Are Museums’ Young Patron Groups Meeting Calls for Diversity?

Are Museums’ Young Patron Groups Meeting Calls for Diversity?

When the Dallas Museum of Art staged a major Dior exhibition in 2019, the opening night party was hipper than usual thanks to local DJ couple Brent and Marlena English, who filled the museum’s sculpture garden, featuring works by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Henry Moore, and Richard Serra, with the pulsing music of Grace Jones and the sounds of French pop, light EDM, and Dallas-based electronic artists. The Englishes—Marlena, a brand image manager at Ralph Lauren, and Brent, a diversity and digital strategy manager—had been asked to DJ by Caroline Irvin, manager of the museum’s Junior Associates, a group for patrons in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who get exclusive access to the museum and its events and curators.

“It’s kind of like they wanted our spirit—what we wanted to bring to the table,” Marlena recalled in a conversation this past June. “So I played music that I like, something that I would want to hear at a party.”

Brent and Marlena English brought new energy to the Dallas Museum of Art when they deejayed the opening party for its 2019 Dior exhibition.
Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Part of their compensation being a one-year membership at the DMA, the couple, who had moved to the city from New York in 2014, began to spend more time at the museum. They had even started to collect work by local artists like Sedrick Huckaby and Dan Lam, but they’d never considered becoming museum patrons. Even so, a few months after the benefit, they joined the Junior Associates.

“There’s a group of young, like-minded art lovers who are members of this museum, and they fellowship together and build relationships,” said Marlena. “This is a space where I can be myself and be around other people who are going to vibe with me.”

This past July, the couple were elected cochairs of the Junior Associates, and Brent was appointed to the DMA board of trustees. The two have reached out to their friends and colleagues with the ultimate goal of transforming the DMA membership to better reflect Dallas’s demographics, embracing communities that have historically not been seen as the DMA’s main audience. “When Marlena put on Grace Jones, and members said they’d never heard that at the DMA in the past 30-something years—that, to me, is that growth mindset,” said Brent. “That’s something that I’m looking forward to and could see myself being a part of.”

Wide angle exterior shot of a museum in Dallas

The Dallas Museum of Art.
Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

As demographics change across the United States, particularly in urban centers, and the baby boomers enter old age, the country’s museums are under increasing pressure to make their boards younger and more diverse, and young patrons groups are just one of the resources being tapped as pipelines for the next generation of trustees.

In recent years, many members of these young patrons circles have expressed a desire to see real change at these institutions, and to better understand how their donations are being spent. Fees for participation in these groups range widely: New York institutions like the Young Fellows at the Frick Collection (with annual dues from $600 to $10,000) and the Apollo Circle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($1,200 to $3,500) command top dollar compared to the Junior Associates at the DMA ($250 to $500) and the Founders Junior Council at the Detroit Institute of Arts ($50 to $250 annual dues, in addition to individual membership).

As in many other areas of giving, the trend is toward what has become known as “venture philanthropy.” “Young patrons are not necessarily subscribing to former models of philanthropy, which is to give and to then be passive,” said Mathew James Talaugon, senior manager of individual giving at the Guggenheim, who manages the institution’s relationship with its Young Collectors Council. “They want to be able to see tangible impact. They want to be able to touch it.”

Rogelio Plasencia, development officer for the Met’s Apollo Circle, said that “young people want to know how their philanthropy is making an impact. The more . . . you can connect them to a direct cause or something tangible, the better they feel [about it].”

A group of 10 young people stand in a museum in front of a fashion exhibition installation

Members of the Met’s Apollo Circle at the group’s annual benefit in 2019.
Photo Deen Van Meer/Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Guggenheim Museum’s Young Collectors Council is one of the most visible groups of its kind in the country, known primarily for the annual Young Collectors Party it stages in the museum’s rotunda. In turn, the Council, comprising some 100 members, has earned a position as a cultural mainstay for networking and advancing one’s capital in the arts among the city’s moneyed class of young art collectors, patrons, and enthusiasts.

Earlier this year, up-and-coming young art collector Jaime Cuadra Jr. was named cochair of the Young Collectors Council. A Miami native of Nicaraguan descent who moved to New York in 2011 when he was in his mid-20s, Cuadra had long admired the Guggenheim; he became a member of the council shortly after settling in New York. One special perk the council offers, a rarity among its cohort, is an acquisition committee (with annual dues of $1,250) whose members vote on acquisitions to the museum’s contemporary art collection. Started in the early 1990s, the Guggenheim Young Collectors Council has become a touchstone for other museums.

“The museum had a very clear understanding early on of the importance of cultivating and nurturing us as young collectors and young voices of the community,” said Cuadra. “It really represented the value and the way that the museum actually incorporates young voices in the acquisition process.”

