A $4M Grant to Increase Museum Staff Diversity Shines a Light on the Hard, Crucial Task

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As a general issue, few people appear to be opposed to efforts aimed at increasing diversitythat is, including more women, people of color, religious affiliations and ethnicities, with no regard for sexual orientation and physical handicapsin our workplaces, governmental, educational and cultural institutions.

However, change rarely comes without some push-back, and calls for more diversity may bring up hidden (or not so hidden) biases. For instance, on January 22 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an Obama-era decision allowing transgender individuals to serve in the military, and a group called Students for Fair Admissions has brought lawsuits in recent years against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for not being race-neutral in their admissions process, awarding extra points to African-American students (North Carolina) and limiting the number of Asians (Harvard). The courts will decide whether or not well-meaning steps by these educational institutions to increase enrollment of certain groups impinge on the rights of others.

The museum field also has sought to make its own staff more representative of the United States’ increasingly multi-cultural society and, in January, the Washington, D.C.-based American Alliance of Museums, which has more than 4,000 institutional members (including art, history and science museums, as well as aquariums, botanical gardens, historic houses and zoos), announced a national diversity initiative that aims to establish standards for museums of all types across the country. This initiative will include training workshops for leaders of institutions, provide awards to exemplary institutions and “embed” a focus on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion “into the field’s standards and best practices,” said Laura Lott, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance.

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This initiative is being propelled by $4 million in funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alice L. Walton Foundation and the Ford Foundation. It’s the largest grant A.A.M. has received in its 113-year history.

A more diverse leadership is better leadership, Lott told Observer, as institutions and boards of directors “with inclusive cultures will result in stronger performing museumsan increased ability to attract talent as well as visitors, greater innovation, and stronger financial sustainability. If museums are to be relevant to and have the trust and support of the public, they need to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”

She added that museums “tend to mirror society, and they are not alone in needing to diversify their leadership.” Noting that other industries are enacting similar initiatives, she noted, “like all organizations, [museums] must be intentional and proactive if they aim to recruit trustees and staff members from different social networks and backgrounds than they currently have. Otherwise the status quo reinforces itself.”

This isn’t the Alliance’s first crack at promoting diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion among its members. Back in 1991, the organization issued a report titled “Excellence & Equity” that claimed museums “must become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences, but first they should reflect our society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs.) Still, by 2015, a Mellon Foundation demographic study of art museum staff found that 72 percent were non-Hispanic white and that 84 percent of those in top positions were white. “While the results of the 2015 art museum staff demographic survey may seem discouraging, they provide baseline data against which future surveys can be measured, and, one hopes, progress tracked,” that report stated. The current effort by AAM hopes to generate more progress.

Diversity and equity are issues of “social justice,” said Cecile Shellman, a museum inclusion consultant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “redressing the wrongs of society where certain people have long been excluded.” Training the traditional white male higher-ups at museums to be more sensitive to the interests and concerns of an increasingly non-white society helps, “but the cultural product is not as intuitive as it might be were the curator or director a person of color,” for instance. Where small steps toward diversity has been the norm, she sees the need for bolder action.

“We bring our true selves to the museum office every day,” she said, “and for some people, that means bringing with them elitism, xenophobia, racism, classism, homophobia and sexism, or whatever combination there may be.” The current people in power tend to hire their friends and colleagues who tend to have the same backgrounds, creating a power structure that she called “entrenched, whether they realize it or not, and it’s hampering their growth, relevance and authenticity.” She added that “the real question is how to authentically represent and showcase marginalized cultural components in a welcoming, educational, uplifting way.”

Many art museums have attempted to engage with more of the wider culture than has been done previously, for instance, by eliminating entry fees to increase visitorship from less affluent communities, as well as by displaying more artworks by women and by artists who don’t hail from first-world countries. Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold off seven works from its permanent collection, including major pieces by Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, in order to raise money to purchase works by non-white and, particularly, African-American artists.

But initiatives geared toward greater equity, inclusion and accessibility can sometimes fall a little flat when the strides made by museums come off as gestures, and little seems to be done to bring greater diversity to the ranks of those running institutions. Shellman criticized the decision last spring by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its hiring of a white woman, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, as consulting curator of its African art collection, which led to protests at the time. “The Brooklyn Museum has been known to do incredible things with diversity,” she said. “I’m sure that they chose someone who is qualified, but the museum should have chosen a person of color to be curator.”

Shellman’s is one of a growing number of voices that call for new leadership at cultural institutions, which makes them more inclusive of the wider culture. Diversity is not seen as an essential component of most museums, according to Chris Taylor, inclusion officer at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. Museum leadership views its role in a traditional way, “putting on exhibitions, building up a collection, taking care of the collection and fundraising,” he said. “Making the museum more relevant to more people, which requires a more diverse leadership, is not really much on the radar.”

He took issue with the decision by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to site Sam Durant’s installation Scaffold in its sculpture garden in 2017 without first consulting members of the nearby Dakota Native American tribe, who claimed that the artwork made light of the 38 tribesmen who were executedthe largest mass execution in U.S. Historyby hanging in the Minnesota town of Mankato in 1862. (Durant’s work was soon after taken down and removed.) “They should have talked with the Dakota Indians,” he said. “Having diverse leadership helps you to see these thing, while a more homogeneous leadership leads to blind spots.”

A more diverse leadership is better leadership, Taylor said, in that it leads to “better problem-solving, better products in terms of exhibitions and educational programs and new networks of people into the organization.”

Lott noted that making museum leadership more diverse is “not a zero-sum game. There is a place for everyone in supporting and leading our nation’s museums. Museums are looking to add perspectives and agency among those parts of society when/where they have been missingnot to eliminate white men or any other demographic.”

A $4M Grant to Increase Museum Staff Diversity Shines a Light on the Hard, Crucial Task