A Fellowship Model Paves the Way for Diversity and Inclusion

SLAM article leadJennifer Doyle, former Romare Bearden Fellow, gives a gallery talk at the St. Louis Art Museum


Bill Sitzer, Docent, Saint Louis Art Museum Regional Director, National Docent Symposium Council

Recent turbulent events have increased national awareness of racial tensions and economic disparities in the United States. As cultural resources, museums are uniquely situated to explore these issues and to provide opportunities to develop and nurture diversity and inclusion in their communities. As the Saint Louis Art Museum continues to engage with these challenges, it seems like a good time to reflect on one of the Museum’s true success stories many years in the making.

Making a Difference for Thirty Years

In 1991, the Saint Louis Art Museum began the Romare Bearden Museum Fellowship program, now nationally renowned as one of the oldest and most robust museum programs in the country, dedicated to increasing diversity among professional staff in the museum field. This one-year full-time paid Fellowship has become a critical component in preparing early career professionals from historically underrepresented backgrounds (particularly people of color) for careers in art museums and the art-related fields of education, community engagement, and administration. Bearden Fellows receive mentoring from senior staff and hands-on work experience in various museum functions, including curatorial, public programming, interpretive materials, registration, marketing, and development. They also collaborate with the docents at the Museum, shadowing tours and providing important training to docents under the oversight of the Museum’s learning and engagement staff, including specific collection areas and school groups.

Named to honor African American artist Romare Bearden,1911-1988, the Fellowship was established with a gift from St. Louis philanthropists Adelaide and Daniel Schlafly, and the program continues to be supported in part by their endowment with significant additional funding provided by the Museum. Many of the goals today are like those originally laid out for the program at its inception – to build a pool of outstanding and talented museum professionals.

As of 2020, there have been a total of 27 Bearden Fellows, 90% of whom are still actively working in prominent positions across the arts and cultural field. Alumni of the program hold a range of leadership positions in the art world as curators, educators, and development directors at prestigious museums and universities, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the University of Texas at Austin.

SLAM article embedA group of former Saint Louis Art Museum Bearden Fellows pictured at a reunion at the Museum, standing before a painting in the Museum’s collection, Ici, 1992, by the artist Joan Mitchell, American, 1925-1992, oil on canvas, 86:1993 a and b, funds given by the Shoenberg Foundation, Inc., © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Moving into a New Era

In August of 2020, the Commissioners of the Saint Louis Art Museum approved a report of its duly appointed Diversity Study Group. This report recognized that we are in a historic time as our society focuses on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. It declared that the Museum’s current role must be to show our visitors the complex narratives of the human condition that art can provide across the diverse cultures of the world and the diverse perspectives of all eras.

The Museum’s Diversity report makes numerous recommendations for further study, review, and possible implementation, including several suggestions relating to the Museum’s Bearden Fellowship program itself. Developed in consultation with prior Bearden Fellows, the suggestions are designed to enhance the program in various ways. These include:
     • lengthening the term of each Fellowship from one to two years, structured for the terms of each Fellow to overlap and provide a cohort experience with other Fellows as well as the Museum’s curatorial           and learning and engagement staff
     • creating a Bearden Alumni Association, specifically designed to provide support and programming following the conclusion of the Fellowship
     • holding annual virtual summits featuring panels of Bearden Fellows to catalyze national conversations on the myriad dimensions of race and the art world, and
     • developing programs for Fellows to return to the Museum for short residencies and engagement with diverse school groups
The report concludes by recognizing the important role that museums must play as the “center” of their communities. It quotes American educator, historian, and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch: “I believe very strongly that museums have a social justice role to play, that museums have an opportunity to not become community centers, but to be at the center of their community, to help the community grapple with the challenges they face, to use history, to use science, to use education, to give the public tools to grapple with this.”

For more information on the Saint Louis Art Museum Diversity Study Group Report, see https://www.slam.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Board-Diversity-Study-Group-Report-to-the-Board-of-Commissioners.pdf

What’s Next?
As a result of a major initiative by the Ford and Walton Family Foundations, the Museum this coming Spring, 2021, will present a digital conference exploring the history and impact of its Romare Bearden program. Supported by a grant from this Initiative, the national conference will also examine best practices for better nurturing diverse talent within museums and cultural institutions. The event will provide resources for museum staff seeking to create fellowship programs to train and develop diverse staff in curatorial practice, education and interpretation, audience development, and other museum professions. More details, including registration information, will be available in March on the Museum’s website at https://www.slam.org/

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