Once a year, the U.S. acknowledges the egregious pay gap in which Latinas earn just 67 cents for every dollar a non-Latinx white man makes. It’s time we interrogate this fact year-round. The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with trained scholar and one of the few Black Latinx curators at the Smithsonian, Dr. Ariana Curtis, about forging your own career path, centering community within institutions, and persevering through challenges.
Museum spaces have been taken to task over their lack of diversity. The 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey reported that 12% of museum leadership positions were held by people of color, a slight 1% bump from the 2015 results. That year, 84% of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership were white, while 4% were Black and 3% were Latinx. For non-white museum workers and visitors, this exclusion sends a clear message: Black and Latinx experiences and expertise aren't valued.
While alarming, the overwhelming whiteness of museums isn’t surprising. In fact, the origins of many of the United States’ most distinguished institutions, from government to higher education, are rooted in white supremacy. While racial equity, diversity, and inclusion have become accelerated action items for a number of institutions and cultural heritage spaces, particularly in response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, they’ve always been priorities for non-white cultural workers inside the archives and collections.
This is the case with Dr. Ariana Curtis. As a graduate student at American University studying race, gender, and social justice, Curtis regularly frequented museums and galleries for leisure. While she enjoyed the exhibits, programs, and scholarly talks at museums in the DMV area, as an Afro-Latina, she didn’t expect to see herself reflected within these spaces. Then she met Michelle Wilkinson, a Black curator who inserted Blackness on the walls of New York’s The Studio Museum and Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Museums became more than just windows to peek into other worlds; they were spaces for community-centered, publicly accessible work that affirms and educates her communities about their identities, histories, and cultures. Just like that, the trained anthropologist and researcher swapped policy work for museums.
“What I found missing for me from policy was public accountability, which I think museum work really does present,” Curtis tells Refinery29 Somos. “It's not just that people can access your work; it's that they can respond to it, that they can think about it, that they can build programs around it, and that there are actual conversations that people have around what they're seeing and what they're feeling.”
In 2013, Curtis — who is of African American and Afro-Panamanian descent — became a curator of Latino Studies at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. At Anacostia, Curtis led public programming and curated two bilingual exhibitions: Gateways/Portales, which explored the experiences of Latinx immigrants in Washington, DC, Baltimore, and parts of North Carolina, and Bridging the Americas, a look at home and belonging in and in-between Panama and DC.
This experience led the Fulbright scholar to become the first curator of Latinx Studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in 2017 — only three months after the museum opened. Curtis has always been intentional about the role and what her title entails. “It's not curator of Afro-Latinx Studies. It's Latinx Studies. It's Latinidad through an African-American lens,” she says. “Blackness is not homogeneous, so we need to honor that diversity. We need to honor Latinx diversity. We need to honor relationships between culture and between people.”
While the systemic bias and barriers that exist in museums won’t disappear overnight, it’s trailblazers like Curtis who are committed to reforming homogeneous environments through education, leadership, and honest conversations. From affirming the communities she represents to pushing forward despite pushbacks, Curtis shares her story and offers advice for Latinas navigating historically white (and racist) institutions.
Define your own path
Education isn’t exclusive to academic spaces. As Curtis realized when shifting from policy to museum work, she could apply her specialization in anthropology to various fields and share her insight through different mediums. Today, the Springfield, Massachusetts native does this as a curator for the Smithsonian, collecting in five key areas: U.S. Latinxs, U.S. Afro-Latinxs, African Americans & Latinxs, the African Diaspora in Latin America, and African American migrations to and engagements with Latin America.
In 2020, she was offered a groundbreaking opportunity as Director of Content of Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past, a space for dialogue about race and racism at the Smithsonian, while being able to continue her curatorial work.
“In this time of racial protest, I was coming out of my comfortable, Black-dominant space and saying, ‘I'm going to really experience the Smithsonian as a predominantly white institution and talk about institutional racism,’” Curtis says. “‘I’m going to figure out what our role as an institution is in these ongoing conversations on this history that we have collected but perhaps not interpreted in this way. I’m going to really think about why and how the National Museum of African American History and Culture exists, and also how it exists in combination with our Asian Pacific American Center, with our Latino Center, with the National Museum of the American Indian, with the changes that they are really trying to make at the National Museum of American History.’”
With each role the curator assumes, she’s also adamant about defining her work and its many intersections. Refusing to be pigeonholed, she finds encouragement through an Audre Lorde quote that hangs in her office: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” It resonates with Curtis. Although she is a proud Afro-Latina, her work is expansive and doesn’t only speak to that aspect of her identity.
Center community, even within institutional spaces
A museum worker's decision on what to (or not to) include within collections has lasting effects. According to a Williams College study, 85.4% of the works in the collections of 18 major U.S. museums are created by white artists and, more specifically, 87.4% are by men. The survey results also show that African-American artists constitute a sad, yet unsurprising, 1.2% of the works. Meanwhile, Hispanic and Latinx artists make up 2.8% of the artists, and Asian artists account for 9%.
For Curtis, there’s a shared responsibility that exists between institutions and curators to consider the specificity of the communities that they work within, including the cultural objects they choose to display. Understanding the history of the Anacostia Community Museum — a local space highlighting Black American populations in Washington, DC — as well as the realities of the vast Latinx communities (particularly Central Americans) that live in the DMV area and how these cultures intersect in the capital, she was determined to reflect those lived experiences within her work. Though there were no permanent exhibits, the award-winning curator began brainstorming ways to use the museum’s existing collections and opportunities to build upon others. The impact was eminent. While displaying Bridging the Americas, an exhibit that opened in 2015 presenting archival and contemporary narratives of home, identities, and communities, docents and community members alike came up to Curtis to share that they were of Panamanian descent. Up until that point, they hadn’t expressed that part of their identity; however, seeing themselves in the space allowed for that connection to be made.
“Being able to create these spaces of belonging where people can articulate the multiple identities they have is so important,” she says. “I do it as often and as publicly as possible, so that other people can feel comfortable either claiming or not claiming.”
Push forward despite pushback
Even in the most supportive work environments, asserting yourself as a Black woman may have you rethinking your choice of words. When it comes to differences of opinions, how you articulate your point is often more effective than what you say, leaving some to reconsider even entertaining an important (but possibly career-altering) conversation.
Curtis is no stranger to spearheading these necessary and uncomfortable discussions. However, now that she’s responsible for directing content about race and racism for the Smithsonian, her discourse has an institution-wide impact. Such was the case when the Black Latinas Know founding member insisted the institution should explicitly say racism, not just race, in their language around racial inequality. While most of Curtis' colleagues respect her authority and support her professional training, the depths at which they understand systematic racism is limited. Understanding that even the way language is structured can create barriers to expressing a person’s full humanity, she’s intentional with her words. "With this initiative for racial equality, if we are serious about change, we have to name what we want to change,” Curtis says.
With different lived experiences present in this emotionally charged work, she adds, “it’s impossible for it to not feel personal at times.” But no matter the conversation, or resistance to it, she’s committed to pushing through. As she prepares for tough conversations, she often leans on the words of scholars like Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Margaret Mead, and Sonia Sanchez. Another Lorde quote that eases her fears: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”