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: