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Lauren Haynes: Determined to diversify

Determined to diversify by LARA JO HIGHTOWER NWA Democrat-Gazette | March 1, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
“Lauren is committed to creating the highest quality experience for her team, artists and audiences. She is a passionate advocate for inclusion, always working to ensure voices traditionally excluded have strong roles in organizational decision-making.” — Rod Bigelow

Lauren Haynes was in college before she felt the magic a museum would hold over her. Haynes, who has been the curator for contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art since 2016 and now holds the same title at The Momentary, was looking for a work-study job at Ohio's Oberlin College when she found a listing for the director's assistant at Allen Memorial Art Museum, a teaching museum on the college campus.

“She has incredible attention to detail — it’s a through line in her life. It’s what makes her such a good friend, and what makes her so good at her job. She sees the nuances and the detail and really hones in on that, both professionally and personally.” — Desiree Pipkins
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

"I didn't really even have an understanding of how much I was going to love this idea of the 'behind the scenes' aspect of a museum," says Haynes. She was an excellent student, an avid reader and a born leader, and she thought her studies would lead to a legal career. "The woman who was the director of the art museum at the time, Sharon Patton, was an African-American woman who was a huge scholar in African-American art history -- she literally wrote the book on many of these subjects, something I didn't know at all when I took this job. But my first experience with a museum was seeing someone who looked like me in charge. It wasn't until I got more into the field that I realized how completely rare that was, that you would see a black woman in charge of the museum. But I sort of clicked on it: 'OK, whatever this is, if I can see someone like me in it, it makes it a little bit closer to what I can imagine.'"

Lauren Haynes


My favorite era from art history is the present (contemporary).

I’m at my best when I’m working with others.

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s you can’t control or change other people.

The person who had the most impact on my life was/is my mother.

My favorite past time is watching Hallmark movies.

One place I’d like to visit is Greece.

A really good piece of advice I received was remember to breathe.

The one place I don’t think about work is the beach.

Next Week

Dr. Larry Wright


It must have helped that the magic was cast by one of the preeminent scholars in the field. Patton was named the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art just a few years later. Seeing Patton at work inspired Haynes to take an art class, which then led to another -- until the inevitable happened.

"I said, 'Oh, I'm going to be an art history major,'" says Haynes with a laugh. "My mom was always so supportive and lovely, but she asked, 'What are you going to do with that?' I said, 'Oh, Mom, I'll work in a museum.' You know, the confidence of being 19."

It was early on in her studies that Haynes realized Oberlin's art history program lacked comprehensive coverage of African-American artists.

"I wasn't necessarily learning about art made by people of color at all, so I was simultaneously taking African-American studies classes," she says. "I have a minor in African-American studies because, essentially, for a good part of my senior year and end of junior year, I was taking the classes that I wanted to take. A lot of self study. I even took a class in the studio art department where [sculptor/installation artist and associate professor of studio art and Africana studies] Johnny Coleman basically let me take his class but didn't make me make anything. Instead I wrote about artists, and it was great. But I only found him my senior year; imagine if that could have changed."

Upon graduation, Haynes knew it was going to be a challenge to find a job in her field of study. Jobs in the industry are few and far between, so Haynes supported herself in the interim by working office temp positions. She was on the cusp of accepting an offer to work full time in the legal department of a real estate company when the Brooklyn Museum contacted her with a job opportunity. New York was not foreign territory to the Tennessee-born Haynes; when she was 12, she had moved with her mother to Brooklyn to be closer to her mother's family.

"She was just always so focused, unlike the rest of us," says close friend Desiree Pipkins, who met Haynes in college. "Of all of my friends, Lauren has had the most direct path to her career. She knew what she wanted, and she was lining stuff up to get there. She works hard: She is one of the most determined people I know, and when she sets her mind to something, she gets it done, and she brings people along with her on that journey."

Brooklyn to Harlem

The Brooklyn Museum is one of the largest and oldest museums in New York City.

"It was just really a place that helped me learn more about what it means to work in a museum, what it means to be a curator," Haynes says. "I was a departmental assistant, so my tasks were more administrative, but still, being able to see and learn by [the] example of the curators, understanding the different departments in a museum -- it was just a fascinating thing."

Her curatorial skills showed themselves quickly.

"She has an incredible eye," says Teka Selman, a colleague. The duo are co-curating for the 2021 Tennessee Triennial exhibit. "She's a great listener, and she's very good at focusing on what's interesting versus what's trendy. She has the ability to understand what's good and then help others see it. She gets to innovative work before others have. One of the things that I love the most about her, curatorially, is her eye, and the fact that, for her, curating is not just about ideas -- it's about how things are put together in a space, the way the exhibition design is created so that you are moving through a space in a specific way, and visitors are able to make visual connections as well as conceptual connections. It's a skill she possesses that is pretty remarkable."

