Museums and other cultural institutions (including historic sites, cultural centers, etc) in the United States created by and centering Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and other communities of color broaden public knowledge of history and culture. They counter historical omissions, misconceptions, and problematic depictions of their communities by showcasing cultural contributions, achievements, and racial inequities often absent from predominantly White museum narratives. Moreover, through a culturally responsive pedagogy, which places people and community care at the center of their practice, they make meaningful connections between their constituencies’ experiences and their offerings (exhibitions, programs, and social services) within the space. These museums, often referred to as culturally-specific, are the vanguards of community-centered rather than collection-centered approaches. Many provide the framework and thought-leadership needed to shift narratives, interpretations, and socializations of museums on all levels. There are currently over one hundred of these kinds of cultural institutions in the US, but they are often overlooked and underfunded. They continue to be left out of critical dialogue even amidst the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
As the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue, which is dedicated to advancing racial parity in the field, it was critical for me to encourage greater awareness of these entities. I built an online directory, Hue Museums, that includes a website with a map of Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and other people of color museums, to provide them with greater visibility, public support, and broader engagement. This list is still growing! Visitors to the site can filter their searches by categories, names, and locations. This database aims to elevate these organizations’ presence, amplify their work, and increase funding sources to support their activities and longevity. The challenging fundraising environment for cultural institutions led by people of color due to structural racism is an undeniable challenge. Due to perceived legitimacy and proximity to wealth and power, predominantly White-led institutions receive much more private and public funding. This inequitable arts funding system was investigated in 2016 by Artsy, an online arts platform for discovering, buying and selling fine art. They found that key sources of taxpayer-funded, federal support of museums in the United States benefit relatively few institutions, and the larger and more prestigious those museums are, the more likely they are to get funding. These institutions are the major recipients from the National Endowment for the Arts, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and others. The first comprehensive study of racial diversity in art museums, conducted in 2015 by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the American Alliance of Museums, shows that among museum curators, conservators, educators and other leaders, 85% identify as White. Those demographics have hardly shifted today.
The near closure of Weeksville Heritage Center, a multidisciplinary museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th century African American community in Brooklyn, where I was born and raised, was a major inspiration for the creation of the directory. In 2019, the Executive Director Rob Fields publicly announced that the Center had operated in the red for a decade, but a bold crowdsourced fundraising campaign allowed them to keep their doors open. Community advocacy, involvement of elected officials, and press coverage resulted in donations from hundreds of people nationally and internationally. They eventually exceeded their initial fundraising goal and also began to receive designated funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Prior to this, I had never really imagined the possibility of the Center shutting down. They have a host of offerings, many of which I have attended, including lecture series, writing workshops, garden parties, a Farmers Market (providing fresh produce in what is otherwise a food desert), and more. In witnessing this crisis, I felt powerless, and reflective of the countless other places created by Black people that no longer exist due to deprivation or intentional destruction. These entites deserve a collective dedication to their survival. What does it say when predominantly White museums benefit from their ability to purchase work made by Black artists, when cultural institutions in Black communities where many Black artists are mentored or first exhibited are insufficiently funded? The value of Black art should be reaped in the communities that nurture them. They are indelible to the richness and poignancy of the United States, painting a fuller, more vibrant portrait of its people within a panoptic view of the nation’s landscape.
This is an opportune time to focus on the institutions created by Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and other people of color to disrupt the homogeneity of the “mainstream museum” world. Key to this directory is providing ways for museum-goers, museum professionals, researchers, educators, and students to support these institutions by increasing their visitorship, membership, and revenue streams. Their best practices can be a guide for the future of all museums as well as provoke new thinking throughout the sector. They are more than culturally-specific, but a departure from and de-centering of White voices and perspectives. They have invaluable resources and a depth of knowledge that offer those within the sector and the general public access to a broader, more inclusive arts and culture landscape. My hope is that the directory will eventually evolve into a space to also share stories, photographs, videos, and virtual walkthroughs of the creative perspectives and cultural identities displayed within these entities. This content will provide a framework that illuminates the various ways they have been producing models of racial equity.
The reaction to the Hue Museums directory since its launch has been overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds reshared it on social media, including the College Art Association, International Council of Museums, Lord Cultural Resources, and many other museum associations in the US and abroad. The directory also resonated with many individuals online including Alyssa Jones, Public Historian at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources; Odalys Lugo-Morales, Visual Art Teacher at DC Bilingual Public Charter School; Julia Neal, Art Historian and Visiting Lecturer at Georgia State University; Amalia Levi, Founder of The HeritEdge Connection; Ariel Adkins, Art & Culture Liaison at Twitter, Roldy Aguero Ablao, Adult Programs Manager at the Burke Museum; Alissa Small, Web Content Specialist at Kate Spade; and others. Many others shared their enthusiasm, which is evidence that there is a strong interest to learn about these institutions, their historical and contemporary narratives, visual and performative mediums, as well as the communities they represent. The list has already done much to amplify the importance of Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and other people of color museums.
On the occasion of the launch of the Hue Museums directory, I also led a panel discussion with four leaders representing the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute for the American Alliance of Museums’ June 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting. We received an outpouring of support with over 450 people attending the session. Each of them provided insight on ways they are showing up for their community, especially during Covid-19, which vary from supplying food for elders, addressing historical trauma, creating a digital care package to oppose xenophobia, curating online Diasporic engagement, and more. Although widely-differing, they are collectively-united in their vision to bolster greater advocacy, representation in the field, and commitment to racial equity in society at large. They have long fought for recognition of their own institutions’ cultural authority and argued for the decolonization of “mainstream museums.” Their work highlights that an essential part of people of color’s liberation has been the creation of museums to tell their own histories, celebrate artistic practices, strengthen cultural ties, and improve the state of their communities.
By Stephanie Cunningham, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue