Mentoring the Next Generation of Museum Professionals

Nzinga Simmons has always loved art.

She paints and draws and comes from a family of makers. “My mom didn't consider herself an artist but she made her own wedding dress and was a really good seamstress.”

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in art history, she knew she wanted to learn more.

Simmons, along with T.K. Smith, is spending the fall at PAFA as part of the Tina Dunkley Fellowship in American Art. The two-year paid fellowship provides hands-on training in curatorial practice and museum professions for individuals from historically underrepresented groups who have expressed an interest in American Art.

Before coming to PAFA to study under John Rhoden curator Dr. Brittany Webb, Simmons and Smith spent time at the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum and The Kennesaw State University Zuckerman Museum of Art.

  • Dunkley Fellowship recipients T.K. Smith and Nzinga Simmons join Rhoden Collection curator Dr. Brittany Webb in PAFA's galleries.
    Dunkley Fellowship recipients T.K. Smith and Nzinga Simmons join Rhoden Collection curator Dr. Brittany Webb in PAFA's galleries.

“They’re all at various scales. So Clark Atlanta is a small museum, Zuckerman is a medium-sized museum and PAFA is the largest museum we’ve been to,” said Smith who said his focus is American studies and material culture. He uses art as an entryway for his research.

“I have been always playing with what is American and what are the limitations of America.”

Here at PAFA, the two are shadowing museum director Brooke David Anderson and the curatorial team. Curator Dr. Brittany Webb aims to expose Simmons and Smith to every aspect of running a museum.

“My thing is if you do work with me for a while and you discover you don’t want to be a curator then that's super useful,” Webb said. “But I also want you to see all of the other things in case realize what you really want to do is marketing or museum education or archives. You don’t know if you don’t meet the people who are doing those things.”

Making strong connections with museum professionals is why Simmons is participating in the fellowship.

“I want to meet people in the art world because I don’t come from a family of artists or anybody who has worked in museums,” she said. “It’s difficult when you don’t know anyone in the field when you’re trying to navigate and get into that field.”

Both Simmons and Smith hope to see the museum field diversify as they embark on their careers.

“We’re getting to see people with real jobs getting real opportunities, it’s nice to think that maybe I’ll have a job,” Smith said.

Through this fellowship, he said he’s been given the opportunity to figure out what type of arts institution he’d like to work at one day and how different museums are transforming their spaces.

“We have Brittany who is an amazing mentor of color who is helping us navigate the space,” Simmons said. “And I think Brooke has the right idea in mind to start collecting work from people who have been historically excluded from the canons of western art that is so highly regarded at this institution.”

But it’s more than a diverse art collection that Smith and Simmons are looking for.

“It's not just about including black and brown or woman artists in a collection, but it’s also choosing art historians of color or curators of color to look at this through the lens of blackness,” Simmons said. “That's my goal as a curator one day. To make right that history and prove that black and brown artists are not marginal artists, they’re worthy of being in the canon of American art.”