Jessica Gersh, a 35-year-old California native who works in education, lived in New York for a time, during which she joined the Whitney Contemporaries as a way to support a local museum. When she relocated to Los Angeles in 2017, she found that the city’s museums had no such groups, so she formed her own: the Hammer Collective at the Hammer Museum on the city’s Westside. Since its founding three years ago, the Hammer Collective has focused on supporting the museum’s connections with emerging and internationally regarded artists.

“I wanted to create a group on the West Coast that would bring together the next generation of art lovers, patrons, and collectors and offer a space to learn and engage with emerging artists,” Gersh wrote in an email. “Some of the programming we put on has been inspired by programs I loved [at] the Whitney—for instance, studio visits, collection visits, and gallery walks.”

A Blqck woman in a gray jumpsuit holding a microphone stands in front of a figurative painting

Artist Jordan Casteel gives a talk at the Denver Art Museum in front of her painting, Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), 2018.
Photo Jeff Wells/©Denver Art Museum

Formed in the 1990s, the Denver Art Museum’s young donors group, CultureHaus, has grown to about 200 members. The group’s recent and perhaps most visible effort was helping the museum acquire Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), a 2018 painting by Jordan Casteel, a New York–based artist who grew up in Denver and had a 2019 survey at the institution.

“The first thing you see when you open the doors to the new building is this piece by an artist who’s alive in her 30s doing incredible work,” CultureHaus member Adrian Gonzalez said. “That’s what we’ve been wanting to do.”

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Founders Junior Council (FJC) has long been a stepping-stone to leadership positions within the institution and the Detroit philanthropic community. Historically, the group has helped its members learn more about collecting art for their personal enjoyment, but recently it’s begun to focus on helping the DIA acquire African American art for its permanent collection. (The pandemic has slowed down the work, led by the Friends of African and African American Art, and also significantly decreased FJC membership.)

“One of the pillars of [FJC’s] work is to help folks learn about how to collect art and why the museum selects a piece of artwork specifically,” said FJC president Angela Rogensues. This new focus on institutional acquisitions was born out of the “idea that we just didn’t have enough artwork from local artists, specifically, African American artists, in the museum. One of the ways we thought we could help [bring] more artwork from our local community into the museum was to create a system like this.”

Major art museums—with huge boards and even larger budgets—aren’t the only places that are beginning to cultivate young patrons for support. Focused on queer art, and previously a nonprofit foundation, the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York’s SoHo neighborhood achieved museum status only in 2016, and in the five years since has focused on diversifying funding sources. One early initiative was to establish its Influencers’ Circle for young queer philanthropists, some of whom have joined the Global Ambassadors group (fees range from $100 monthly to $5,000 annually). “The idea is for our donor networks to learn about the museum and our work, and become invested in a sustainable, long-term way,” Eduardo Ayala Fuentes, development director of the Leslie-Lohman, said.

A Black woman in a hot pink cocktail dress with writing on it addresses a seated crowd. To her right in the middle-ground is a Black man in a suit who looks at the woman

Walker Art Center board president Seena Hodges engaged a lively audience at the Minneapolis museum’s 2017 Avant Garden party and fundraiser.
Photo Courtney Perry/Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Attracting a younger, more diverse group of patrons doesn’t always happen through young collectors groups, and it often requires a process, as well as sensitivity to different perspectives and needs.

In the months leading up to the 2017 Avant Garden annual benefit for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the trustees wanted to make sure the event, known as the best party in the Twin Cities, was inclusive of people of color. Seena Hodges, founder of the Twin Cities–based consulting group The Woke Coach, was invited to chair a committee for ticket sales. “They [told] me the tickets are $125, and I burst out laughing,” Hodges recently recalled. She had to explain that attending the benefit would cost more than the price of a ticket: it entailed additional expenses such as a plus-one ticket, hair and makeup, and possibly clothing and childcare.

“I want folks to always feel like they belong, and a space has been curated for them,” Hodges said. She recommended that 125 sponsored tickets be distributed to local artists, along with membership to the Walker. “On the evening of that event, somebody was like, ‘This is the woman that changed the event,’” Hodges said. Shortly after the benefit, Hodges was named to the Walker board of trustees.

Last year, those trustees formed a racial equity committee, which set the goal of a membership by June 2022 of at least 30 percent those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. In her work on the board, Hodges, who was elected board president in September, hopes to contribute to the Walker’s commitment to welcoming younger museum patrons and donors, believing that it’s an opportunity to cultivate continued community interest in the museum. “If we want to create situations and circumstances that more reflect the communities we live in, we have to have better communication and a better understanding of what the community articulates [as] their need,” she said.

