Fire = The passionate Black women's arts management praxis that guides arts institutions forward.
Time = Black women's leadership in the twenty-first century inspired by culturally specific, generational kinship of grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, and woman cousins.
Who better to lead and accompany organizations in the arts management sector than Black women? Yet the 2014 Gender Gap Report from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) revealed that women hold less than 50% of Director positions in art museums, and the Mellon Foundation’s 2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey discovered that only 4% of curator, conservator, educator, and leadership positions in museums are held by Black people. I read the statistics to my mother, and she responded with concern and astonishment. These findings solidified my conviction that Black women’s leadership is critical for arts management.
I read these reports while navigating through graduate school, applying to jobs, speaking to Black professionals in the arts management field, and experiencing arts institutions firsthand. The statistics from the Mellon Foundation and AAMD have etched the walls of museums and institutions for decades, highlighting the overdue need to deliberately welcome Black women's leadership into arts management. Being “in time,” or relevant to these times, means Black women holding more authority in arts leadership, and organizations restructuring themselves to sustain and reciprocate care with Black communities.
The opportunity gap between Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and white arts managers has long existed. The statistic above, in which only 4% of leadership positions in museums and institutions are held by Black people, has remained stagnant. To interrupt the looping of majority white-held positions, we must name the violence of colonization, revert from patriarchal leadership, and view arts management praxis through a Black womanist ontology and epistemology. Black women leadership in the arts shifts the culture and operational capacity of arts institutions. Institutions will rebuild and change when more Black women hold leadership and management positions throughout organizations.
Black Women’s Leadership as FireThe fire-like qualities of Black women date back to the virtues and behaviors of our mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters, and woman cousins from generations ago. My awareness of these qualities was heightened in graduate school, where I met peers and mentors in arts management who shared the intersectionality of my culture and womanhood. Carole Stone Carson inspired me through conversations about art and interdependency. Jas Binford encouraged authenticity, directness, and sisterhood. Yvonne Farrow demonstrated commitment to Black lives through perseverance. Ikia Fletcher, my Cleveland sister, showed flame and power through written word and voice. Myesha Ward vitalized ideas of community that are integral to our work. In my cohort, I encountered three generations of Black women in the arts and witnessed the grace, intentionality, and intelligence in our praxis.
Together, we relied on community, nurturance through communication and love, passion in our practices, and shared interdependency. We told stories of our families and upbringings that led us to Los Angeles and into the arts. Though different, our stories were familiar. No, Black women are not monolithic, but we collectively share qualities that inform our way of being, our way of life. Through our own actions, we liberate ourselves.
“Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.”
—Audre Lorde, "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House"
Black Women’s Leadership In TimeMuseums and artistic institutions are being called to dismantle the colonial structures sewn into their roots. These institutions are beginning to shift to community-focused practices that adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to liberate themselves from influences of colonial violence. I see the culturally specific qualities of Black women’s arts leadership praxis rooted in community, passion, nurturance, and interdependency; these are the very qualities that transformative institutions seek. Thelma Golden, Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, spoke of the employees at Studio Museum as a tribe. I interpret Golden’s notion as horizontal leadership, instead of vertical or hierarchical leadership, for the sake of sustainability and continuous growth. In conversation with the Association of African American Museums about accession, Golden declared that “none of our institutions should be dependent on one person. It’s not a good way to think about the future” and furthermore, that “the Studio Museum is run by its team.” Golden’s ideal is that everyone at the Studio Museum will shepherd the organization through the interdependency of community. Golden recognized the power of interdependency and implemented it in the museum’s functions. The history of the Studio Museum, which is famously Black-led, echoes the notion of Black women’s arts leadership praxis as deeply rooted in African American culture.
Lineage of LeadershipMy own mother, Tamara Springfield, is a prime example of a Black woman committed to serving her direct community through nurturance, love, and support. Springfield joined Southeast Baptist Church in 2004 and immediately transitioned into the role of Sunday school teacher for children of the sanctuary. Smiles, unconditional support, and love filled the church’s walls from her teachings. Support and nurturing are imitated in family and work affairs as Springfield leads magnanimously, constantly transcending expectations. WillieMae Hill, mother of my grandfather Joe, died when Joe was eight years old, but stories of her speaking Blackfoot and caring for her children in Americus, Georgia, live on. Her passion for her two children carried on through Joe, as he became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advocating rights for Black Americans in the southern United States. My grandmother Barbara Hill talked to me about following my passion. She believed that our intentional actions today set the path for tomorrow.
