Stax helps bring diversity to museum careers

This summer, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music added some of their youngest staff to date. Area teens worked as interns, getting exposure to arts administration and museum careers.

Over the summer, someone peeking into the back rooms at Stax Museum of American Soul Music might have stumbled upon Overton High School sophomore Alicia Taylor listening to K-pop music while sorting Stax records that were pressed in the Philippines.
Sorting 45s, organizing spreadsheets, and helping to inventory donor collections were all part of Taylor’s duties.
Taylor has taken choir for many years in school and she learned about the famous museum and its history when she was in sixth grade.
“Because mom has records and she likes to play them,” she explained.
She had interacted with music in many ways. She had less experience with museums, though. Being able to experience the music she heard through costumes and tangible paraphernalia was eye-opening to Taylor. After her experience this summer, she is now considering a career revolving around museums.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 2015 art museum staff demographic survey found that  job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators and leadership (from director and chief curator to head of education or conservation) were 84 percent white, far from matching the country’s demographic makeup.  
Similarly, in the Americans for the Arts Local Arts Agency Salaries 2013 report, 86 percent of full-time survey respondents categorized their race/ethnicity as white. The report included workers at arts councils, arts commissions, service organizations and arts funds.             
“...Diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures,” the Mellon survey suggested.                              
Taylor’s internship through the MMIWorks internship program for Memphis teenagers at art and music institutions around the city could be a part of that change, introducing underrepresented groups into arts administration and museum curatorial careers.
For six weeks Alicia and another MMIWorks intern worked at Stax Museum under the direction of Executive Director Jeff Kollath. The students split their 32 hours a week between four days and on Wednesdays they received eight hours of “professional development” under the tutelage of MMI Youth Program Manager Brittney Bullock. This could include the students learning about budgeting, how to open a bank account, how to work as a team, or other “things they didn’t cover in school,” Taylor said.
The MMIWorks intersnships at Stax started June 1 and lasted for six weeks. Kollath said he plans to hire the interns again next year and Taylor has already decided she would like to return for an internship.
Along with the MMIWorks interns, Stax also employed two Soulsville Charter School students during the summer break. Those students primarily worked the front desk, helping with visitors. All of the students worked the museum’s photo booth as a significant portion of their responsibilities.
“They’re good at it,” Kollath said. “They’re young and enthusiastic, and it requires some salesmanship.”
This is the first time that Stax has offered this sort of employment for high school students, according to Kollath, who has worked in his role for a little over a year.
“The folks we’ve had this summer, they’re mature, high performing, happy to be here,” Kollath said. “(They) take direction well.”
Besides good work ethic, the museum’s staff looks for students with a hunger to learn more and take initiative, rather than just watching others work.
Kollath said that Taylor helps the museum by asking questions she has about records and music and making him and other staff think about the music in a different way.
Another benefit that Stax receives is bolstering its small staff that serves a sizeable populace.
“It’s been a great thought exercise for us,” Kollath said. “It is pulling the curtain back a little bit, but it’s great because we don’t want them to see this as some mystical place.”
Working with younger people also gives insight on how Kollath and others at the museum can make it a destination sought out by younger generations.
“One of the challenges about the museum is how to make the history and music here relevant to people’s Alicia’s age,” Kollath said. “I’m excited because Alicia and the other kids are listening to (all types of) music and talking about it.”
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Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program.