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Arts

As Min Jung Kim takes over at SLAM, she has one eye on the past and one on the future

Min Jung Kim, the director of the St. Louis Art Museum, stands in for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, at the St. Louis Art Museum. Kim is the first woman and person of color to lead the 142-year-old institution.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Min Jung Kim, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, says it's important for museum to adapt to the nation's changing cultural environment.

Min Jung Kim, the St. Louis Art Museum’s new director, has great respect for the institution’s history. But she also wants to be sure it can change with the times.

One of her priorities is to include the work of more women and more artists of color within the museum’s holdings. She also wants the museum to have a more diverse staff.

“One of the things we would like to see achieved is not just merely taking actions to tick a box,” Kim said, “but rather, what are things that we can do to really create some systemic and structural changes that will have long-lasting effects within the institution?”

Kim, who started her new job in September, is just the 11th director in the museum's 142 years. She makes history as the first woman, the first immigrant and the first person of color to lead the institution on a permanent basis.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin asked Kim about her 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 New Britain Museum of American Art, 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, yet deceptively complex question, which is: What is American art? What is American, what is not? Who is American, who is not? Whose stories are being told, and whose stories are not being told?

And being able to hopefully bring in a broader and more diverse range of artists. Not only in terms of greater representation of races and ethnicities, but also, many museums’ collections are represented by less than 25% of women or female-identifying artists.

Unless it is addressed with a certain level of intentionality, this is not something that will really change.

Goodwin: I wonder if, coming in as a new person in this seat, that gives you a real, fresh opportunity to make changes to the way things have always been done.

Kim: On the one hand I was indeed very curious as to whether this was the type of an institution — having its 142-year-old, long and distinguished history — that was indeed open to change.

But I have to say that my initial first impressions are, on the one hand, I’m not sure if change is exactly the right word. In other words, there’s nothing really wrong with this museum. It’s an extraordinary museum. So it’s less about change that is needed and more a continued adaptation to our times.

It has been an incredibly difficult and challenging time for everyone, including museums. The St. Louis Art Museum has been very fortunate, but at the same time you’re looking at a situation where the ground beneath us is constantly shifting. So if anything it’s really about continuing to try to keep our ears to the ground, listen to our constituents, understand the change in needs of our visitors and the cultural landscape as a whole.

Goodwin: I do want to acknowledge that you’re the first woman to lead this institution in its 142 years, the first person of color hired [to be director] in a permanent fashion, the first immigrant to lead the institution. Is there room at the staffing and management level to include more voices that have not been a part of the decision-making?

Kim: I certainly hope so. And I hope that I am not the only voice that can be a part of this conversation as a whole — not only within the senior leadership of the museum, but throughout the staff as a whole. And the ways in which we might be able to create this as a new precedent. So that the fact of being the first becomes less of a novelty and less of an exception, but rather, more of the norm.

Goodwin: Something in the news this week and last week is that the Art Institute of Chicago completely revamped its docent program, with the idea that a particular demographic tends to be docents — which is older, white women of means who, for instance, can volunteer on a Tuesday afternoon. Is that something the museum might look at?

Kim: There is no plan or intention to do anything but to continue to show how much we value and appreciate our existing docents. I think it’s less about how to make our circles of engagement smaller, but how do you make them more expansive and even wider? To include more individuals and more diverse perspectives.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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