Episode 60

60. Stephanie Cunningham on the Creation and Growth of Museum Hue

Your Hosts

About this Episode

The fight for racial diversity in museums and other cultural institutions is not new: people of color have been fighting for inclusion in white mainstream museums for over 50 years. Dispose these efforts, change has been limited. A 2018 survey by the Mellon Foundation found that 88% of people in museum leadership positions are white.

Stephanie Cunningham has a clear answer for why these white institutions aren’t changing: “When you’ve been practicing exclusion for so long, you can’t change overnight.” That’s one of the reasons why she co-founded Museum Hue with Monica Montgomery in 2015.

In this episode, Cunningham traces Museum Hue’s trajectory from a small collective to a national membership-based organization, and spells out why being a well-meaning institution is necessary but not sufficient for equity in the field.

Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, or Spotify to never miss an epsiode.

Club Archipelago 🏖️

If you like episodes like this one, you’ll love Club Archipelago. Join Club Archipelago today to help me continue making podcasts about museums (and get some fun benefits)!

Topics and Links

00:00 Intro
00:15 The Ongoing Fight for Racial Diversity in Museums
01:52 Stephanie Cunningham
02:26 The Founding of Museum Hue
03:05 Hueseum Tours
03:52 “Authentic Participation” and Jobs
06:29 Museum Hue’s Membership Model
07:05 Knock On Effects of Resistance to Change
08:56 A Story of the Museum Exhibition Design Company
10:10 The Unchecked Cultural Power of Museums
11:05 Black Visuality
11:25 Museum Hue’s Memberships
12:07 Arts Targeted By Oppressive Forces
13:55 Outro/Join Club Archipelago


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 60. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


Stephanie Cunningham: People of color, especially people of African descent, have been fighting for museums to be more inclusive over 50 years ago. It's the reason why institutions like the studio museum in Harlem was created. It's the reason why MOC, the Museum of Chinese in America, El Museo del Barrio, all these institutions came up because of the lack of inclusivity within these institutions.

What we've seen today is not actually a shift in inclusion in a white mainstream museum, but a two-tiered museum, which is still the white mainstream museums and the development of these culturally specific institutions that I mentioned. It's important for us to realize that there has been need for institution building for people of color, but also these white mainstream institutions that hold a lot of our cultural heritage have to also include us into the scope and the framework of their institution and become more inclusive as well.

A 2018 survey by the Mellon Foundation found that 88% of people in museum leadership positions are white. This imbalance continues though museum visitorship numbers, even though many museums are within communities of color or within states that have high populations of people of color. Stephanie Cunningham has a clear answer for why these white institutions aren’t changing: “when you’ve been practicing exclusion for so long, you can’t change overnight.” And that’s one of the reasons why she co-founded Museum Hue.

Stephanie Cunningham: Hello, my name is Stephanie Cunningham. I am the co-founder and creative director of Museum Hue, an arts organization that works to increase the visibility of people of color working in arts and culture and museums in particular.

It's really important that we begin to think more critically on how to change this, how to shift this and make museums more innovative and inviting that will attract more people of color and also be very honest about their history and their conflicting provenances as well within the institution.

Stephanie Cunningham co-founded Museum Hue with strategic director Monica Montgomery in 2015. The organization began in New York City as a collective of people of color working in museums and other cultural spaces.

Stephanie Cunningham: We realized that we really needed a safe space, a space where we can have psychological safety, where we can be ourselves and talk about our experiences working within cultural institutions, whether it be microaggression, macro aggression or racism and talking about perhaps some best practices of the things that were also going well for people within institutions as well.

Museum Hue began infiltrating spaces with programs like Hueseum Tours, which the organization leads in art museums and other performance venues. The tours started in New York City but have since branched out to different parts of the country.

Stephanie Cunningham: We'll have a conversation focusing on staff and artists of color and also narratives of color as well, because what we also realize is that a lot of the narratives within museums and cultural institutions don't reflect people of color, and so we invoke and incorporate those within our own tours and presentations within these spaces.

The Huesuem Tours are one example of Museum Hue’s focus on authentic participation within the arts world. Another is jobs, particularly jobs in creative and leadership roles. At the heart of the issue is not a lack of qualified creatives of color, but instead that the doors of museums and the surrounding ecosystem are largely closed off to people of color.

Through extending Museum Hue’s network, and by pipelining people of color in the museum and cultural field, Cunningham has seen how a mostly-white cultural institution’s desire to be more inclusive is necessary but not sufficient when it comes to actual inclusion. And that’s why, last year, Museum Hue became a membership-based organization.

Stephanie Cunningham: We decided to become a membership based institution. This came out of our fellowship at Race Forward Racial Equity in the Arts organization. About 50 or so institutions throughout New York City were invited to participate, and we all had our own platform and ideas, but the basis was for all of us to create racial equity framework, and so we decided with the Museum Hue membership that we can focus on institutions that are willing and wanting to work with us in changing the framework of their institution, making it more inclusive of people of color.

