When an Elite Museum Prioritizes Inclusion

The Ghetto Film School project allows students to get up and close and personal with the Frick.

Ghetto Film School students (Photo by Michael Bodycomb/The Frick)

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I’d never visited the Frick Collection before I went there to meet Xavier Salomon, its globetrotting young curator. The Frick is among New York City’s most rarefied art institutions, a museum renowned for its European masterworks, and the Upper East Side mansion that houses it — the former residency of 19th-century industrialist Henry Clay Frick — is so airy and elegant that it looks like something out of, well, an old European painting.

I didn’t admit to Salomon that it was my first visit to the Frick. But in fact, he may not have been entirely horrified. That’s because, during his four-year tenure as chief curator, Salomon has creatively and quietly tried to bring more people — or, more to the point, more and different people — into the Frick, and get the Frick out to more people.

After all, outside the Frick’s wood-and-glass paneled doors, there’s an eclectic, chaotic, unequal city of eight million people, the vast majority of whom have never even heard of the Frick. If they have, they likely see it, as I did, as a product of and for its zip code: white and wealthy. How do you show those eight million they’re welcome?

Xavier Salomon (Photo by Michael Bodycomb/The Frick)

Museums as a Third Space

Salomon, who passionately believes that art can change lives, wants everyone to come inside — or at least feel that they can. “Museums can be scary from the outside, with their grand facades,” he acknowledged. “We need to reach out to as many people as possible, make them feel welcome, help them understand that the museum is a place … they can go to learn, to communicate with a work of art.”

Growing up in Rome in the 1980s, Salomon seems to have seen museums as something of a third space, much as a modern New Yorker might see the gym or the bar. He wishes everyone knew how fulfilling it can be to spend an afternoon exploring the Frick’s peerless connection of sculptures and paintings.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shares the sentiment, though he comes at it from a different direction. In July, the city announced that it would link all future funding of New York cultural institutions to the diversity of their boards and employees. The decision grew out of a city-commissioned 2016 survey that revealed that while 67 percent of New York City residents identify as people of color, only 38 percent of employees at cultural organizations do — and just 26 percent of senior staff.

Many people I spoke with evinced some concern about this punitive take on increasing diversity in the arts, even as they acknowledged that the profound whiteness of museum leadership is a serious problem.

“It’s a complicated question. Some museums do a genuinely terrific job of actually connecting with different constituencies,” says Claire Whittaker, former president of the Kreisberg Group, a public relations consultancy specializing in arts institutions. “Others struggle more. The more esoteric the art, the harder it is to ‘sell’ to people, including to people of different cultures, economic statuses and educational backgrounds.”

Salomon also sees the issue of diversity in shades of gray. “I don’t think museums are actually elitist,” he told me several times. “I just think they’re less publicized than other things. It’s easier for someone not to know a museum is out there than not to know about something else” — like a baseball game or a Beyoncé concert. “The city’s intention — to have a more diverse audience and staff — is good, of course, but I don’t think [penalizing institutions] is the right way to go about it.”

He recognizes that New York’s museum ranks are in no way representative of New York’s diversity. “That study just proved things everyone in the curatorial world already knew were a problem,” and were trying hard to improve upon, Salomon says. But he also disputes the premise that diversity in its leadership should be the primary metric of a museum’s success in engaging its city.

“My idea has always been not so much to encourage all young people to work in museums,” he says, noting that the career pays badly. Rather, he says, he believes that cultural institutions should be encouraged “to make the museum available to all. People should feel they can go to museums, learn something, and improve their lives in doing so.”

(Photo by Michael Bodycomb/The Frick)

The Future Is Not White

Some venerable New York-area institutions are making strides in this realm. To better connect with its local community and lure Manhattanites across the river, the Brooklyn Museum, which is located in a predominantly black and Caribbean section of the Crown Heights neighborhood, has actively promoted artists of color and shown more fun, pop culture-style exhibitions. It also holds a popular dance party the first Saturday of each month.

In 2005, the Brooklyn Museum also reworked its neoclassical entrance, adding a set of modern glass doors at street level so that the sweeping front stairs became something of a design detail rather than a barrier to entry. By 2010, the New York Times found, its audience had grown “significantly younger and more diverse,” with 40 percent of visitors identifying as members of a minority group.

Across the river, the Newark Museum now designates certain times of the week as family evenings, or party nights. Critically, says Souleo, Newark’s manager of public programming, the museum’s community events always circle back to their collections. On the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Newark Rebellion, for example, curators commemorated the riots, which killed five people, by displaying archival photographs documenting the events. They invited Newarkers to come, eat, drink, dance — and remember their city’s history by viewing never-before-seen images of it.

