Meet the New Art Museum Directors Building Connection Through Curated Experiences

Art museums are increasingly committing to DEI work, and many are hiring a new type of director to help accomplish their goals.

The artist at ‘Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence’, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2023. Photo by Gary Sexton. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The culmination of Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence, Wiley’s latest body of work on view through October 15 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, is an eponymous bronze sculpture depicting a young Black man’s body draped, lifelessly, atop an enormous horse. The effect of entering the dimly lit room and encountering the massive sculpture is incredibly emotional—but the visitors who have chosen to partake in an audio tour are in good hands. An informative dialogue between the artist, making their de Young and U.S. exhibition debut, and educator Hodari Davis, accompanies the piece, moving between the Civil War and the murder of George Floyd, to the tension between past and present.

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The recorded conversation is moderated by Abram Jackson, one of the museum’s latest hires.  Officially appointed by the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco in June 2022, Jackson is a bold new voice—one of many stepping into a new role in the art world: Director of Interpretation. His impact is evident in the powerful cast of Black voices who narrate the audio tour and appear in the wall text and in the exhibition’s accompanying materials.

A closer view of the sculpture in question from ‘Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence’, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2023. Photo by Gary Sexton. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Since starting in the position at the de Young, after being an advisor for several years, Jackson has been asked quite frequently what his title means, exactly. His elevator pitch? “I facilitate museums in telling the most inclusive stories about our permanent collections and special exhibitions, to the broadest audience,” he tells Observer. This includes helping craft the big, overarching ideas for upcoming exhibitions and working with the different shareholders on exhibition and marketing materials.

“It’s a chance to collaboratively consider what would be the most meaningful experience for our visitors, and think of potential harms,” Jackson adds. “For example, are we ensuring an 8th grader understands it? Are we accounting for the different gender identities? Are we considering the racial-ethnic background of our visitors?”

In recent years, many museums in the U.S. and beyond have been grappling with these questions—and have been making hires that illuminate their urgency. The Chicago Art Institute appointed Emily Lew Fry as Executive Director of Interpretation in 2022, promoting her from a previous role. The Baltimore Museum of Art appointed Verónica Betancourt as its Director of Interpretation in 2019. And overseas, at London’s Tate Museums, Dr. David Dibosa stepped into the Director of Research and Interpretation role in April of 2023.

These institutions are not alone. “Looking at the job boards in the last three to four years, it’s been remarkable to see Director of Interpretation positions posted, which means museums are either realigning some of their current activities or creating this specialization,” says Swarupa Anila, Senior Vice President for Exhibition and Gallery Development at the Royal Ontario Museum and the outgoing president of the Association of Art Museum Interpretation (AAMI). The association, which officially became a nonprofit in 2021, opened its membership rollout in 2022 and currently has eighty-five members, having started with just a handful a couple of decades ago.

Anila was there from the start, watching the role being honed and rebranded by art institutions as the association grew accordingly. “Interpretation has been out there for a long time—mostly in history museums and park services,” she says, “but it’s relatively youthful in the art museum context.” And while certain roles have started being reshaped to specifically hold interpretation starting in the late 90s, “those were usually positions in education, or came through marketing and communication areas,” she says.

The stand-alone Director of Interpretation position, according to Anila, emerged more recently, as a response to cultural shifts in the U.S.—particularly, the recognition that art museums have been suffering from an elitist, detached reputation for too long. The growth of the role, Anila says, is a reflection of the fact that “museums are increasingly committed to DEI work; to the work of negotiating ourselves in a space that defines culture and race and ethnicity, a very human identity.”

Jackson puts it plainly; when it comes to the relatively new title, “There’s a direct correlation to the way in which museums are recognizing that the histories institutions are founded on are fundamentally problematic and have upheld white supremacy,” he says. Giving the role a definition and recognition, he says, “is the commitment to dismantle that reality.”

And yet, while the emerging role’s background might stem from complex and racially charged circumstances, its nature at most institutions isn’t didactic or tendentious. “In many ways, art should speak for itself,” says Jackson. “We’re trying not to be too heavy-handed.” Tapping into his background as an educator, Jackson provides a helpful analogy: “As a teacher, it’s not about telling the students what the right answer is but supporting them in unlocking an answer,” he says. “In the case of museums, we provide the visitors the tools and the context to unlock their own interpretation.”

Intallation view of ‘Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence’, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2023. Photo by Gary Sexton. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Meet the New Art Museum Directors Building Connection Through Curated Experiences