Patiently Persistent.  Analytical. A Little Bit Stubborn.  

photo by Justin Barr

By Diane Kline

For Renee Franklin, growing up in a small segregated town in Maryland shaped her worldview and her career. She was the only person in her immediate family to go to college—and 20 years ago, she became one of the first African Americans to hold an executive position at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Today, as director of audience development, Franklin encourages non-traditional audiences to visit the museum, especially African Americans.  She is also responsible for co-founding the Friends of African American Art Collectors Circle and, in collaboration with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (St. Louis Metro Alumnae Chapter), leads cultural discovery tours around the world, including to Brazil, Senegal and Morocco.

She has made a mark nationally as a founding member and president of the National Alliance of African American Art, which works to support people of color who staff museums.

Franklin earned a BS from Towson University and an MBA from Webster University. Her only child, Glen, is now 25 years old and finding his own path in life. This, while Franklin’s path has taught her many lessons, which she shares here.

Growing up in a small town, you always represent your family.

I grew up in the tiny town of Easton, Maryland, where everybody knows everybody. My teachers ran into my mother at the grocery store and would tell her what I’d been doing. I learned to carry myself in a way that always brought respect to me and my family. To this day, that has stayed with me.

We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had.

My elementary school was segregated. All the kids were black – the children of doctors, teachers or factory workers – and all the teachers were black.  They knew our parents and they wanted us all to succeed. In fifth grade, when I attended an integrated school, my new teachers didn’t have the same expectations and didn’t set the bar high enough.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

My parents worked in a factory and we had everything we needed. My grandfather owned a bus company, other family members owned apartment buildings or restaurants. If I wanted to do something, I was told, “Let’s figure out a way to do it.” But, on the other side, I will never forget Christmas Day when my mother took me to see “Gone with the Wind.” I didn’t realize we had to walk upstairs at the movie theater because of segregated seating.

You can push me, but if you go too far, I’ll let you know.

I’m a very straightforward person. At work, there was somebody who was threatened and thought I was encroaching on her territory. Eventually, I had enough. I invited her to lunch and said, “We don’t have to get along, but it would be much easier if we collaborate.”  Being upfront took the sting out of our relationship.

To try something new, you have to be made comfortable.

My job is about breaking down barriers for people who may not feel comfortable going to the art museum. They can feel intimidated by the building façade or the labels by the art, or even by what to wear.  But this is true in every aspect of life. People won’t go out of their comfort zone if you don’t help them feel at ease.

There was pressure not to waste my time at college.

I had to be sure not to fail or drop a class during college. The pressure came from how much my education cost, even though I was paying for it through loans. I couldn’t put the burden back on my parents. The previous generations shaped my future, and I knew I had to make it.

I think better by talking things out.

I can be stubborn. If somebody tells me “no,” I will gather a group of people – colleagues, or mentors or friends – and ask, “What am I missing here?” or “How else can I present this?” Timing is so important. And I’ve learned to be patient even though I want the world to change tomorrow. I wish we could click our fingers and get it done