We've been able to facilitate a lot of opportunities, a lot of jobs for people of color within these museums and also work with them in trainings on cultural competency, but mostly working on real action based because we know that these conversations, although well intentioned, they can fall short, and so we need institutions to take action steps. Action steps look like creating real policy and also procedures in ways that we are accepting or they are accepting people of color and allowing them to have a seat at the table in a real way, looking at their board, making it more diverse, and so looking at real ways that we can begin to focus on the framework of the institution and working on them from the inside out.

In episode 48 of Museum Archipelago, The Whitest Cube podcast co-host Ariana Lee makes the point that many museums can claim diverse workforces if you take into account people of color working in museum’s janitorial services department, but less so in seats of power. To that end, Museum Hue created an internal survey that any cultural or museum-related institution can use to develop an assessment of their current staff and institutional attitudes towards inclusion and diversity.

Stephanie Cunningham: This isn't a change that happens overnight because you've hired people of color. We want it to be a core part of the foundation and the structure of the institution. In order to do that, we have to encourage them and support them and thinking about this more critically, and so because we've moved in this new vein, it's been a real blessing that so many institutions around the country have wanted to sign on with It's about over 80 at this point, and so we're looking at different ways to support them in creating the toolkits and creating more tours, and not just focusing again on our institutional members but also mostly on people of color in the field as well.

Cunningham’s focus on museums and other cultural institutions comes in part because museums can be more resistant to change than some other parts of society--and in the case of museums, that resistance has knockon effects.

Stephanie Cunningham: Many people of color have the needed qualifications and some factors in many of our fields but yet don't see them represented, and so we have to realize that there's a real epidemic that have people of color are not represented in leadership or given opportunities for leadership or different spaces and different industries. For me, tackling museums, number one for me is my focus because I have a degree in art history and cultural heritage preservation. I also think that museums, for whatever reason, within the grand scheme of society that's been changing isn't seen as a place of importance for the there to be racial diversity.

I think it's needed in all industries, but especially in museums when we're talking about cultural heritage or talking about artistic freedoms of expression, it's incredibly important that we begin to look at museums first because museums create the narratives that we see throughout our landscape. It's important that people begin to see people of color represented in history, in art because that then opens up a new lens for people and of appreciation and recognition of cultural contribution that people of color do not get in this country. For me, museums have to begin to create a lane that is really much more inclusive than they actually are.

For Museum Hue, increasing the number of people of color at museum leadership levels begins to shift the framework of not just that institution, but of entire museum ecosystem, like museum exhibit design companies.

Stephanie Cunningham: There is a very prominent, I won't say the name, exhibition design company that works with so many museums throughout the country. They went to meet with a museum that they were speaking with to begin to work with on an exhibition design. During the meeting, they were asked by the person that they were working with, a person represented by the museum who was a person of color asked them, "Do you have people of color on your staff?"

They, for whatever reason, had not even thought about this. They're like, "We're doing exhibition design. Why does this matter?" But it does matter because perspectives and cultural differences and understandings are also needed as well, and so they reached out to Museum Hue because they were like, "Do you know of anyone in exhibition design that can possibly work with us?" People of color are also going to begin to ask these questions of companies that they're working with as well, and having companies think about this issue as well because it's going to affect their bottom line.

Museums have incredible cultural power, and most of it is unchecked. Cunningham’s point is that it, without serious change, that cultural power won’t last forever.

Stephanie Cunningham: Museum Hue is just working to change that and to utilize our collective power and our voices to call out these issues and help usher in a change that is constant, not a change that is dependent upon the funding that an institution gets for diversity and inclusion, but something that is a core part of museums and other cultural institutions, because I honestly believe if museums do not change and become more inclusive, expect obsolescence, expect museums shutting down, expect museums continuously become irrelevant for the greater public.

Cunningham also hosts an excellent podcast called Black Visuality. Past guests have included Blake Bradford, who is also featured on episode 43 of Museum Archipelago. As the director of Lincoln University’s Museum Studies program, Bradford also sees a pipeline of Black students, exposing them to career paths that are largely closed off to people of color.

Museum Hue has three different membership types. Once is an institutional membership, for organizations to align their diversity + equity efforts with Museum Hue, and also advertise job openings. Another is the Huers membership, for people of color interested in the Museum Hue platform. And finally, the Allies membership, for those looking to support Museum Hue’s mission.

You can listen to Black Visuality and learn more about Cunningham at stephanieacunningham.com. You can find more information about Museum Hue by going to museumhue.com.

Stephanie Cunningham: My work really if you look at all the things that I've been doing falls under two parts. It's really just looking at ways to support people of color to increase our visibility, to facilitate our employment and get us more entrenched in the creative economy and also on the other part, call out and challenge and address the barriers and the hierarchies and issues that relate to specifically racism and lack of opportunity in the field for people of color. That's what I'm continuously doing is just working on ways to shift this field and move it into where we can see much more equity, much more diversity, much more ... There's another word that I'm looking for. Much more parity as well in the field is incredibly important to me.

This has been Museum Archipelago.