Many people revel in the majestic art and conceptually dense works that line the walls of art galleries and museums. However, few ever pay homage to the individuals who have made these arts their life’s work, creating such spaces for the viewing public. Every year the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, along with four other high art museums around the country, recruits a group of undergraduate students for an opportunity to learn and grow in the curatorial world, creating a more diversified selection of curators for the future of museums and pairing select students with someone working professionally within a prominent museum.
During the summers, an intensive seminar is held for 15 selected students who have an interest in applying for the coveted Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program. At the end of the Summer Academy, two or three of the attendees are selected to be a part of the program and then paired with a mentor for the next two years of their undergraduate studies. Some of the day-to-day functions of the fellows include behind-the-scenes tours of the art museum, workshops with art museum professionals, conversations with artists and collectors, and networking with curatorial experts. The MFAH just recently announced its new crop of fellows that includes Emilia Duno of Rice University, Mai Kolkailah of the University of Houston, and Adeleye Omotosho of the University of Texas at Austin.
It can be very difficult for students to gain experience in the curatorial field, especially for those who come from social and ethnic groups with a historically low presence in museum administrative staff. The Mellon Foundation has chosen museums in culturally diverse cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles to invest in and encourage the vocalization of cultural groups that haven’t seen much work in curating fine arts. According to Mari Carmen Ramirez, Mellon mentor and Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, museum curators of the past were predominantly white. The problem, of course, with a dominant demographic is the limitations of their viewpoint.
"It’s meant to break the paradigms that have kept mostly white, privileged people in museum positions in the first place. You know, actually change the system from the inside," says Jenny Cenada, a second year Mellon fellow’s mentee at the MFAH and art history major at Rice. "Diversity should mean just that: actual change stemming from people from all sorts of backgrounds, social classes and ethnicities, bringing their unique perspectives to the table."