By Michelle Geiger

A new endowment has been established at Oglethorpe University to support students interested in museum studies. The Ten10 Fund for Museum Leadership will provide stipends to assist students working alongside Oglethorpe University Museum of Art (OUMA) leadership or visual arts Artists in Residence.

Students will be selected among those pursuing museum studies, prioritizing those with diverse backgrounds and experiences currently underrepresented in museum leadership roles.

Ellen Kierr Stein, a patron of OUMA and a member of its advisory board since 2020, established this new endowed fund. The first internship recipient will be selected for the fall 2023 semester.

“My interest in the visual arts started when I was a sophomore in college,” she says. “During the first 10 minutes of my first art history class, I felt as if someone had just given me a new language. I could learn by looking.”

Originally from New Orleans, Stein attended Smith College, where she majored in art history.

“Flip the calendar forward 50 years, when I was a member of the OUMA Advisory Board. During one of our meetings, Museum Director Elizabeth Peterson Jennings and Curator of Collections John Daniel Tilford said they were teaching classes to prepare students for careers in museum work,” she recalls. “It was a ‘What if?’ moment for me. What if I were a college student with the opportunity to get a degree in museum studies?”

The Ten10 Fund is, to Stein, a delayed fulfillment of that possibility.

“I can facilitate this opportunity for other students — people whom I don’t even know but who will know that I support them in their choices.”

A family imprint

In building a patronage relationship with OUMA, Stein has previously selected artwork and antiques inherited from her parents to donate to the museum’s permanent collection in their honor. But recently she decided to make a different kind of gift, one that would create an internship fund to benefit individual students during their coursework.

“Donating works to OUMA is important to help populate its collection, but displaying and storing art is ultimately a function of linear space and square footage. It’s a process of division,” she says. “However, donating funding to individual students or programming is a multiplication factor. The more funds available, the wider the possibilities and broader the impact.”

A central piece in her parents’ collection of 20th century art was a painting by the French Vietnamese artist Vu Cao Dam, one of her mother’s favorite artists. Although the purchase of this painting was for aesthetic reasons, the work of Vu Cao Dam has appreciated considerably in recent years. Through the 2023 sale of this painting, Stein was able to establish the Ten10 Fund. (The name is a creative nod to the street number of her parents’ home.)

Ellen Stein with the Vu Cao Dam work that funded a new endowment at Oglethorpe University.

Ellen Stein with the Vu Cao Dam work that funded a new endowment at Oglethorpe University.

“Although the Ten10 Fund was executed by my signature on a document, it’s actually based on the imprint of my parents. My father was a trial attorney. My mother was a social worker,” she says. “Their interests were grounded in very different skill sets, but both careers involved advocating for the individual.” Even though her parents had no direct connection to Oglethorpe University, Stein sees this gift as an extension of their commitment to helping people in need.

Diversifying the field

The fund will help Oglethorpe and OUMA aid students with varying backgrounds and experiences interested in visual arts and museum curation, impacting a new generation of museum leaders at an important time.

The 2022 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey by the Mellon Foundation finds that 73 percent of museum curatorial leadership positions are held by individuals identifying as White, with persons of color making up only 27 percent of these roles.

Other studies have found a significant gender gap at top museums and a lack of female voices and voices of people of color represented within museum collections.

“One of OUMA’s guiding principles is a comprehensive inclusiveness we call ‘Art for All’ which inspires our mission, programming, community engagement, accessibility, exhibitions, teaching, and scholarship. At the center of all of this are OU students; elevating the voices of our diverse and traditionally marginalized student populations is crucial to this commitment,” said OUMA Director Elizabeth Peterson Jennings.

“The works of art selected by future museum curators will directly impact audiences worldwide and can inform a community’s understanding of cultural experiences and perspectives. We have an opportunity at OUMA to help train the next generation of museum curatorial leaders, who will be able to better reflect diversity in their own choices as they influence acquisitions and collections and develop new and interesting exhibitions for communities to explore.”

Student recipients of the Ten10 Fund at Oglethorpe can shadow a trained museum curator and develop mentorship relationships with museum leadership and artists in residence from throughout the region and the nation, better preparing them for career opportunities in this field. Oglethorpe University and OUMA provide a unique combination of a cultural institution within a liberal arts educational setting, where the student body includes 57% persons of color, 34% first-generation students, and a large population of students who are neurodiverse.

“A key to Oglethorpe’s academic focus is the ability not only to educate but also to offer our students hands-on experience. As they pursue their academic interests, it’s important for them to know that professional opportunities will meet them at the end of their academic careers,” says Oglethorpe Provost Kathryn McClymond. “The opportunity for students to pursue the rigorous study of the arts at Oglethorpe and be immersed in OUMA’s work is transformational and allows students to grow academically and professionally.”

Stein also sees the benefit in financially supporting Oglethorpe students’ internship work.

“It’s a simple but critical distinction,” she says. “Students can feel the impact of receiving payment for their efforts. They can understand the financial merit of their skills, their worth.”

Her message to the future holders of this internship is this: “You are valued.”

Authentic Impact

Stein saw the benefit of providing her gift as an endowed fund, which will impact Oglethorpe students interested in museum studies in perpetuity. She realized that her personal, specific interests could connect to Oglethorpe’s institutional, academic needs.

Ellen Stein in her home studio, where she develops her own original works.

Ellen Stein in her home studio, where she develops her own original works.

“I can affect somebody’s life in a big way with a relatively modest investment,” she says. As a university, Oglethorpe has broad impact on a new generation, and the effect of her funding will be responsibly sustained.

“What we do with our lives is a self-portrait,” she says. “What more could we want than to be given a foundation for self-direction and authenticity.”

Stein hopes others will take the opportunity to think about the range of possibilities that their philanthropic impact could have and to find meaningful areas that reflect their own priorities. Visual arts gave Stein the structure, focus, and community to become who she is today. Through this endowment, the Ten10 Fund will give Oglethorpe University students the opportunity to develop and share their own language of art.