When Andrea Barnwell A.M. '99, Ph.D. '01 became director of Atlanta's Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, she accepted many responsibilities--not the least of which is providing what she calls "a nurturing learning environment for the collection, preservation, exhibition, and interpretation of important works of art."
Her longtime interest in art originated during her sophomore year at Spelman, the nation's oldest historically black college for women. As a double major in English and art, she says, "I was very interested in the relationship between written and visual artistic expression." Studying abroad at the University of Essex at Colchester, England, during her junior year, she expanded her initial interest in the art and writing of the Harlem Renaissance to include Victorian art.
She says she was drawn to Duke for graduate studies in large part because of art history professor Richard Powell. Barnwell says Powell gave her "the opportunity to discuss art of the African Diaspora with someone widely regarded in the field." She also worked with art history professor Kristine Stiles, who helped shape her interests through a number of independent-study courses in "race, gender, feminism, and critical theory."
At Duke, she curated Woman as Metaphor in African Art, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Duke Semans Fine Art Foundation based on works in the permanent collection at the Duke University Museum of Art. The show toured throughout North Carolina. All of these experiences, she says, strengthened her resolve to pursue the study of African-American art and focus her dissertation on black Britain.
After finishing her course work at Duke, she spent a summer on West Africa's Ivory Coast. The highlight of her trip, she says, was the opportunity "to meet WereWere Liking, the founder of an artist colony called Ki Yi M'bock in Abidjan, in the heart of West Africa. This was a place that she constructed where various artists in Africa came to study all types of art."
A MacArthur Fellowship at the Art Institute of Chicago also helped shape her career. In that museum's department of modern and contemporary art, she learned the daily requirements of curators. She mounted major exhibitions, including To Serve a Legacy: American Art at Historically Black Colleges.
Now in her first year as director of the five-year-old Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Barnwell admits that she's still feeling her way. "I have the best of both worlds. I have the opportunity to interact with students as well as direct the mission of a very new museum. I also have access to a number of academic departments and a superior faculty."
One of her primary goals is to foster greater student involvement. Lately, the museum has been using student programming to increase awareness of the arts, holding such events as a coffeehouse discussion or an open-mike night, "where students can create presentations from a work of art and engage objects and themselves."
"My broader vision is to get more students in chemistry interested in art," she says. "There are wonderful opportunities for chemists to pursue [art-related] careers."
Barnwell says she hopes her museum's appeal will be heightened by its location in the heart of Atlanta. "There's a really supportive group of art enthusiasts that seem very excited about the direction of Spelman's museum. I believe in forging partnerships with other museums that are here in Atlanta and with a number of civic and cultural groups in the city. It's about organizing events and exhibitions that will appeal to students as well as the community."
She says the museum has a responsibility to show works by and about women of the African Diaspora; Spelman's is the nation's only museum with that focus.
"Throughout this country's history, African-American artists have been overlooked," she says. "Many collections at museums reflect this fact. That results in
a major deficit on culture and the contributions that Afro-Americans can surely make. This university and museum is concerned with the importance of correcting these gross oversights."
"In my experience, black colleges in general offer a wealth of opportunities in visual and performing arts," she adds. "There's an incredible energy that's about to erupt right below the surface."