Deborah Cullen-Morales, New Mellon Foundation Program Officer, on Diversity, Supporting Artists, and Starting a New Career During a Time of Crisis

May 20, 2020

Previously the executive director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Cullen-Morales (Ph.D. '02, Art History) steps into the world of philanthropy with an eye toward addressing historic inequities.

Deborah Cullen-Morales (Photo courtesy of Columbia University School of the Arts)
Deborah Cullen-Morales (Photo courtesy of Columbia University School of the Arts)

Three weeks ago, Deborah Cullen-Morales (Ph.D. ’02, Art History) started her new role as a program officer in the Arts and Cultural Heritage program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Cullen-Morales comes to the position with a deep background in the museum world: She previously served as executive director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts, director and chief curator of The Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, director of curatorial programs at El Museo del Barrio, and curator of the print collection at Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop. 

Throughout her career, Cullen-Morales has focused on diversity and representation, and her numerous exhibitions have featured Latinx, Caribbean, and African American artists. She recently spoke about the lasting impact of her Graduate Center experiences and network, the importance of supporting artists, and the challenges of starting a new job — and a new phase of her career — in the middle of an unfolding global heath and economic crisis:

The Graduate Center: Could you say a little about how Mellon and you, in your new role, are responding to the tremendous need caused by the pandemic?

Cullen-Morales: I was particularly motivated to work at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at this exact moment; in a way, we can say that the crisis urged me toward it. I had been considering potential jobs, and had long admired the Mellon’s role as the largest national funder of arts and culture. I was attracted to be a part of that work, and I particularly excited about [Mellon President] Elizabeth Alexander’s priorities, as well as her choice of Emil Kang [program director for Arts and Cultural Heritage]. 

However, it was watching this crisis begin to unfold, and tracking the dire need of our artists, and our arts and cultural organizations from the sidelines, that made me really want to join forces and work in philanthropy for the first time in my life. I have always worked for small- to medium-sized organizations that prioritized community-relevant work, and I have tried to center less-told histories, and I’ve tried to bring more voices to the table. I know firsthand the devastation this pandemic is having. I am keenly aware of how precarious so many artists, art workers, and arts organizations are, especially those who do some of the most important, cutting-edge work. I wanted to be a part of the helping. I wanted to support any re-imagining, re-setting, re-thinking …

GC: Could you discuss how your role will relate to the Mellon Foundation’s goal to “partner with arts organizations and artists that are increasingly pursuing work centered around questions of equity, representation, and social conscience”? 

Cullen-Morales: I’m eager to help shape the evolving work of the foundation in the arts in ways that address historic inequities. In the arts, there was a lot of conversation about addressing imbalances of representation and power before the pandemic, but now these questions are even more urgent. For example, there had been a lot of discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but change was very slow. Now we need to see this commitment in action: Are decisions being made that reflect these values as central tenants? To paraphrase Ghandi: Greatness is measured by how the most vulnerable among us are treated. This could be a moment to re-center and re-commit to equity as a true priority. This could be a moment in which real chances are taken. I encourage that, and I am passionate when I see it.

GC: You focus on Latinx, Caribbean, and African American contemporary art. What drew you to this specialization?  

Cullen-Morales: My Italian and Irish immigrant families were rooted in the formerly industrial port city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and my dad, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service, was active in its union. I moved to New York at age 18, after he passed, to go to school at SVA on a full scholarship in the early 1980s. So I grew up in a thriving and mixed urban center, in a working-class family.

Shortly, I became an intern for Robert Blackburn at his Printmaking Workshop. Bob, a Jamaican American artist who grew up in the Harlem Renaissance, created what Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell called “the pluralistic community” by founding a globally welcoming workshop in 1948. He was a force, and my training with him (as a person, as an administrator, and as an art historian) was profound. He was a true humanist. I began to understand access, power, and history: what’s memorialized, and all that is not. I became interested in insertions and complications to any singular narrative: the idea of “histories.” 

I was so privileged to be able to continue this kind of work under Susana Torruella Leval and then Julián Zugazagoitia at El Museo del Barrio. Eventually, I was able to take on leadership roles at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery and The Bronx Museum.

GC: Was the time you spent at The Graduate Center helpful in pursuing your interests in these areas of art and the issues of diversity and representation, and in developing your career?

Cullen-Morales: The Graduate Center was the perfect fit for me. I was able to work, afford school, and continue through my Ph.D. And so many of my classmates there were already working, like I was, and so many remain colleagues in closely related fields today: Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Yasmin Ramirez, Claudia Calirman, James Wechsler, and Alejandro Anreus, to name just a few. While there, I also met and shared a most important connection to Lise Patt (who recently and tragically passed away). Lise was working on the urgency of the AIDS pandemic with colleagues in California, and ideas of the memorial through time. Through her, and along with another dear Graduate Center colleague, Dan Walkup, we got involved as she founded a nonprofit in Los Angeles, The Institute of Cultural Inquiry. I am still involved there, with a whole new group of artists and thinkers, today. So I can speak about classes, and great professors who I’ve stayed in touch with, and other resources, but really the richness for me at The Graduate Center, and its greatest resource, was the diversity of students that it drew in, enabled to study, cross-pollinated, and allowed a platform from which to excel.

GC: This is a tough time for people working in the arts and museum world. What advice do you have for Ph.D. students and graduates who are launching their careers? 

Cullen-Morales: It’s going to be a tough time, but we’ve seen these cycles before. The pendulum will swing again. I’ve always suggested that people get a broad range of experiences, and now more than ever. I recommend people open their hearts and minds to new possibilities. There are many things that may be needed now, in this time of crisis, that are valuable and translatable skills: work in education, programing, communications, community organizing. Any kind of nonprofit work could offer good and relatable experience for the future. I recommend people expand their horizons. I never imagined that I would turn to the philanthropic side; it’s new to me, but I am stretching and learning in a very stimulating and rewarding way. We need to listen carefully to where the Universe brings us. I have learned to trust her!