Other museums have experimented with still another system. The Queens Museum this past fall announced an open call for a seat, dubbed the Young Trustee, on its board. A pilot project in collaboration with Deutsche Bank’s CSR Leadership Incubator aiming to support future philanthropic leaders across nonprofits in art, tech, and business, the role would offer a young person a full three-year seat on the board, with a focus on strategizing how the museum can best connect with its local community, in particular younger audiences.

“We really wanted to look at the diversity of expertise and knowledge on our board,” Sally Tallant, Queens Museum executive director since 2019, said. “We were thinking, what would it mean if we had a younger person on our Board of Trustees who could bring that kind of perspective to the conversation whenever we’re talking about something? So we advertised.”

Such a process is not traditional for finding new trustees. Museum boards typically tap into their own networks, which some critics say can lead to an insular leadership for an institution that’s meant to serve a broader public. The Queens Museum board was curious to know who would apply and be eager to develop a relationship with the institution early in their career. The museum advertises openings for staff positions, so why not for a trustee?

“I think there’s something about openly looking for board members, which the museum community has to somehow take on board,” said Peter Warwick, the Queens Museum board chair. “Being more transparent about board memberships, casting the net more widely, and making sure that you’ve identified reservoirs of talented people that you can tap when you want to expand the board or when you have a vacancy, is so important.”

Adeze Wilford, an assistant curator at The Shed, a performance and exhibition space in New York City, grew up in New York and regularly visited local museums with her mother, who was a member of the American Museum of Natural History, the Met, and MoMA. When Wilford heard about the Queens Museum’s open call for a trustee, she applied. “I was always fascinated by what a museum could be, and I wanted to know how things worked,” the 30-year-old said. After several rounds of interviews, the museum announced this past March that Wilford would serve as its inaugural Young Trustee.

“This opportunity, at an early stage in my career, is a way to learn the processes that a museum director has to deal with beyond the day-to-day interactions with their staff,” she said. “I wanted to know how you interact with the governing board and what that means. I’ve been able to sit on certain committees and rotate through them. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn.”

Four people shown with their backs to the camera stare at a painting hanging on a wall

Visiting the Frick Collection earlier this year, members of the Black Trustees Alliance gazed at a painting by Giovanni Bellini.
Courtesy Frick Collection, New York

A similar scenario recently unfolded at another New York institution, the Frick Collection. Currently renovating its iconic Fifth Avenue home, the museum has also been looking to remodel its internal structure. Over the past six years, the Frick has partnered with the Bronx-based Ghetto Film School on an education initiative to create student-produced short films. In 2020, they offered a seat on the board to project collaborator Sharese Bullock-Bailey, the Ghetto Film School’s chief strategy and partnership officer.

“It felt right in so many mutual ways,” Bullock-Bailey said in an email. “Most importantly, the alignment with my personal vision—to serve at my pleasure and purpose for lifelong learning and community impact.”

Museums are learning that part of attracting more next-generation trustees is getting just one or two through the door. Though the Young Trustee position at the Queens Museum could go to only one person, through the process, the museum leadership has learned of several talented young future donors and patrons. Tallant, the museum director, has even begun unofficially mentoring some of those candidates.

“I think we also need to have people on our board who are at different stages of their careers and life journeys,” Warwick said. “When you look at the people who actually come into our museum, pre-Covid, [they] are much younger than the population as a whole because we do a big education program and school program. We want to make sure that the board reflects the community within New York, particularly in Queens.”

Some arts patrons have recently begun thinking about how to work outside specific museum confines to support each other. Earlier this year, Pamela J. Joyner, one of the world’s top art collectors, and Victoria Rogers, a young art collector, founded the Black Trustees Alliance as a way to provide support for Black museum trustees across the country.

Rogers, who is one of the youngest board members at the Brooklyn Museum, wants the Black Trustees Alliance to tap into the symbiotic relationships of art institutions and philanthropic endeavors to reimagine museum accessibility for young and diverse museumgoers. Members of the alliance desire community and a collective voice to share ideas and workshop solutions to issues within their institutions.

“The relationship that people have to art, or the ecosystem of a cultural institution, really depends on that institution, the kinds of shows that are shown, the kind of people who are engaging, whether it’s at a board level or membership level, or just someone going into the space to see art regularly,” Rogers said. “For me, what’s important is just a sense that culture helps shape society and [that people want] to be involved.”

Warwick, the Queens Museum board chair, said that connecting various young patrons from different institutions and walks of life will ultimately improve the future of these institutions. Museum management can be approached just as creatively as a curatorial program, he said. “All museums can benefit from just a bit of lateral thinking: Are there other ways of doing things?”

A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Young at Art.”

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