"Her standards are high and she asks (always nicely) people to meet those expectations, which improves the exhibitions she works on, the people around her, and the field more generally," notes colleague and friend Hallie Ringle, who is currently the Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. "Lauren has an incredible vision that informs all of her work as does her artist-centered approach to her work. She's able to see steps ahead of other people. Lauren's also incredibly generous, especially when it comes to working with artists and younger colleagues. She's also willing to change and to experiment which I think ties in to her thoughtfulness."

This first position also served to cement the idea that a museum was where Haynes belonged. Less than a year after starting work at the Brooklyn Museum, Haynes was offered a job at the acclaimed Studio Museum in Harlem. The offer coincided with a period of restructuring at the Brooklyn Museum, and Haynes jumped at the opportunity.

"Anyone who is interested in African-American art or African-American art history -- even if you don't know what the Studio Museum is -- you start seeing it in books, because that's where black artists were having shows since 1950," she says. The museum opened in 1968 and has a highly regarded artist-in-residence program. "It really felt like, 'OK, this is where I want to be.'"

"The Studio is a really important place for many people, especially those that are interested in artists of color," says Selman. "[Director and Chief Curator] Thelma Golden has been known for both creating a wonderful space, led by her vision, [and] giving a lot of opportunities to her curatorial staff to contribute to that vision. Lauren is someone who, during her time there, used that well, doing interesting shows and creating interesting lines of freedom. The Studio has birthed a lot of amazing curators, and Lauren is part of that legacy."

In fact, Haynes would spend nearly a decade working at the Studio Museum, moving from curatorial assistant to associate curator and co-curating exhibits like "Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art"; "Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange"; and "Carrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series." She was also an integral part of the museum's artist-in-residence program, leading the online periodical ARTS ATL to comment that her contributions "impacted the career trajectories of numerous artists who have gone on to have great successes worldwide."

"Lauren made so many important contributions at Studio Museum, not the least of which was mentoring all of the young curators that went through the department as assistants, fellows, and interns," says Ringle, who worked with Haynes there. "I went from an intern to curatorial assistant to assistant curator and each step of the way Lauren helped me understand what it meant to be a curator and to work with living artists. She also helped me to understand what it means to have a moral and ethical code guiding your curatorial practice, which I personally really appreciate. I actually still rely on Lauren for that same mentorship."


Haynes was at the height of her career in a well-respected museum in the most hip city in the country -- so her move to Crystal Bridges as a curator of contemporary art might come as a surprise to some. But Haynes says that, ultimately, it was the logical next step.

"It was a hard decision. New York is, for all intents and purposes, my home. A lot of my friends are [there]. It's where the job that I loved and the people that I loved to work with are. But I also try to think about: 'How do I advance in the field? And also, how do I do this work that I'm committed to, which is making art more accessible and understandable for people? How do I make sure that people can have an experience like I had and see someone that looks like them working in a museum or see art by someone that looks like them or see people that look like them represented on the walls?'

"Doing [that work] in a place like the Studio Museum is amazing and transformative, but it's also a place where so many people can come in and do that work and do it well."

"I think she thought, 'This really makes sense,'" says Pipkins. "To have the opportunity to work at Crystal Bridges, see the museum grow, take the rings, see The Momentary launch -- professionally, it was an amazing opportunity. I think I was a little shocked that she would want to leave New York City, but, fundamentally, she thinks of herself as a girl from Tennessee -- she has roots not that far away from Northwest Arkansas."

In her research for the position, says Haynes, she became intrigued with Crystal Bridges' stated mission of increasing a diverse viewpoint through its collections and exhibits, a goal they renewed a few years ago.

"One of the most important challenges facing museums at present is the need to foster inclusiveness and achieve diversity," reads a June 21, 2017, post on the museum's blog. "Increasing diversity in the collection itself is an important part of this -- acquiring and exhibiting works by artists of all ethnicities, races, cultural backgrounds and gender identifications so that museum guests from every demographic sector of the country will be able to 'see themselves' on the gallery walls.

"But the importance of diversity goes much deeper than just the artworks on the walls. It is also vital that museums build diversity in their institutional leadership and staff, from the board on down. This is an issue that affects the majority of American museums and is not unknown to Crystal Bridges, whose leadership and board of directors has heretofore been 100% white. Turning their attention from diversity in the collection to diversity in the staff brought that issue into focus."

When Haynes travelled down south to interview for the position, she says, she found these words -- and the mission -- go much deeper than just a P.R. message.

