The path to becoming a curator
Morgan likes to say that she came to art history and the field of art museums “through the back door when no one was looking”.
Although she had an interest in art growing up, she was a pre-med student when she started her undergraduate studies at Wayne State. In first year, taking advantage of African-American history lessons, she decided to change majors. “I thought there were a lot of black female doctors, but I wonder how many black female historians there are?” she says.
After graduating, she started a master’s program in history at Wayne State, but when she took a course in African American art history, she found her calling. She transferred to UMass Amherst and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in African American Studies.
While a graduate student, she was asked to work on an exhibit at the UMass Amherst Museum of Contemporary Art, which featured a dozen contemporary black artists reflecting on the work of WEB Du Bois, whose papers are at the university. .
An artist she met while working on the exhibit, Jefferson Pinder, offered her an African-American art curatorial fellowship at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, which she won. From there she became the Winston and Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, while completing 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 became quite difficult as issues 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 larger and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional white art audience.
Morgan, who had publicly resigned six months earlier, other curatorial staff, as well as others outside the museum, confronted museum management about this and other issues.
“We were fighting leadership collectively,” she says. “As I was talking to my colleagues, they said, ‘how could you teach what we’ve been doing over the past year?'” Morgan wanted to create a safe space, “so that curators had the tools to do to the realities of these institutions,” she says.
She developed the curriculum for the Tufts Certificate Program based on her experiences and conversations with many emerging curators. “Black, BIPOC, as well as white, they come out of schools or programs and into institutions without really understanding the day-to-day reality of what work is like there,” she says. “My program teaches students how to deal with the realities of these institutions, class discrimination, gender discrimination, as well as racial discrimination.”
Reframing the way art is seen
The core of the Certificate Program curriculum focuses on collecting in art museums and what this means for their exhibitions and programs.
Historically, the collection was “an extension and mechanism of colonization and imperialism,” Morgan says. She took off as Europeans circled the globe, she says, “literally consolidating and reorganizing the world economically, socially, culturally and historically.” It also made everything that was not white European culture another – almost always considered of lesser value.
The art museum emerged in the same period “as the exclusive space for how Europeans see themselves in this world, so you get opposing, fictional hierarchies – craft versus fine art; “Primitive”, African and indigenous art in relation to European fine arts.
This can be seen in many museums today, where the art of ethnic groups other than Eurocentric peoples is often hidden away in the farthest corners of museums, dimly lit and unattractive.
“It relegates or freezes these people and their cultures in history, and doesn’t even make the visitor want to understand that these people are still alive,” she says. “It’s that same kind of deep otherness – we’re altering these people, while we’re uplifting white Europeans and Americans.”
But now things are starting to change. “This is the first time in human history that white people have really had to deal with the negative effects of white cultural hegemony, white supremacy and whiteness as a system,” she says. “I wanted to ground the classes in how we navigate around how whiteness has structured the modern world.”
For a new anti-racist balance, she uses what she calls a black curatorial framework, “to guide students through a black curatorial view of caring,” she says. It’s different from the way history museums, botanical gardens, zoos, ethnographic museums, science museums and art museums “were born out of singular collections of white men who felt that their collections represented all that white men can do in the world”.
There are exceptions, of course. Morgan points to an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Touching the Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas. “That’s what curatorial care really looks like – when you care about the artists, the objects and the subject, and when you take an interdisciplinary approach,” she says.
The exhibition, which includes works by Loïs Mailou Jones, former student of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1927, among many others, “That’s why diversity, inclusion and equity are so important,” says Morgan. “It’s not just primarily black and brown artists – there was a Stuart Davis, there were Charles Demuths. It was a more corrective narrative, a more honest truth.
It is important to note, says Morgan, that it is unfair to place the responsibility for correcting past imbalances in museums on contemporary artists and contemporary curators – it must come from the highest levels of museum administration, including their boards of directors. “The historical work is there, but it’s been deliberately erased and never really portrayed holistically.”
As the Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice program kicks off, Morgan hopes for change. “Enough of us – curators, exhibit designers, educators, restorers, preparators – now want to make fundamental changes,” she says.