THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Ann Sinfield
It’s been a busy few years for large initiatives within the art museum field around efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion—three key words, and a cry for change, from the title of the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM’s) 2017 annual conference. This January alone saw three major moves addressing these issues. They 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.
These initiatives are all good steps by the museum community and private funders who clearly got the message. However, the recent release of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018 shows only slight progress in meeting those three aforementioned goals. Significantly more progress needs to be achieved.
The efforts are welcome signs. Let’s review a few of them from a museum worker’s perspective.
To begin, 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; 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 based on the people who lead them and who work in them. Of course, funding and external efforts impact museums as well. For example, women have finally been hired to lead two national museums: the National Gallery of Art (https://www.nga.gov/press/2018/kaywin-feldman.html), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (http://americanhistory.si.edu/welcome-new-director). 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 has yet to be seen.
Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey (https://mellon.org/programs/arts-and-cultural-heritage/art-history-conservation-museums/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:
Two follow-ups to the 2015 survey were just 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:
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. Yet even 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. For any museum leader to be considered well-prepared without receiving training on basic DEI concepts is not only short-sighted, it is dangerous. As such, a refusal facilitates a continued 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 (https://www.museumaction.org/) 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 effect 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 support over 726,000 jobs (https://www.imls.gov/news-events/news-releases/government-doubles-official-estimate-there-are-35000-active-museums-us). 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” (https://www.aam-us.org/2018/12/17/decolonisation-we-arent-going-to-save-you/). 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.
Ann Sinfield is an independent curator and writer, and was formerly the Exhibitions Manager at the Chazen Museum of Art.
Race and Ethnicity (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
From the 2015 Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey
Intellectual Leadership by Race/Ethnicity (Repeat AAMD Participants Only)
From the Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018
Make a MONTHLY DONATION or a ONE-TIME DONATION via PayPal
SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal