Equity and Diversity in Museums:
Much Ado But Little Progress
By Yvonne Bynoe
“Take me into the museum and show me myself, show me my people, show me soul America. If you cannot show me myself, if you cannot teach my people what they need to know—and they need to know the truth, and they need to know that nothing is more important than human life—then why shouldn’t I attack the temples of America and blow them up?…[t]he people who count the pennies and the people who hold the keys better start thinking it all over again.”— June Jordan, except from: A Museum For The People: A Report On The Proceedings at the Seminar on Neighbor Museums, Museums Collaborative (MUSE), 1969
The push for museums to become more equitable and racially diverse isn’t new. In the late 1960s, it was still acceptable for museums to have neither Black curators nor paintings by Black artists hanging on their walls. In 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted the exhibit Harlem On My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America 1900-1968 without one painting or sculpture by a Black artist. The Harlem Cultural Council, which had been consulted in the planning stages, publicly withdrew its support of the exhibit.
The exhibit elicited an outcry from Harlem residents and The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) led protests in front of the MET with signs reading, “Harlem On Whose Mind?” The group founded by Benny Andrews and Clifford R. Joseph had 75 members, including Faith Ringgold and Romare Bearden. In 1971, the BECC protested the Whitney Museum Of Art’s exhibit, Contemporary Black Artists In America, over issues of equity and inclusion. Museums in New York City and elsewhere, now under unprecedented scrutiny, pledged to do better. Their efforts however quickly petered out.
The race to improve racial diversity within museum exhibits and permanent collections was ignited again in 1976 in the wake of David Driskell’s groundbreaking traveling exhibit, Two Centuries of Black American Art. Aside from showcasing masterful art, Driskell’s exhibit also highlighted how museums across the country had intentionally excluded art by Black artists from their exhibits and permanent collections for generations.
Now we fast forward to 2020: In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin, there was renewed urgency by museums to address the lack of diversity within their curatorial staff, collections, and attendees. Museums held focus groups, conducted internal studies, and developed strategic plans to revamp their missions, make their exhibits and collections more inclusion, and to not only hire more Black curators but also retain them. However, it’s a new cycle in a historic pattern that’s beginning to feel like a game of Three Card Monty. An event, often catastrophic, happens, the topic of equity and racial diversity is resurrected by museums, and, once the spotlight dies down, action ceases.
The result is that more than 50 years since Harlem On My Mind, the statistics on equity and diversity relating to U.S. museums show only slight improvement.
In 2019, a William College study conducted by a group of mathematicians and curators at Williams College surveyed 18 major museums in the United States to ascertain the racial, ethnic, and gender of the artists represented in their collections. The study found that 85.4% of the works in the collections of all major U.S. museums were created by White artists and 87.4% were by male artists. African-American artists accounted for the lowest share with just 1.2% of the works, despite being approximately 15% of the U.S. population.
The findings of a 2019 comprehensive survey on ethnic and gender diversity of museum staff by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) were also not encouraging. In 2018, the number of Black curators stood at 4%, representing 21 positions. This is an increase from the 2% finding from the first survey that was completed in 2015.
The study showed that, while there had been nominal improvement in staff position diversity, the racial composition of museum leadership remained virtually unchanged. In 2018, 12% of museum leadership positions were held by “people of color,” a minuscule increase from 11% in 2015. Given the broadness of the term, “people of color,” it’s difficult to determine whether there had been change (upward or downward) with regard to Black museum leadership.
What is apparent is that hiring more Black curators, while an important goal, alone won’t be enough to transform many museums. A museum’s culture and practices are shaped largely by its leadership. In the last few years, there have been several high profile resignations of senior curators and museum directors who were accused of racial insensitivity and/or racially discriminatory practices:
- In 2021, Charles Venable resigned as head of the Indiana Museum of Art after a job listing describing the museum’s core audience as “White” was made public. Venerable had led the museum since 2012.
- In 2020, Gary Garrels, then senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, resigned amid criticism of his use of the term “reverse discrimination” in a staff meeting held on Zoom. Garrels seemed to suggest that advancing diversity among the collection shouldn’t be at the expense of acquiring the work of White artists.
- Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim Museum’s highest-ranking curator, departed in 2020 after more than 30 years at the institution. Her departure came in the aftermath of numerous public allegations made by independent curator, Chaédria LaBouvier against Spector and the Guggenheim for attempting to “erase” her labor, for racism, and for creating a hostile work environment. LaBouvier had been brought into the Guggenheim to organize the “Defacement” exhibit that focused on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting about the police killing of artist Michael Stewart. An investigation led by law firm Kramer Levin determined that LaBouvier wasn’t subjected to adverse treatment on the basis of race. LaBouvier stated that Kramer Levin did not interview her.
