The following article was published (with some revisions) in the March/April 2019 issue of the New Art Examiner.
It’s been a busy few years for large initiatives within the art museum field around efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. This January alone saw three major announcements addressing these issues. The efforts included survey reports, substantially funded programs, and collaborative projects with resource toolkits. There has also been important social media participation and less formal group efforts from within museums and other supportive communities.
The efforts are welcome signs. Let’s review a few of these efforts from a museum worker’s perspective. It is important for museum insiders to consider the potential impacts of these efforts, as they are related to two recent realizations within the field: first, museums are not inherently equitable places and, second, museums need to reconsider their practices if they want to survive within dramatically changing
funding structures and cultural demographics.
My focus here is on hiring practices because, ultimately, museums change or remain the same because of the people who lead them and who work in them. Funding and external efforts of course impact museums, for example, women have finally been hired to lead two national museums: the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. These hires happened for many reasons, including perhaps the attention brought by #MeToo, but ultimately it was insiders who made decisions. Are these hires inspiring for the field? Of course! Will they impact the fight for equity within museums in this country? This is yet to be seen.
Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the 2015 Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. This project put numbers to what many museum workers already knew: with 84% of museum leadership positions occupied by “White (Not Hispanic)” individuals, the stark reality is that there are very few people of color in influential positions at this country’s art museums. The more important finding of the survey related not to the current situation, but to potential opportunities for change. The data portrayed a depressing future, with consistently low numbers of people of color stretching across all generations of museum staffing. The result? There was no large, developing cohort of emerging museum leaders of color. The numbers were the same in the younger and older generations.
In response to the demoralizing news of the 2015 Mellon survey, some large funders and professional organizations stepped up to partner on a variety of attempts to change the course of the #MuseumsSoWhite leviathan:
- In November of 2017 the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative announced its intention to provide $6 million over 3 years to “support innovative strategies and programs to advance diversity” across the field. Funded by the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, the projects are focused mostly on educational and professional development efforts, and include internships, fellowships, and youth leadership programs at 20 museums across the country.
- In July of 2018 the Association of Art Museum Directors announced the AAMD College Students from Underrepresented Communities Internship. This is a pilot program intending to “engage undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds and nurture their career opportunities in the art museum field.” With support from the NEA and AAMD, the program will offer paid, project-based internships during the summer of 2019. Including mentoring and attendance at professional conferences, the interns will work in exhibitions, evaluation, programming, communications, curatorial, and outreach at 10 academic and municipal museums. The only Midwestern museum awarded an internship happens to be my former employer, the Chazen Museum of Art, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- Announced on January 15, 2019, the American Alliance of Museums’ National Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion Initiative will provide $4 million in grants from three foundations (the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Alice L. Walton Foundation, and Ford Foundation) to “provide the framework, training, and resources for museum leaders to build inclusive cultures within their institutions that more accurately reflect the communities they serve.” Along with offering the usual AAM standards, sample documents, and case studies, the initiative will also provide support to 50 museums for “the development and implementation of sustainable inclusion plans.” Interestingly, also promised is a new tool to connect interested individuals with boards who are expanding their pool of talent.
Two follow-ups to the 2015 survey were also released in January of 2019 by the Mellon Foundation. The first is a series of case studies that demonstrate successful diversity efforts; the second is a 2018 update to the initial survey:
- Intended to showcase institutions that “have been successful in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” Case Studies in Museum Diversity, by the cultural sector consultant Ithaka S+R, in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors, provides an in-depth consideration of 8 different museums. Based on staff and constituent interviews, observations, and additional outside research, the findings are individualized, but they are also more generally useful. Two notable examples in the report are the MCA Chicago and Spelman College, where efforts to increase collaborations and build curatorial pathways have been developed, prioritized, and most importantly, are receiving funding attention.
- The Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018 is a progress report that follows up and expands upon the 2015 effort. Although there is much excitement about the changes after only a couple of years, I see the results as mixed: the field remains majority female, yet directors are still mostly male; educators are now 26% people of color and mostly women at all levels of responsibility; people of color have been hired at an increased rate, from 26% in 2015 to 35% in 2018; and although museum staff have become slightly more racially and ethnically diverse—the numbers of people of color increasing by 4% overall, and the number of African American curators doubled, for example—museum leadership, at 88%, is still very white.
These partnership efforts by big funders and professional organizations are significant, because it is clear that knowing about the demographic disparities does not always translate into action. When major funders in the humanities are devoting resources to making change, I am stunned by how long it takes for associated organizations to get the message. For example, a well-known museum leadership training program offers, according to their website, executive education “for the next generation of museum leaders,” but fails to address diversity, inclusion and equity in its curriculum. To provide leadership training that lacks basic DEI concepts is not only short-sighted, it is dangerous. This is an omission that demonstrates a continued willful ignorance of the museum field’s colonial beginnings.
Beyond the data, the inherent inequities in museums are dramatically demonstrated by more localized efforts to making museums responsive to current events. Related to the move to decolonize museums, social media engagements like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral are making the field conscious of its histories and roles. MASS Action is a collaborative project of museum staff (or “museum practitioners” as described on the website) who seek “to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices.” Some of the questions the project pursues include the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting communities, how to align the museum’s internal practices and their public practice, and considerations of how the museum can become a site for social action. It is important to note that this movement is not originating within museum leadership or funders: it is staff and people without much power who are joining together to redefine what their museums do.
Will the recent collaborations between professional organizations and big money affect much change? The 10 interns, 20 museum programs, and 50 museum boards that are seeded with these investments will hopefully see some improvement, and, optimistically, there will be positive, larger impacts as these seeds take root—the 2018 survey already demonstrates some progress. But, for perspective, art museums make up only 4.5% of the over 35,000 museums in the US that employ over 726,000 people. If museums are unable to make their hiring practices more responsive without relying on substantial help from big funders, it’s not clear how leadership, programming, collections, and exhibitions will ever become more inclusive. There is simply not enough philanthropy to support change on such a scale.
Why are museums waiting for big funders to lead the way? Puawai Cairns, Head of the taonga Māori collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, has written, it’s like “throwing fertiliser at our feet–we can grow or we can stand still and wallow in sh*t.” How long will museums stand in place, depending on generous funders to motivate change? Funding creates opportunity, certainly, but it will take more than money to secure sustained movement. Lasting transformations in diversity, equity and inclusion require clear priorities that stretch into all areas of practice. Make it part of the mission, and work to make it happen.