Mitra Abbaspour speaks to members of HBCUs on tour of the art museum

Princeton art museum partners with historically black colleges in art leadership program

Students and faculty from HBCUs participated in the inaugural Curation, Leadership, Artistry and Practice Program designed to help increase diversity in the art leadership field. This story captures their reflections on the experience. Pictured: Curator Mitra Abbaspour (foreground right) and I discussed the challenging yet rewarding responsibility of shaping art experiences that build community. Exhibitions cannot tell all of our stories at one time. Abbaspour’s exhibition “The Figure Abstracted” examines how artists’ abstract explorations of the human body reveal places of intersection and shared experiences. It is where these communal points occur synergy and inclusion are fostered. Caption by Anne Collins Smith, left foreground, curator of collections, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

How does a curator create a museum exhibition? What does a day in the life of a working artist look like? How do science and technology help conserve art? How do issues of diversity and representation affect artists and professionals in the field?

In July, 12 students and seven faculty members from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country addressed these questions and more in an inaugural partnership between the Princeton University Art Museum and the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Art Galleries, held on the Princeton campus.

The idea for the program was developed last summer by Caryl McFarlane, a higher education diversity consultant; Jontyle Robinson, curator and assistant professor, the Legacy Museum, Tuskegee University; and James Steward, the Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum. Designed to help increase diversity in the art leadership field, the Curation, Leadership, Artistry and Practice Program (CLAP) introduces participants to the inner workings of a university art museum and exposes them to a variety of museum careers and opportunities, while honing practical skills in formal art analysis and academic research. Support is provided by Princeton's Office of the Provost and the Humanities Council.

“The art museum field simply doesn’t look like the people of this country,” Steward said. “Working within the context of a leadership university, we feel the responsibility to afford opportunities to new generations of students, to introduce them to career paths they might not have considered, and thus to help ensure that museums and the humanities remain relevant.”

"With the Princeton University Art Museum as a powerful collaborative partner joining the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries, the CLAP program met its goal of elevating expectations for our students and recent alumni in their exposure to art conservation and curatorial preparation and training," said Robinson.

The participants lived on campus for the weeklong intensive program. Their days were packed with research and writing assignments; curator-led tours of the art museum and the University’s outdoor sculpture collection; guest lectures and workshops; studio visits with artists; and art-focused trips to New York City and East Orange, New Jersey.

Participants split into small groups for a major project pursued throughout the week — creating a formal proposal for an exhibition using works by African American artists in the art museum’s collections. The teamwork culminated in presentations pitching proposals to an audience of museum and University staff members and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and a guest speaker.

CLAP is partly modeled on the 2018 collaboration between the Princeton University Library and HBCUs called the Archives Research and Collaborative History (ARCH) Program.

One of the goals of CLAP is to open up career paths for students underrepresented in the field of cultural heritage and to establish mentor relationships for the participants. Some HBCU faculty members had an additional goal as part of their involvement in the program: preparing themselves to work with the students to develop a project or involvement in home campus museums when they return to their respective colleges and universities.

In addition to Steward, art museum staff members who participated as lecturers, discussion leaders and curators included: Mitra Abbaspour, the Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; conservator Bart Devolder; Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings; and Caroline Harris, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Associate Director for Education.

During one of the program sessions, Abbaspour walked the team of HBCU students and faculty through her installation “The Figure Abstracted” at the art museum. “We talked about strategies for building a story with art,” she said. “Their engagement, interest and savvy questions fueled an energetic conversation and taught me new ways to see, think about and articulate my own work.”

With photos, curator Anne Collins Smith of Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the students captured the experience:

Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, stands at a podium

In her keynote address, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, advised our young leaders that the world is a canvas, and that they as artists are responsible for embellishing the world with culture and perspective — two key components of authenticity. In curating an exhibit, she said, one becomes responsible for perpetuating artistic intent and highlighting pertinence over parity. Caption by Chima Osuagwu, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia

Conservator Bart Devolder discusses conservation techniques

Conservator Bart Devolder (left) explained the different approaches taken in conservation depending on the medium. In this photo, he is explaining how the shrinking and expanding of the wooden panel cracked and wrinkled the paint. This session gave us great insight to how the museum conserves and protects their collection. Caption by Nina Hylton, second from right, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama


Two women discussing a work of art on paper

I am examining a rare Henry Ossawa Tanner work on paper in the museum’s collection with Christine Perry [right; one of the HBCU faculty members and an art production specialist] of North Carolina Central University. I recognized the influence of Tanner in the works of John Biggers, artist and founder of Texas Southern University’s art department. Caption by Michael Marie Thomas, left, Texas Southern University; Houston, Texas

A student and a curator talk about a work of art on a wall

I am viewing Kerry James Marshall’s “Vignette (Wishing Well),” creating my own narrative for the print, while curator Laura Giles (right) explains the process of collecting and valuing the piece. The highlight of this session for me was understanding the painting’s importance to African American art and why this piece adds to the canon of the collection. Caption by Chanise Epps, Texas Southern University


A student contemplates a portrait of Frederick Douglas

In one of the museum’s study rooms, Laura Giles talked about how prints and drawings indicate the most public and private respects of the artistic process, and how they enhance the audience’s discernment of art across time and media and serve as a key component of the museum’s overall teaching mission. Being a primarily graphite artist, this part of the program was very informative and taught me that I have only scratched the surface of what I can achieve. Caption by Ja’Vonte Gonzalez, standing, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Painter Mario Moore points at a large unfinished painting on a tour of his studio

We visited several galleries and studios, but Mario Moore’s space [Moore shown at right] in the Lewis Arts complex at Princeton was my favorite. He invited us to his process of putting together his exhibition — a culmination of his yearlong project as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, painting black men and women with blue collar jobs who work at or around the University campus. He guided us through his technique and work style step by step. In Mario’s works he wants his audience to see black people in their work space where they aren’t typically seen. Caption by Torri Richardson, center in white blouse, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff