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Representation and diversity: 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.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'America is changing—but are its art museums?'