Mari Carmen Ramirez is leading a small group through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's newest exhibit, Contingent Beauty. She's been with the museum for fifteen years as curator of Latin American art. Before that, she spent over a decade in Austin at the Blanton Museum of Art. "They were the first to open up a position for a curator of Latin American art and to hire a Latina, in this case me, to occupy that position," Ramirez said in an interview prior to the tour.
As a native of Puerto Rico, Ramirez's family was supportive of her decision to study art. She spent her undergrad years at the University of Puerto Rico before going to grad school at the University of Chicago. She's known internationally in the museum circuit, but she falls into a small group of a different sort: Art museum curators who are NOT white.
Earlier this year, the Mellon Foundation released a report on the diversity of art museum staff in the U.S. Of the nearly 900 museums surveyed, 84 percent of the leadership positions (such as directors and curators) were non-Hispanic white. At the MFAH, it's about 68 percent.
So when an art museum — considered to be the cultural pillar of a community — is not reflective of its population, is that a concern? And what can be done to change it?
"And when we ask that question, you have to say, ‘Well how would we know?" says Mariet Westermann, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation. "We can't just have only a bunch of focus groups. Maybe we need to have more people on the inside, who can represent this wonderful plentitude of American society. "
Westermann adds that diversifying the staff is essential. As the nation's demographics continue to transform, art museums realize that part of their survival relies on staying relevant to the changing population.
So, the foundation decided to try something new. They established an incubator program to enlist college students of historically under-represented races to come to work in the curatorial environment. They're trying it with five major metropolitan museums around the country and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is one of them.
Rice University art history major Jennifer Cernada is the first student to take part in the Mellon's Curatorial program with the MFAH, under the mentorship of Ramirez. When Cernada, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Colombia, told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, they weren't thrilled.
"Then when I got this fellowship, they started taking it a little more seriously," Cernada says. "I was like, ‘I assure you, Mari Carmen Ramirez is an important person. And she's Puerto Rican.' And they were like, ‘Oh, she's Puerto Rican?'"
What are the reasons for the lack of diversity in these "intellectual" positions, as they're called? Unlike Ramirez's family, who encouraged her to pursue her passion, other parents don't see a career in the arts as one that'll pay the bills. The positions often involve getting a Master's or Doctorate degree, which is expensive.
The roots can also be societal and historical. For years, art museums have been associated with the European culture. In other words, white people. "There was a sense perhaps that museums weren't really for everyone in America, or for every group that was not already from that European (or white) descent," she says.
Back at the MFAH, Ramirez is describing a work by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca. He's assembled about 20 miniature mattresses and painted what look like road maps on their tops. Ramirez is explaining the message being conveyed is on the issue of borders… and tearing them down.
In many ways, change requires erasing the lines that divide us.
"We are in an extremely interconnected global world," Ramirez says. "I mean, the frontiers are collapsing in many places."
On a local level, the hopes are to ensure that the audiences reflect the diversity of Houston's population.