In the late 1980s, Antoinette Wright combined her study of business management with an interest in history and the arts to become one of the few African American museum administrators. By 1990, she was able to combine her museum work with a deep commitment to preserving the history and accomplishments of her own people as deputy director of Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History. In 1997, she became president and chief executive officer of the museum, a position from which she would guide the institution through an exciting period of expansion and growth.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1950s, Wright grew up on the city's South Side where her family operated a shop called Her Vel's Unlimited Ceramics, Arts, and Crafts. Working in the family business, Wright began to develop a lifelong interest in art, mythology, and history. She also loved math and earned extra money as an algebra tutor in high school.
Wright attended both DePaul University and Mundelein College in Chicago, earning her bachelor's degree in business administration from Mundelein in 1989. During the mid-1980s, she worked at an accounting firm that had close ties with both the civil rights organization Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), and with the office of Harold Washington, who, in 1983, had become the first African American mayor of Chicago.
Wright continued her studies at the Kellogg School of Nonprofit Management at Chicago's Northwestern University. She was awarded an Arts Administration Fellowship by Arts Midwest, a Minneapolis-based organization whose purpose is to support artists and the arts in communities throughout the Midwestern states. Arts Midwest's Arts Administration Fellowship is a scholarship program that provides grants for study and internship programs with the goal of encouraging people of color to enter the field of art and museum administration.
While an Arts Administration Fellow, Wright began learning the fundamentals of museum management by working at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, both in Ohio. In 1990, she was hired as deputy director of the DuSable Museum of African American History, where she brought her management skills to the nation's oldest institution for the preservation and study of black history.
The DuSable Museum was founded in 1961, as the American civil rights movement was introducing a new pride in black identity and an interest in African American history. A group of artists and educators in Chicago established the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art in a former boarding house on the city's South Side. In 1968, the name of the museum was changed to honor Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, a mixed race explorer who had been the first permanent settler in the area that would become the city of Chicago. Born in Haiti, DuSable had been the son of a white French father and a black Haitian mother, and the administrators of the museum wished to acknowledge their city's African roots. In 1971, the museum achieved its first expansion when the Chicago park department donated an unused building in the city's Washington Park for use by the DuSable.
Antoinette Wright worked as deputy director of the DuSable Museum for three years, then left to take a job with the Donors Forum of Chicago. The Donors Forum is a nonprofit group that aims to connect grantmaking organizations and individual donors with advisors. The goal of the forum is to promote diversity by helping those who wish to donate money direct grants towards the communities that need them the most. Wright directed the Forum's financial operations and coordinated the organization's membership from 1993 through 1997. During that time, she developed her management skills and her business vision by supervising the handling of a $45.9 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge Grant, a five-year matching grant which had been awarded to the Chicago public school system.
In 1997, Wright returned to the DuSable Museum, this time to take the job of president and chief executive officer. The museum was in somewhat unstable financial condition, and Wright devoted her skills and energy to improving the business side of the institution. "We pulled in the reins," she told Chicago magazine interviewer Shia Kapos in February 2006, describing how, under her leadership, the museum streamlined its operations and increased fundraising. In fewer than 10 years, the museum had doubled its annual budget.
Part of Wright's leadership philosophy for the DuSable Museum has included bringing the community into closer contact with the museum by organizing large fundraising events that invited citizen participation, such as the Annual Arts and Crafts Festival. She has also helped initiate and plan large public events that dramatize the importance of African American history, such as a celebration to welcome the Freedom Schooner Amistad to Chicago's Navy Pier in 2003. The Freedom Schooner is a recreation of the famous slave ship that was the scene of a historic slave rebellion in 1839. Wright has also developed partnerships with other organizations and businesses to promote black history awareness, such as an African American Inventors calendar published by the museum in conjunction with Chandler-White Publishing. In 2005, Wright began to guide the DuSable through its most ambitious venture yet—a $25 million expansion project to enlarge and develop the museum. The new, expanded DuSable Museum is expected to be complete in 2007.
In 2003, an event occurred that brought tremendous satisfaction to those, like Antoinette Wright, who have worked to emphasize the importance of African American history. That year, Congress authorized the construction of a National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be built on the national mall in Washington, D.C., Wright spoke with Danielle Dawkins on the Black College View Web site about the importance of the new museum, which is scheduled for completion in 2013:
"When the DuSable Museum was founded, 45 years ago, we were the first and only museum telling the stories of African-Americans. Now, there are more than 100 African-American history museums around the country. The more our stories are told, the longer they will stay alive…. There is an African Proverb, which states, ‘Until the lion writes his own story, the tale will always glorify the hunter.’"
At a Glance …
Born Antoinette D. Wright in 195? in Chicago, IL; Education: Mundelein College, BA, business administration, 1989.
DuSable Museum of African American History, deputy director, 1990-93; Donors Forum of Chicago, director of finance and administration, 1993-97; DuSable Museum of African American History, president and chief executive officer, 2005-.
Association of African American Museums, board of directors; After School Matters, board of directors; Economic Club; American Association of Museums; Illinois Association of Museum.
Phenomenal Woman Award, 2004.
Office—DuSable Museum, 740 E 56th Pl, Chicago, IL 60637.
Ebony, February 2005, p. 12.
Jet, October 1, 2001, p. 24; January 13, 2003, p. 20; August 18, 2003, p. 32.
Chicago, February 2006, p. 2.
Chicago Defender, July 15, 2003, p. 9; March 10, 2004, p. 15.
Chicago Weekend, October 10, 2002, p. 3.
Westside Gazette (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), December 31, 2003, p. 6B.
"African-American History at the Smithsonian," Black College View,http://media.www.blackcollegeview.com/media/storage/paper928/news/2006/01/30/NationalAndInternational/AfricanAmerican.History.At.The.Smithsonian-2473286.shtml (January 26, 2007).
"Antoinette D. Wright," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (March 20, 2007).
DuSable Museum of African American History,www.dusablemuseum.org/ (January 26, 2007).
"Antoinette Wright." Women's Networking Community,www.womensnetworkingcommunity.org/html/2005_dinner_speakers/wright05_bio.htm (January 26, 2007).
"Who's Who in Cultural Institutions," Chicago Business, http://chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/article.pl?portal_id=155&page_id=1784 (January 26, 2007).
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