Min Jung Kim’s plans as the new director of the St. Louis Art Museum
Min Jung Kim, the new director of the St. Louis Art Museum, has great respect for the history of the institution. But she also wants to be sure that can change over time.
One of her priorities is to include the work of more women and artists of color in the museum’s collections. She also wants the museum to have a more diverse staff.
“One of the things we would like to see done isn’t just take action to tick a box,” Kim said, “but rather, what are the things we can do to really create systemic and structural change? which will have long lasting effects within the institution?
Kim, who started her new job in September, is only the museum’s 11th director in 142 years. She made history as the first woman, first immigrant and first person of color to lead the institution on a permanent basis.
Jeremy Goodwin of St. Louis Public Radio asked Kim about his plans.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: American art museums tend to present a view of art history that focuses on the work of white men. When you were at American Art Museum of New Britain, how did you involve a more diverse group of voices?
Min Jung Kim: By really taking a step back and asking ourselves a very basic, fundamental, but deceptively complex question, which is: What is American art? What is American, what is not? Who is American, who is not? What stories are told and which stories are not told?
And hopefully be able to attract a wider and more diverse range of artists. Not only in terms of greater representation of races and ethnicities, but also, the collections of many museums are represented by less than 25% of women or artists who identify as women.
Unless it’s approached with a certain level of intentionality, it’s not something that will really change.
Goodwin: I wonder if, coming in as a new person to this seat gives you a real and new opportunity to make changes to the way things have always been done.
Kim: On the one hand, I was indeed very curious to know if this was the type of institution – with its 142-year-old, long and distinguished history – that was indeed open to change.
But I have to say that my first impressions are, on the one hand, I’m not sure if change is exactly the right word. In other words, there is nothing wrong with this museum. It is an extraordinary museum. So it is less of the change that is needed and more of a continuous adaptation to our times.
It has been an incredibly difficult and stimulating time for everyone, including museums. The St. Louis Art Museum has been very lucky, but at the same time you are faced with a situation where the ground beneath us is constantly changing. So it’s more about continuing to try to keep an ear on the ground, to listen to our constituents, to understand the changing needs of our visitors and the cultural landscape as a whole.
Goodwin: I want to acknowledge that you are the first woman to lead this institution in 142 years, the first person of color hired [to be director] permanently, the first immigrant to lead the institution. Is there room at the staffing and management level to include more voices that have not been part of the decision-making?
Kim: I hope so. And I hope I’m not the only voice that can be a part of this whole conversation – not only within the museum’s senior management, but throughout the staff. And the ways we might be able to set that as a new precedent. So that being the first becomes less of a novelty and less of an exception, but rather a norm.
Goodwin: Something in the news this week and last week is that the Art Institute of Chicago completely overhauled its docent program, with the idea that a particular demographic tends to be docents – who are older, wealthier white women who, for example, may volunteer on a Tuesday afternoon. Is this something the museum could examine?
Kim: There is no plan or intention to do anything other than continue to show how much we value and appreciate our existing docents. I think it’s less about narrowing our circles of engagement, but how do we make them bigger and even wider? To include more people and more diverse perspectives.
Follow Jérémy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin