Kelli Morgan’s path as a curator led her to establish the new Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice certificate program at Tufts
When Kelli Morgan was growing up in Detroit, her grandfather would often point out works of art in magazines and newspapers—from Picasso to Impressionists to French decorative art—and talk about them with her. He would ask her what a piece of art reminded her of, making her draw connections with other art and material objects in their home.
Yet Morgan and her grandfather never went to the Detroit Institute of Art. Her grandparents had grown up in Kentucky when museums were segregated, Morgan says, and that lack of connection to the museum world carried over to their new lives in Michigan.
Morgan, a professor of the practice and director of the Curatorial Studies Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, took those early lessons to heart. She became an art museum curator, and her experiences led her to want to help teach others how to navigate those spaces, while at the same time trying to make art museums more equitable and inclusive.
To help with that, Morgan started the new Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice certificate program at Tufts, which enrolled its first class this September. The online program is aimed at providing museum professionals with “a comparative understanding of museum development, art history, and curatorial practice, and the ways that each traditionally functions in service of larger discriminatory systems,” she says.
The classes explore the fundamentals of anti-racist and community-centered strategies “used by artists, activists, scholars, and curators of color to re-shape society at-large, and how these frameworks can be applied to both art historical methodology and museum practice to transform art institutions over time,” Morgan says.
Art museums in the U.S. were often founded by wealthy patrons, she notes, and still have boards of trustees that skew heavily toward the rich and white. So it’s perhaps not surprising that until recently, the art they highlighted likewise was skewed toward mainstream white audiences.
“But now there is a critical mass of curators, exhibition designers, educators, conservators, and preparators who are very adamant about changing the focus to restitution, diversity, and inclusion,” says Morgan.
Morgan recently received $250,000 from the Mellon Foundation as a seed grant for the program. It will fund paid internships for students, a graduate assistant position, and a part-time professor of the practice position. “The program is really charting new waters within the museum field, so I’m very grateful to Deborah Cullens-Morales and the Mellon Foundation for investing in it,” said Morgan.
“My program teaches students how to deal with the realities of these institutions, the class discrimination, the gender discrimination, as well as racial discrimination.”
The Path to Becoming a Curator
Morgan likes to say that she came to art history and the art museum field “through the back door when nobody was looking.”
Though she had an interest in art growing up, she was a pre-med major when she started as an undergraduate at Wayne State. By junior year, enjoying African American history classes, she decided to switch majors. “I thought, there are a lot of Black female doctors, but I wonder how many Black female historians there are?” she says.
After graduation, she started a history master’s program at Wayne State, but when she took an African American art history class, she found her calling. She transferred to UMass Amherst and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in African American Studies.
While a graduate student, she was asked to work on an exhibition at the UMass Amherst Museum of Contemporary Art, which was featuring a dozen contemporary Black artists reflecting on the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose papers are at the university.
One artist she met while working on the exhibition, Jefferson Pinder, suggested her for a curatorial fellowship in African American art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, which she got. From there she became the Winston and Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, all while finishing her doctorate.
Soon she was hired as associate curator of American art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, since renamed Newfields. But her experience there turned quite challenging as questions of racial justice arose at the museum. In a public job posting for a new director position, the museum said it was looking to “attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”
Morgan, who had publicly resigned six months earlier, other curatorial staff, as well as others outside the museum, confronted the museum leadership about this and other issues.
“We were fighting the leadership collectively,” she says. “As I was talking to my colleagues, they said, ‘how could you teach what we’ve done over the last year?’” Morgan wanted to create a safe space, “so curators have the tools to deal with the realities of these institutions,” she says.
She came up with the curriculum for the Tufts certificate program based on her experiences and her conversations with many emerging curators. “Black, BIPOC, as well as white—they’re coming out of schools or programs and into institutions without really understanding the day-to-day reality of what working there is like,” she says. “My program teaches students how to deal with the realities of these institutions, the class discrimination, the gender discrimination, as well as racial discrimination.”
Re-Framing the Way Art Is Seen
The core of the certificate program’s curriculum focuses on collecting at art museums, and what that means for their exhibits and programs.
Historically, collecting was “an extension and a mechanism for colonization and imperialism,” Morgan says. It took off as Europeans circumnavigated the globe, she says, “consolidating and literally reorganizing the world economically, socially, culturally, and historically.” It also made anything besides white European culture an other—seen almost always as of lesser value.
The art museum emerged at the same time period “as the exclusive space for how Europeans see themselves in that world, so that you get oppositional and fictitious hierarchies—craft versus fine art; ‘primitive,’ African, and Indigenous art versus European fine art.”
This can be seen in many museums today, where art of ethnic groups other than Euro-centric peoples are often hidden away in far corners of museums, dimly lit, and uninviting.
“It relegates or freezes those people and their cultures in history, and doesn’t give the visitor the inclination to even fathom that these people are still alive,” she says. “It’s that same kind of deep othering—we’re othering these folks, while we’re elevating Europeans and white Americans.”
But now things are beginning to change. “This is the first time in human history where white folks have had to really come face to face with the negative effects of white cultural hegemony and white supremacy and whiteness as a system,” she says. “I wanted to ground the classes in how we navigate around the way that whiteness has structured the modern world.”
For a new anti-racist balance, she is using what she calls a Black curatorial framework, “to walk students through a Black curatorial vision of caretaking,” she says. That’s different from how history museums, botanical gardens, zoos, ethnographic museums, science museums, and art museums “grew out of singular collections by white men who felt like their collections represented everything that white men can do in the world.”
There are exceptions, of course. Morgan points to an exhibition currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas. “This is what curatorial care really looks like—when you care about the artists, the objects, and the subject matter, and when you take an interdisciplinary approach,” she says.
The exhibition, which includes work by Loïs Mailou Jones, a 1927 School of the Museum of Fine Arts alumna, among many others, “is why diversity, inclusion, and equity is so important,” Morgan says. “It isn’t just primarily Black and brown artists—there was a Stuart Davis, there were some Charles Demuths. It was a more corrective narrative, a more honest truth.”
It’s important to note, Morgan says, that it is unfair to put the onus for fixing past imbalances in museums on contemporary artists and contemporary curators—it needs to come from the highest levels of museum administration, including their boards. “The historical work is there—but it’s been purposely erased, and never really holistically portrayed.”
As the Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice program gets under way, Morgan is hopeful for change. “There’s enough of us—curators, exhibition designers, educators, conservators, preparators—who are now very adamant about making fundamental change,” she says.