To stop the cycle of action then no-action, initiatives on equity and diversity have to concentrate on all three power centers of museums: senior curators and directors, the board of directors, and acquisition committees. These are the entities that make critical decisions about how money is spent, who gets hired, what artwork is acquired, and which exhibits are mounted and how.
At some institutions, it is their board of directors, not the museum’s director or senior curators, that have thwarted efforts to acquire more works by Black artists and artists of color and/or to cultivate a more diverse museum audience. In these instances, progress will only be made when the museum is willing to part company with obstructionist board members.
The board of directors (or individual board members) often exert enormous power over acquisitions and curatorial decisions because of their large donations to the institution. Depending on the museum, the loss of one major donor would result in the museum being forced to slash its budget by terminating employees and reducing programming. Unlike in European countries where museums are largely funded by the government, private museums in the U.S. depend heavily on donations pledged by board members to fund their operations. Generally, federal, state, and local funding account for less than 25% of a private museum’s annual revenue.
Any plan to substantially improve equity and racial diversity within a museum therefore has to include identifying and cultivating more Black people to join the boards of directors and the acquisition committees.
Museums have to create membership pathways that don’t depend solely on referrals from current members. In too many fields, of which museums are no exception, decision-makers are quick to say that there aren’t qualified Black candidates for open positions. The truth is they don’t have any Black people in their rolodexes nor do they participate in networks or activities where they’re likely to meet any.
In most cities and regions, there are “Black Millionaires Next Door,” who own businesses or are senior executives in corporations. Increasingly, these Black business owners and executives are acquiring art while also having the financial means to donate to museums as board members. There are also affluent Black professionals who could be tapped for acquisition committees or the fundraising/affiliate committees.
How, in 2021, does a museum claim to competently and credibly assess the cultural and historical relevance of a work of art by Black artists for an exhibition or its permanent collection with only one or (worse) no Black people at the conference table?
Staying on this point, it is incumbent on museums to widen their scope by forming relationships with Black-owned galleries and Black art professionals (writers, historians, arts advocates). It’s too common for White curators to only consider Black artists suggested to them by White collectors, White gallerists, or other White curators. Moreover, as an economic concern, by not acquiring works from Black-owned galleries, museums shut out talented Black artists, as well as Black gallerists and their Black collectors who would benefit from the appreciated value of the artists’ works after the museums’ acquisition.
While some museums are doing the difficult work to shift the culture of their institutions and find meaningful ways to incorporate work by Black artists in their exhibits and collections, others are still looking for quick fixes in the form of ghettoized Black History month events or poorly executed Black Live Matters (BLM) exhibits.
During a recent panel discussion on museum equity hosted by Raleigh Arts, in connection with the Collection of Change exhibit at the Block Gallery in Raleigh, N.C., Marshall Price, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art said, “Exhibiting Black artists isn’t a panacea.” He went on to say that “Diversity has to be embedded in the institution through a comprehensive, top-bottom approach.” To that end, the Nasher Museum of Art has several avenues for it to receive guidance and feedback, which include: a board of directors and an advisory board composed of community stakeholders and a committee of teachers and art historians.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. —Frederick Douglass
The last element that is required to advance equity and racial diversity in museums is public accountability. Public apathy allows museums to maintain the status quo for years with impunity. Applying pressure to museums to implement changes by protesting exhibits has proven to be effective in the short-term. However, to prevent inertia or (worse) backsliding on the part of museums, the public has to sustain pressure long after the media coverage has ended.
Jonell Logan, an independent curator and creative director of the McColl Center For The Arts in Charlotte, NC, stated in the Raleigh Arts panel that, “presence and money count.” In practical terms, this means that more Black people, including Black professional organizations, Black art collectives, and Black Pan-Hellenic organizations have to begin engaging cultural institutions on an ongoing basis. They can do this by joining museums as paid members, making charitable donations, attending museum exhibitions, writing letters to the museum and newspaper op-eds, and using their social media platforms. According to Logan, even museums that rely primarily on private donations still receive government funding, so they have to meet the diversity standards established by federal, state, and local government arts entities.
In reality, meeting government diversity requirements doesn’t mean that a museum is doing a good job in serving its community. However, without Black people regularly turning out and speaking up, museums will continue to receive their tax dollars—even if they’re only doing the bare minimum for them.
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YVONNE BYNOE is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.
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