"I interviewed with people across departments, because, as a curator, there's no work you can do at a museum without colleagues -- it's a collaborative field," she says. Plans for The Momentary -- the sister contemporary art institution of Crystal Bridges -- had recently been announced, though it was yet to be named, so Haynes interviewed with staff from both organizations. "I asked them questions like, 'Why are you here? What are you most excited about at Crystal Bridges?' Across the board, everyone was talking about access -- but not in the same way. Access to someone in the education department was different [than for] someone in collections management [or] someone in curatorial. But for me, that was such a consistent message, over and over again. I felt like, 'OK. This is a place that really means what it says when it says, 'We are trying to change what museums look like, what the field looks like, what collections look like,' and so that was what was really exciting.'"

For the Tennessee-born Haynes, moving to relatively small-town Arkansas didn't scare her, and she liked the idea of being part of an organization that helped prove that people don't need to be on the coasts or in a large urban center to make a splash in the world of art.

"There are people all across this country doing amazing work in small institutions and big institutions and also institutions that maybe people don't even know what that impact is yet," she notes. "How do we make our field more inclusive and diverse, not just on the walls, but in terms of who is working in the museum's office? This is something that's happening across the field. So I think it's less about where people are and really more about what the commitment of the institution to really help make this change."

"A good curator is able to recognize the bounty where they are, and celebrate it, while also thinking about how they can generate conversations about art across the country," says Selman.

Present to Future

Haynes started at Crystal Bridges in 2016, and, since then, she's been co-curator on high-profile exhibits like 2018's "The Beyond: Georgia O'Keefe and Contemporary Art" and last year's "Crystals in Art: Ancient to Today." With the opening of The Momentary last week, her curatorial duties have officially doubled; her first project for the new space was to co-curate "State of the Art 2020," with pieces on show in both museums over the next few months.

"I've so enjoyed working with Lauren," says Mindy Besaw, curator of American Art at Crystal Bridges. "She's brought a new perspective and new artists to my attention that I didn't previously know. She's an excellent person to run ideas through -- she can certainly see through lines and connections, and I really enjoy that about her."

"It's a joy to work alongside Lauren because of her dry sense of humor and a quick wit," says Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer. "Growing up in rural Tennessee, spending considerable time in Atlanta, working in Harlem and ultimately landing in Northwest Arkansas, she brings rich experiences and new perspective that helps stretch our understanding and expand the narrative of what it means to be American."

Pipkins came to visit Haynes in the fall of 2018, after Haynes had been at Crystal Bridges for about two years.

"It wasn't surprising to me to hear people saying, 'She's amazing,'" Pipkins says. "In fact, I thought, 'This is like having access to a celebrity.' That's what it felt like. It was really great to see her building this world, professionally and personally. It was great to see her making Northwest Arkansas home. She's just comfortable in her own skin, and she's willing to roll up her sleeves and help -- that's disarming. People really open up to her."

Besaw says that Haynes' strengths at Crystal Bridges are many.

"Lauren is a voice of accountability. She's holding us to what we say. If we say this is about access, about expanding the museum to visitors of all backgrounds and all walks of life, yet [we] bring in exhibits that are not reflective of those stated goals, Lauren is one of the first to say, 'Let's hold ourselves accountable to our goals and stated mission.'"

Haynes is also generous with her contacts from her years of experience in the field.

"It may be an introduction to an artist, it may be an introduction to a collector, it may be introducing us to a museum or a show," Besaw says, noting that the artist Jordan Casteel is a perfect example. While curating an exhibition, Besaw says she was missing "a celebratory positive representation of a black man. Lauren said, 'You may want to look into Jordan Casteel,' an artist she knew from her time at the Studio Museum who is getting a lot of national press and good attention. She was doing these really powerful paintings of American young men, and we were able to borrow a painting of hers from a collector in Chicago through these connections of Lauren. She understood the direction we were trying to go, and she was able to see the pieces that were missing and help us get there. I appreciate that generosity of spirit and patience."

Haynes' immediate future will be hectic, as she and the rest of the team continue to make The Momentary a living, breathing art space. Haynes says opening the building to museumgoers is the only way to find out what the space will really mean over the next years. When Haynes talks about the future -- busy schedule and all -- she sounds excited, not trepidatious.

"It's funny to think about, with The Momentary just opening, but next year Crystal Bridges will be 10 years old," she says. "So what does that mean? What does it mean to be an institution at that moment and look forward to see what's next?

"And with the artist residency program continuing to develop, I'm really excited about not only bringing in artists from other places, but also seeing what that means for the artists that are living and working here and the different conversations that's going to bring. What is that going to allow us to really do as this region continues to think about how we make this a place where artists can afford to live and work? I'm really excited to see what that looks like and what that means for The Momentary and Crystal Bridges. Big things [are in the future]. Ambitious things, and, really, [I'm] just very open to what is possible."

NAN Profiles on 03/01/2020

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