Museums aren’t just working to cultivate new audiences because inclusiveness is a moral imperative — there’s also a strong business case for widening their nets. In an era of Snapchat videos and Instagram art, American cultural institutions are also trying to figure out how to cultivate the next generation of museum goers. 23 percent of the U.S. population is under the age of 18, according to census data — a generation that’s not particularly white, and not particularly wealthy. By 2020, more than half of all American children will be members of a minority population.

“Diversity is the future of this country, it’s that simple,” says Mario Mercado, a culture writer and former arts editor. “Art has a small audience, it always has. An exhibition is never going to see Superbowl numbers. So to succeed in the future, museums have to be seen as viable, relevant and engaging.”

Out of the Ivory Tower

For the Frick, that’s where the Ghetto Film School comes in. Since 2015, this high school project in the South Bronx has partnered with the Frick to create one of New York’s more remarkable and credible arts-education programs for young people.

Ghetto Film School Director Joe Hall met Salomon in 2015, when he was a fellow at the Center for Curatorial Leadership. Together, the two designed a spring semester art class taught in the Frick on Mondays, when the museum is closed. The course offers 20 students a weekly discussion-based seminar lead by Salomon, whom Hall describes as a “skilled teacher.” At the end, the students must write a script inspired by a work from the Frick’s collection. The winning script is turned into a movie and filmed at the museum.

Joe Hall says that the partnership, now entering its fourth year, works because Salomon understands that the kids aren’t the only ones who learn from the weekly discussions. “The Ghetto Film School has done many partnerships with many institutions — big, small, media companies, a tenants rights group,” says Hall. “What makes Xavier unique … is that he really sees himself as getting something from the experience, too, and not just as ‘giving back to underserved kids.’”

(Photo by Michael Bodycomb/The Frick)

That unique chemistry is what has many cultural institutions watching the Frick closely. It isn’t a lecture series for kids who’ve never been in a museum before, though it’s true that most of the Ghetto Film School kids have limited museum experience. And it’s not pay-what-you-will hours, temporarily making an expensive museum accessible to the masses, though the Frick does that, too (on Wednesdays).

Instead, it’s a real intellectual exchange between creative types that enriches everyone involved. Associate Museum Educator Caitlin Henningsen tells me that once, a student observed that all the people depicted doing physical labor in J.M.W. Turner’s “Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening” were women. “Now I always mention that when I teach that painting,” says Henningsen.

Hall recalls a similar moment, when Salomon replied to a student’s art critique with a humility that’s perhaps rare in experts. “He looked at her and said something like, ‘You know, I’ve been studying this painting for 30 years and I never thought of that,’” Hall says. “Young people rarely hear adults — not to mention teachers — make that kind of admission.”

That authentic curiosity and desire to learn from each other is at the core of why the Ghetto Film School project is thriving despite the yawning cultural, geographic and age gaps between Salomon and his charges. Students must apply for the program, and competition is fierce. So the small group Salomon ends up with is a dedicated bunch.

Then there’s Salomon himself. The students “may not know a lot of people that dress like him, and he may have this kind of unplaceable accent, but they get that he has a genuine, sincere passion for what he does,” says Hall. “Teens relate to him very quickly.” It doesn’t matter that the Frick’s art is centuries-old and full of rich white people wearing fancy, foreign clothing. What matters is that Salomon can tell the kids why those paintings mean something to him, and then ask them what they see. Then he listens.

(Photo by Michael Bodycomb/The Frick)

It was that realization that drove Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership, to introduce Hall to Salomon in the first place. “You have to have done your work, know your stuff, to be a mentor” she says. “But you also have to be able to — I don’t want to say leave your ego at the door — but be able to drink it all in.” Salomon, she says, is “a rare bird” like that.

The Scalability Problem

For all the merits of the Ghetto Film School project, its size is an obvious critique. Each year, 20 kids from the Bronx get up and close and personal with the Frick, build relationships with museum staffers, write a script, maybe even produce a movie. Those 20 kids develop a level of comfort with museums that’s rare among American high schoolers. That’s impact, right?

Yes, but only for 20 lucky people — or 60 so far in the history of the Ghetto Film School initiative. Even as he’s proud of offering that many people the opportunity to fall in love with art — something they may otherwise have never had — Salomon is well aware of the project’s limited scope.

In the end, though, he can live with low numbers. In fact, he can be proud of them. “The Frick has always been a boutique operation, where quality is more important than quantity. The Ghetto Film School falls very much into that category. A small museum like the Frick [can’t] host 500 schools a week. But we can do this, and we can do it well.” And in the end, for someone who believes that art can change lives, then 60 starts to sound pretty good.

This article is part of Curating Tomorrow’s Cities, a series exploring trends in urban museum curation and their impact on cities. Curating Tomorrow’s Cities is supported by a grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.

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Catesby Holmes is a writer and news editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in Slate, Travel + Leisure, and WIRED, among other outlets. 

Tags: new york citymuseumscurating cities

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