The passion of my family values—of caring for community, nurturing loved ones, and advocating for life—live on through me, a Generation Z arts manager advocating for arts education and experiences for communities with humble resources. Lucky for me, I was raised with these qualities of Black womanhood—qualities that can guide arts institutions into the future.
Today will be my tomorrow
My future and my past
What's done and said today,
determines how tomorrow's start will last
I will live each moment as today begins,
As if it was my tomorrow
From beginning to end.
—Barbara Hill, "My Tomorrow"
“In this country, women’s liberation flowered best in the soil prepared by Black liberation.”
—Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Women, Race, and Memory
Black Women Lift While ClimbingArguably the best example of Black women's leadership in action was the creation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), an organization dedicated to Black women's liberation. The organization was founded in 1896 by Mary Church Terrell, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, and Harriet Tubman. The organization exemplified the motto “Lifting as we Climb” by encouraging Black women to liberate their villages by shepherding neighbors through education and community advancement. The Black women involved in the NACW understood the power of Black women's leadership in society, similar to the affirmations in this essay. Black women’s leadership is fundamental to liberation, and liberation is what contemporary arts organizations should seek.
“She understood that the audience for her work was not just her coworkers or her white male shift managers, but all the Southern [B]lack women workers who preceded her and, most importantly, all the Southern [B]lack women workers coming next.”
—Kiese Laymon, “Da Art of Storytellin' (A Prequel)”
Being in TimeGenerations of leadership come and go in arts organizations, but vile evidence of white supremacy remains. No longer can we accept the conscious choice to reject Black women's leadership in arts institutions. Black women are the antidote for mismanagement. I advocate for intentionally creating fresh spaces for Black women to thrive. I am a Generation Z arts manager, critiquing racist looping behaviors in arts institutions, and demanding their riddance. This essay is for the grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, and woman cousins who are enchanted by the practice of management in the arts, but who are met with unavailable seats. For those down the road questioning with concern, “Are there more of us?,” the answer is yes. We must abandon the patriarchal, white supremacist hoarding of power and authority, and trust the passion, nurturance, and interdependence of Black women. Arts leadership must be “in time,” and must mold spaces for Black women to thrive, and to use their important qualities as conduits to the future of the arts.
Additional ReadingBranigin, Anne. “Of Art and Plunder: Why Black Curators Are Still Shut Out of the Art World—and Why it Matters.” The Root. April 12, 2018.
Davis. Ben. “Why Are There Still So Few Successful Female Artists.” ArtNet News. June 23, 2015, https://news.artnet.com/market/female-artists-pay-gap-307951.
McCambridge, Ruth. “Museums So White: Survey Reveals Deep Lack of Diversity.” NonProfit Quarterly. May 9, 2017.
Schonfeld, Roger C., and Liam Sweeney. “An Engine for Diversity: Studio Museum in Harlem.” January 23, 2018, https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/an-engine-for-diversity-studio-museum/.
Valentine, Victoria L. “Black Curators Have Been Making Significant Strides, Art Museums are Finally Getting on Board to Aid Their Progress.” Culture Type. August 11, 2018.
Voon, Claire. “The Diversity Problem at American Museums Gets a Report.” Hyperallergic. August 9, 2015.
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- Ann Marie Gan, et al., “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” Association of Art Museum Directors, March 7, 2014, https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/The%20Gender%20Gap%20in%20Art%20Museum%20Directorships_0.pdf.↵
- Roger C. Schonfeld, Mariët Westermann, and Liam Sweeney, “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, July 28, 2015, https://mellon.org/media/filer_public/ba/99/ba99e53a-48d5-4038-80e1-66f9ba1c020e/awmf_museum_diversity_report_aamd_7-28-15.pdf.↵
- Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984), 112.↵
- “Conversations with Thelma Golden,” Association of African American Museums, YouTube, October 19, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mG7stZCIXs&list=PLCIIVF4GyKNPEU2lAr5qJ5QKRpcTaaSnk&index=23ed.↵
- “Conversations with Thelma Golden.”↵
- Barbara Hill, "My Tomorrow," a poem from her personal journal.↵
- Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday, 2019), 87.↵
- Women’s Museum of California, “Lifting as We Climb: The Story of America’s First Black Women’s Club,” Women’s Museum of California, February 21, 2018, https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2018/02/21/lifting-as-we-climb-the-story-of-americas-first-Black-womens-club/.↵
- Kiese Laymon, “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel),” in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward (New York, NY: Scribner, 2016, 118.↵
- Sandra Ruiz, “Introduction: A Living Colonialism, or Simply, the Aesthetic Life of Ricanness,” Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019), 3.↵