The Journey Of An Artist

How Kimberly Camp came to lead the world's largest African American museum

Kimberly Camp sold her first painting when she was 12. In the years that followed, she became an internationally recognized artist, and now at 40, she stands at the helm of the country’s second-oldest and world’s largest African American museum.

In 1994, when Camp became president of Detroit’s Museum of African American History, the museum was fighting a tarnished image; its funding and community links were down; and it was preparing to move into a new building four times larger. “Our membership list was on index cards in a shoe box,” recalls Camp. In three years, Camp has increased development revenue by over 1,000%, doubled city allocations and attracted new visitors, resulting in a 300% increase in museum attendance.

At her very first board meeting, Camp insisted on computerizing the office. She initiated corporate membership and named-gift programs, and sweetened the pot for the members, giving them more value for their money. She hired a staff of non-museum people so that new ideas could come to the forefront and changed the voice and approach of exhibitions, challenging visitors to have an “experience” rather than a “viewing.”

Her annual operational budget, once $1.2 million, now tops $6.7 million. She has increased staff from 15 to 67, and the museum store, which had a history of losing money, will break $1 million in sales this year. Her exhibits win numerous accolades, and taking them on the road is not far off Her artful eye for business emerged in 1982, when Camp stitched together some rags to create a doll named Kimkins. Soon Kimkins was grabbing headlines in Essence and National Geographic Work and selling at a rate of 2,500 per year.

Most museum administrators have a business background, charting their careers from assistant curator to director to garner salaries that hover in the six-digit range. But it is the artistic vision that Camp brings to the table that differentiates her from the rest. “There aren’t many of us,” remarks Camp. “As an artist, I’m not linear or literal, but opportunity-oriented. I’m willing to take risks.” The Camden, New Jersey, native graduated from high school at 16 and went on to earn a B.A. in studio arts and art history from the University of Pittsburgh. Returning to her hometown in 1984, she took a job as a technical illustrator and jumped into the local arts scene to found an antigraffiti program that became an acclaimed murals project.

Realizing her knack for business was as good as her knack for art, Camp enrolled in Drexel University’s arts administration master’s program. After a stint with the Pennsylvania Council of Arts, where Camp quadrupled annual awards funding, she took the job she swore she’d never take–working for a museum.

In 1989, the Smithsonian was starting its Experimental Gallery. Although she believed “museums were staid and boring,” Camp applied at the urging of a friend and was chosen as the founding director. Among the finalists, she was the only artist and the only one without museum experience. “We did things others museums

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