Cultural policy USA

America is changing—but are its art museums?

Most major institutions are still run by white people, are supported by them, and tailor their exhibitions to suit them

Nobody seems to have any meaningful statistics. But you do not have to look at major US art museums for long to realise that most of the senior management is white, unlike staff at comparable levels in corporations, universities and government offices. When is this going to change? Those leading efforts to diversify museums say the economic reality of who pays to support institutions has not evolved sufficiently to require any lasting push for change. But American demographics are shifting swiftly. US minority groups will become the majority in a few decades. And art museums will have to diversify to survive.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) raised the issue back in the 1990s, but “sufficient progress” has not been made, says Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) at the Smithsonian Institution. Before joining the NMAfA, as chairman of the board of an institute on diversity in Greensboro, North Carolina which she founded, Dr Cole advised major US corporations on improving diversity of employees. “There is a moral imperative for making a workforce diverse,” she says, “but major corporations also now see that it is the smart thing to do. You cannot compete well in a highly diverse, global market if your workforce represents only a thin slice of those who live in the world.” Museums need more people of colour throughout the ranks, including “in the top positions” and not just at the level of security guards, she says. Major resources should be put into “attracting young people of colour away from more lucrative competitive fields” into museum leadership positions, she adds. Museums should also diversify what they present to the public, she says, to change the focus from “white, western” content which is often produced by male artists. “If museums are to be vibrant and sustainable,” she says, “they cannot present the work of only a select group of people.”

Ford Bell, President of the American Association of Museums, agrees. “The big challenge is going to be how museums deal with the increasingly diverse American public, which could be 30% or more Hispanic by 2050. If you go to a museum, and don’t see anybody else who looks like you, from visitors to staff, and the boards are not reflecting the community, you may be less likely to come back, or even to go in the first place.” School programmes have fostered museum-going beginning at a young age, he says, but he notes that programmes have been cut because of tight budgets and fuel prices.

Anthony Hirschel, director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has led an AAMD membership committee task force charged with considering how the group might diversify its membership, but also to ask what the organisation can do “so that in the future, some of the largest art museums in the country would be led by people of colour—and it would not be considered remarkable,” Hirschel says. “Few museums would say that their staffs are as diverse as they should be. How can we create a new stream of professionals that is more diverse?”

Some museums have made big efforts, and seen the results. Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, considers diversity “a critical issue” and says “the most important book any museum director should read is the US Census.” Lehman encourages affirmative action in employment, because in his experience at Brooklyn, “no matter how widely a position was advertised, there were always more white applicants than applicants of colour.” Lehman says he is “proud that so many departments at Brooklyn are run by people of colour”. In a diverse urban setting, he says, “the people of your community want to know there is a diverse staff in significant positions” throughout the museum.

Lehman also urges a sustained, pro-active effort in exhibitions, which a diverse staff can help develop. But exhibitions should not be presented to attract diverse audiences “only every few years. The notion, for instance, of presenting African-American programming only in February, which is Black History Month, is ridiculous, and perhaps even counterproductive.” The Brooklyn Museum has developed “one show after another” featuring artists of colour—both “smaller and blockbuster shows. It is that kind of commitment and continuity that our audience comes to rely upon.” In his 12-year tenure, the Brooklyn Museum’s visitor make-up, not counting school children, has risen from about 17% people of colour to about 45%, a percentage which Lehman says probably “has few or no peers in the United States. But that’s not enough. We want to get our audience to fully represent the diversity of Brooklyn and that of New York City.” The Brooklyn’s monthly free “First Saturdays” are “jam-packed” with events to appeal to the area’s African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities.

Similar initiatives have been introduced by Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) since 1999. As well as regular exhibitions and programming, Beal has encouraged first-time visitors to DIA from specific groups to “use it as a place to meet and gather” as part of a programme entitled “Community Connections”. Publicised mainly through word-of-mouth with the help of employees and board members, the initiative targets African-American, Latino, and Arab-American communities and has been a “huge success” says Beal. “At the last opening, we had hundreds of people attending and the museum actually looked like Detroit looks,” he says.

But Beal acknowledges that his efforts to engage local communities are “moving much more slowly than I had ever anticipated.” One challenge is the suspicion with which community leaders can view new initiatives. “I had a conversation very early on with someone from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I gave him my pitch and he said: ‘Why are you doing this?’ They felt like we’d ignored them for over 100 years, so there was a deep suspicion about our motives—they assumed we wanted something from them.”

Beal has presided over the opening of five galleries dedicated to African-American art, four in the modern and contemporary section and one, of 19th-century art, in the American Wing. “The community wants to see itself distinctly defined” within the museum, he says, but one problem is that the artists themselves often do not wish to be “segregated” in this way.

In Houston, Peter Marzio of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH) has just added the third in a series of five permanent Asian art galleries, drawing on strong local support. From the 1980s, beginning with grants from the Wallace Foundation, the museum has tried to become “a place for all people,” including Houston’s growing Asian-American population. The museum’s Asian-American collection “was weak,” Marzio says. “We went to anyone who would listen, in events at hotels and restaurants, and told them our museum is the product of the people who live in Houston. If they wanted to see more Indian, Korean or Chinese art, we told them they had the chance.” The public responded phenomenally, Marzio says; the Korean community raised over $2 million through broad donations to acquire Korean art and help build a permanent gallery. The Indian community held a polo match, and significant donors came forward. “What makes it all happen is that nobody’s been ‘given’ anything” without their input, which avoids creating programmes which the audience might not want, Marzio says. The biggest success has been in Latin American art, Marzio says; Houston’s schools are now 50% Latino. The museum started a Latin American department, hired a curator, and created the International Center for the Arts of the Americas. The project seeks to make primary source material on Latin American art available in translation online, with funding from Latin American supporters and foundations.

