe that we are moving in the right direction to create an institution that is welcoming and inclusive to everyone.

Stephanie
The last consideration is to “continuously reflect and evaluate the fellowship to improve” the fellows’ experiences. Evaluation and tracking long-term outcomes are important elements that allow you to adapt and improve over time. What is evaluation like at SLAM and for the Bearden Fellowship?

Renée
I would say that the evaluation findings are having a substantial impact on the fellowship and gathering data has become a regular part of the museum. I would say that we are not data driven, but we are data informed. And we now regularly collect data in every function of the museum. I am confident that continued formal evaluation of the Bearden Fellowship is in our future.

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