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Blake Bradford Barnes/Lincoln Museum Studies Program

By Stephanie Cunningham, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue


I recently met with Blake Bradford, Inaugural Director of the Barnes Foundation - Lincoln University Museum Studies program to discuss his work and the unique partnership between this prominent cultural institution and renowned historically Black college. Bradford is the former Director of Education at the Barnes Foundation, where he led the department for 8 years and created programs that helped create a direct link for Lincoln students. And as plans formulated to create an official collaborative Museum Studies program, it was a natural fit for Bradford to be at the helm.

The program completed its first year this past May 2018, but has been in the making since the mid-1900s. It took almost fifty years for it to become a reality. Conversations began in the late 1940s between Albert Barnes, Founder of the foundation and Horace Mann Bond, the first African American president of Lincoln University. The two believed very early on that Lincoln students should have access to and opportunities in the museum. However, Barnes died in 1951 and Bond left Lincoln. In the late 1990s, the idea resurfaced with, Niara Sudarkasa, the then President of Lincoln University. There became an increased collaboration between the institutions. In 2008, under Blake’s leadership as Director of Education, the first courses were initiated and approved by the university. This allowed for a more substantial partnership that optimized the relationship. The institutions came together to raise money and receive funding. Support even came from the Melon Foundation for a collection sharing program. A robust lecture series was created that included guest speakers like Allen Edmunds, Founder of the Brandywine Workshops in Philadelphia, which has created space and opportunities for many Black arts professionals. The program helps foster greater agency, expands African American stories within the national dialogue, and brings diverse voices into the museum field. Lincoln students participate in internships that span the museum’s vast departments from curatorial to human resources. They engage with professionals and synthesize knowledge into professional skill sets. In their classes they discuss the museum’s collections and museum trends, like how the digital trend has transformed visitor’s interaction with and experience in museums as well as how museums react to different trends. Museums today are creating greater interactivity. They realize they are a part of a matrix of community amenities and a matrix of elements that makes communities. Students also study how museums reflect and inform culture and discuss different ways and places culture is created and expressed. They are fully aware that culture is not contained and limited to the walls of the building.

Blake works to expose students to career paths (according to the American Alliance of Museums there are almost 400,000 jobs in the field) that were largely closed off to people of color. Many of these opportunities are invisible and many people may not associate them with a museum (like Director of Special Events). Museums are their own small ecosystems. But as the industry becomes more accessible to a wider demographic, specifically people of color, Blake says it’s critical to rethink and change the foundational framework and culture of the institution. Not just create color diversity but diversity of ideas that challenges the institution in ways that can be scary and take us places we were not expecting to go that make the institution evolve. And doing this without “narrowcasting” people of color to stereotypes or as a monolith. But instead, a fundamental shift in how museums engage people. They would then realize if more people have input within how narratives are crafted the institution would be more successful.

Museums must shift the way they operate with much more reciprocity. Museums as a concept in the United States are less than 200 years old so they should recognize the possibility of obsolescence if they do not reinforce their cultural vitality. And some museums are realizing that they must shift to become more relevant and credible. The Met had Kerry James Marshall works on view at the Breuer, for example. He is already a blue-chip artist with a substantial career but lends his credibility as a “Dean” of African American artists and gives the institution as much as was taken. So the artist lends his credibility to the institution. It used to be the institutions that validate the artists but now it’s much more reciprocal.

These kinds of incremental changes start to become systemic changes. These cracks in the dam will become a flood and we won’t recognize what was there before. But it’s not because one day it was a switch but small gestures. In the future there will be more reciprocity and much more barrier free for more people from diverse backgrounds like students from Lincoln University to begin new paradigms within museums and other cultural institutions. Hopefully, this program will serve as a catalyst for students of color and will impact the future of museums. Hear more of his experience and story.

You can listen to more episodes of Black Visuality here and follow the podcast on Twitter here.

Stephanie Cunningham