Another museum with a Latino community, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), has joined forces with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) to launch a Latino Arts Initiative. Lacma wanted to develop “home-grown exhibitions” of US Latino and Chicano artists, and programming, publications and community relations, says Chon Noriega, the research centre’s director. Lacma appointed a Latina curator of contemporary art (Rita Gonzalez), appointed Noriega as an adjunct curator of Chicano-Latino art, and both contributed to an exhibition of Chicano art in 2008. “It’s important that we are developing the same kind of deeply researched shows that Lacma regularly produces,” Noriega says. Half the population of LA is Latino, Noriega says, but “the last time the museum had organised a large show representing Latino art was in 1975.”

As museums look for a more diverse range of objects to display, the status of single-ethnicity art museums may grow. Eli Aramburo, chair of the advisory board of the Mexican Museum, in San Francisco, says the museum has “served as a catalyst for successful exhibitions of Latin American art at mainstream museums, featuring many of the same artists as are in our permanent collection and specialists from our previous exhibitions.”

Back in Brooklyn Lehman says that if US population changes continue at the current rate then the survival of American museums will depend on their ability to embrace this diversity. If they don’t, “they will be either figuratively or literally out of business.”

More from The Art Newspaper


17 Sep 13
3:31 CET


All of you all have made great points. I am preparing to write my thesis (proposal) on this issue, and I came across this article in research. I believe interest in cultural institutions among minorities are lacked because these places are traditionally associated with and perpetuated by elitist and elitists culture. Many minorities are not exposed to the discipline of art, culture and history so how can they even develop an interest to work in these places or even visit them... Museum leaders need to visit this issue at the root by creating partnerships with ALL school systems, in all neighborhoods, reaching all demographics... THEN we can focus on gaining interest enough to cultivate children's minds into the interest of becoming museum patrons, museum staff, and museum leaders.

7 Feb 11
14:54 CET


While I absolutely support diversity in museum staff and in museum audiences, and applaud this timely article, we look at this subject rather narrowly if it is only based on skin color or ethnicity. Museums are notoriously difficult places to gain a staff position in because one often has to undertake multiple unpaid or poorly paid internships in order to even be considered for an entry level position. The socio-economic barriers to museum participation are as real, and as much a foe of true diversity, as those based on the well-reasoned points in the article and comments above.

23 Feb 10
17:52 CET


I agree with Jessica, I have a BA & MA in Art History and I was the only African American in my undergraduate dept and only 1 of 4 in my masters dept. Very slowly are things changing, but I think part of the reasoning for less people of color in the arts in education programming is part of the requirements involved, which goes back to economics. Plus as the article demonstrates, there are few options when you get out! I am working on a project to get those statistics that is currently not available! I hope to write a follow-up to this article to give the true numbers about the problem.

24 Nov 09
17:25 CET


Another thing...this is not to say that all people of color should or will only specialize in art from their natural countries of origin. There should certainly be a blending or crossing over of race and study. As long as there are interested, diverse students in any given program at any given university the root of the problem may be solved. (Attracting even younger people to the field of art history and snagging their minds while in high school or below is of course necessary as well.)

24 Nov 09
17:4 CET


As an African American female and college grad it is not the hiring process that needs to change but the educational process. I was in an undergraduate Art History program with about 4 people of color, myself and three Latinos, one being male. The rest of the department consisted of wealthy, white females waiting to get married. Additionally, 90% of the classes offered focused on white European subject matter, artists, art work, and at times taught from a narrow minded perspective. Our study abroad options were all in Anglo European countries. Secondary languages encouraged were also from these countries. Also, how many people of color or women for that matter pursue higher education passed a BA. I had one professor that really emphasized females and minorities pushing for higher education beyond undergraduate degrees. There is not enough recognition, encouragement or (hate to bring it up) funding to attract minorities to the field.

29 Oct 09
23:30 CET


This article is very timely with its subject and what I have been commenting on in various art forums in magazines and community pages I have registered for just to address this problem. It is very upsetting as an African American artist to see this unbalanced representation everywhere you look.The real sad thing is that now you see caucasian artist mimicking the urban experience and becomming household names and establishing careers which gives galleries & museums no reason to look for authentic expression comming from people of non-white decent.Why continue to produce art if its value is not valued enough to be shown to the world we live in?I'm sick of it and I'm sure I speak for many who see this problem just as urgent as the golbal economy itself.

28 Oct 09
22:3 CET


It is puzzling to me how anybody could write on this issue without mentioning the Queens Museum of Art. Not only are we on the forefront of this issue, but our staff, our audience ,and our curatorial efforts reflect this. It is in fact almost redundant to talk about "diversity" at the QMA because everything we do comes from thinking in a global way. Even our biennial is conceived as a venue where different voices meet and borrow ideas from each other. The Program I run within the museum is dedicated solely to Adult Immigrant Education and has served more than 10,000 people since its inception. Many of our participants become members or active museum goers, not just to our museum but other institutions as well. I would be more than glad to share more of what we do with you anytime.

28 Oct 09
21:6 CET


This is a very relevant article it could have been longer. Though the DIA, MFAH and other museums now have art from places outside Europe and some outreach to previously ignored communities, the point of the first part of the article seems to be that the staff (and might I say) the board members do not reflect the communities in which they sit. They often do not have staff that is multilingual or diverse. This is a serious problem since African Americans, Asians and Hispanics, as an example, are not recent, all those groups have been in the US for a long time and have been continually ignored by the museum and art industry. And hiring three temporary interns do not count. When those currently in power realize or are forced to change their policies and decisions of who is lucky enough to work in their halls, then you will see a reflection of that in their walls, visitor numbers and coffers.

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