Since the inauguration of Donald Trump and the subsequent rise of a resistance movement, it has become clear that museums and other cultural institutions are making great strides toward equity and inclusion. The field has turned its attention to identifying not only the economic value of museums but also the social value museums can extend into their communities. From MOMA hanging artworks by artists from countries included in the Immigration Ban to the J20 Art Strike where museums across the country offered pay-what-you-can admission museums are supporting exhibitions and installations that are explicitly activist in intent. On Inauguration Day, the Brooklyn Museum staged a complete reading of Langston Hughes’ 1935 poem “Let America Be American Again,” showing people employed in the arts, culture, science, and educational realms are willing to take a stand against repressive policies. This election has catapulted the conversation in museums about community and inclusivity to the forefront, as institutions strive to reflect and support changing views in an ever-changing world.
In the past, museums and non-profits have interpreted their responsibilities to inclusivity as limited to only one area of museum practice such as hiring or exhibitions, or restricted to a single issue such as race or gender, with a general disregard for the interconnections and tensions between each of these areas. Moreover, the solutions we in the field are almost always talking about are small changes, minute pivots that are intended to solve what are actually large, institutional or in some cases societal problems. Organizational inertia also contributes to internal resistance to change, big or small. In these situations, museums have to realize and reconcile the truths summed up by Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” These problems are systemic and baked into the foundation of not only the museum, but society at large as well.
That is, institutions born from a colonialist paradigm designed to elevate the experiences and accomplishments of white men will not be easily altered. There is too much money and power at stake, and the problems are large and complex. To solve these problems, museums and other cultural institutions continue to ask the wrong questions. We continue to stand in the same place we always have and ask people to feel included just because we asked. We have to stand somewhere else entirely, ask our community what they want, and be prepared for answers we might not like. Museums must make a foundational shift toward radical adherence to non-negotiable values, particularly when it comes to inclusion and equity, if we want to play a significant role in the future of this country.
Museums and non-profits are regularly held hostage by their funding sources making them highly risk-averse institutions. Prospects that with the proposed elimination of the federal arts and humanities funding will only become more difficult. Boards and executive leadership are afraid to take chances and instead rehash the same hiring practices, exhibitions schedules, and education/outreach plans they have been using for decades; remaking themselves over and over again in their own image. Race and gender disparities, particularly on boards and in executive leadership, consciously or not impact the decisions that steer our largest museums and therefore dictate what is seen, what stories are being told, and who will be welcomed. Like our political leaders, museum leaders play a crucial role in communicating a clear vision about what the organization will become. Museums lean on their missions and core values when being asked about their social benefit, whether they back these up with practice is another story.
For better or for worse, each choice an organization makes is a statement about what it values. From budgets to hiring to board composition to collections policies—all are implicit statements about your institution’s core values. To this end, if someone cannot guess your mission or anything about your values just by looking at your budgets, then how are you showing that you value these things? The importance you place on engaging with your community in a meaningful way speaks volumes about how much your institution values community and education. The way you divide jobs into a host of part-time positions or internships to avoid paying full salaries or benefits says explicitly how much you value your employees. This signals to your community that only young, able bodied people with no children or preexisting health conditions need apply because they certainly won’t get the healthcare benefits that they soon will also be unable to get on the marketplace.
It is frankly too common to find beautiful utopian values on the forefront of a museum website while employees are struggling to behind the scenes. As a field, we will never be able to address equity, inclusion, and diversity if we do not also discuss salary equity, educational barriers, and internship opportunities. The field needs to recognize that professionalizing the field means that museum employees (including interns) are people with bills to pay, not volunteers with other sources of income. To focus on employees who do not need the money means you are specifically narrowing your point of view to wealthy, white people. Organizations will never be able to diversify their staffs if jobs are best suited to employees with little or no graduate school debt and a well-off partner or family who can support them and provide benefits. Without diversifying staff, there is very little hope of diversifying your audience or your daily museum offerings.
These values and biases come from executive leadership and flow through every department in the organization. In order to effect change, museums should focus on developing diverse leaders with good management skills. Developing leadership skills should be a primary function of line managers, not an afterthought. Waiting until someone is deputy director to offer leadership education opportunities does not allow the employee or the organization to reach its full potential. This means investing in early to mid-career professionals rather that hoping the attrition of non-profit work teaches employees the skills they will need. Museums will find it increasingly difficult to move forward in any of their endeavors when leadership is constantly learning and relearning the basic tools of running an organization, nor will leaders from diverse backgrounds feel empowered to remain in non-profit work.
In museums, it is typically the curatorial department that serves as the direct line to executive leadership. However, when museums only promote people who have spent their careers focused on a narrow subject without any leadership, management or museum practice training, we are missing a crucial opportunity to better our organizations. Museums have ignored the problem of under-qualified mangers fostered by a tradition of deeply siloed departments who tend to work for the betterment of their department, rather than the good of the organization as a whole. The skills necessary to be an excellent curator are not necessarily the skills required to be a good director or museum leader. In many institutions this also leads to an insular cycle of preferential treatment for those positions that are most likely to gain access to the c-suite. This is not to say that there aren’t some excellent curators-turned-directors in the field, because there are. But we limit ourselves by saying the only people qualified to run our organizations are those with advanced degrees and very narrow content knowledge.
This practice, perhaps most of all, keeps museums from erasing their past as an ivory tower. Our history of valuing objects over human beings, of being an inaccessible intellectual repository prevents us from being an institution dedicated to the education of and service to the public. This climate, at its root, is what fights our every attempt to make lasting changes. While you may say that you are about education and community, if your leadership is made up entirely of subject matter experts from siloed departments where objects are valued over other museum functions, you will not make progress toward the lofty goal of equity. In a social, political and economic climate racked by hate, alternative facts, and exclusivity, working against that every day for the public good, for inclusion and equity is a radical act.
A slight departure from my normal full post, but this was written for a Museum Hack writing competition [https://museumhack.com/writing-contest/]. Give them a follow if you, like me, are into museums and think they can save the world. As always, I want to know what you thought of this post, especially if you are into reading more of my thoughts about art, museums, and resistance. Follow me on social media to see what I'm up to-- xoxo