Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, beginning in elementary school, Dr. Andrea Barnwell-Brownlee regularly went on field trips to the Smithsonian museums. As early as the 5th grade she saw exhibitions ranging from air, space, and flight to American history. She probably did not envision then, or when she graduated from Spelman College in 1993, that she would become the Director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.
The Museum is the only U.S. museum dedicated to visual art made by and about women of the African Diaspora, located in Atlanta, GA. The Museum‚Äôs mission is in alignment with the College‚Äôs mission to be a global leader in the education of women of African descent. Brownlee says, ‚ÄúBlack women artists that reside throughout the Diaspora participate in a global conversation about creativity, innovation, and contemporary life. Through its exhibitions, programs, and permanent collection, the Museum is increasingly becoming a resource through which to explore, examine, and discuss their work. On site offerings, coupled with the wide reach of social media, make it possible for the Museum to be a critical conduit.‚Äù
After graduating from Spelman, she spent her summer as an intern in the Editorial Department at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There she worked closely with the editorial staff and assisted in the process of editing essays, interviewing contributing authors, and designing the quarterly magazine. Throughout the internship she had the opportunity to spend time viewing and writing about objects and regularly had conversations with curators and museum educators. In 1998, Brownlee was selected for the MacArthur Curatorial Fellowship in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Art Institute of Chicago.
A year later, while completing her Ph.D. program in Art History at Duke University, she found an interest in working in museums; she realized she had a regular and sustained relationship with objects that fueled her passion. It was through internships, fellowships and similar opportunities in which she got the opportunity to curate exhibitions heightened by her enthusiasm for objects and soon after overshadowed her own interest in being in the classroom. ‚Äú…those opportunities allowed me to connect with audiences and various communities in ways that were direct and meaningful,‚Äù said Brownlee-Barnwell.
Since the Museum opened in 1996, its mission has been to emphasize art by and about women of the African Diaspora. Barnwell-Brownlee has continued to heighten the Museum‚Äôs unique mission primarily by diversifying the slate of exhibitions. ‚ÄúWorking collaboratively with the Curator of Collections, the Curator of Education, and the Administrative Assistant, I have worked to ensure that the Museum presents a range of projects,‚Äù many of which include modern, contemporary, group, solo, and thematic.
Barnwell-Brown also works with emerging, mid-career, and established artists to regularly examine the broad scope of work that black women artists create. ‚ÄúWe work closely with faculty, staff, and a range of community partners to create meaningful opportunities to integrate art by black women artists into the academic curriculum. Likewise, we provide opportunities for visitors to have first-hand engagements with original works of art and explore how art is central to their daily lives and experiences.‚Äù
For girls and young women aspiring to work for a museum, Brownlee advises them to ‚Äú…work in a museum because she believes that museums have the power to strengthen communities. I would encourage girls to participate in every internship, workshop, and fellowship opportunity that they can.‚Äù Lastly she adds, ‚ÄúSeize opportunities to have conversations with staff members in every museum department including, but not limited to, administrators, tech gurus, educators, curators, marketing experts, designers, and customer service representatives.‚Äù They all contribute to the future success of museums and might ultimately help a girl who is curious about this important work shape, refine, and confirm her interests.
-Danyelle R. Carter
Student and Activist