Posted on July 29, 2019

Museums Need to Step into the Future

Darren Walker, New York Times, July 26, 2019

America’s museums are more than repositories of ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings. They are guardians of a fading social and demographic order. On Thursday, Warren Kanders resigned from the board of the Whitney Museum of Art, after protests over his company’s sale of tear gas grenades that were reportedly used on asylum seekers. {snip}

On one side of the crossfire are trustees who benefit from a distorted economic system that protects and promotes inequality. Wealthy donors and collectors decide what is valued. They expect appreciation, not scrutiny, for giving generously as government support for the arts wanes. And they are offended by the accusation that they use museums to launder, or “artwash,” their reputations and increase the value of their personal collections.

On the other side are people whom the system excludes and exploits. An increasingly diverse viewing public, and growing protest movements, are calling for installations and institutions that represent a broader cross-section of America. They demand museums serve more than the interests of the elite.


{snip} The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, owners of the opioid maker Purdue Pharma. {snip} Employees of the Guggenheim and New Museum, whose wages have largely stagnated as those of top museum executives rise faster than inflation, have recently unionized, inspiring other such efforts.

I believe that museums have the responsibility to hold a mirror up to society. As the country becomes younger and more diverse, and as its immigrant population grows, museums must shift. {snip}

At stake is not just the work or prestige of a particular institution, but the underpinnings of democracy: How do “we the people,” tell our story — who is included, and who is locked out? And how do museums resist reinforcing biases, hierarchies and inequalities?

To start, museums should prioritize hiring curators from academic programs that invest in diversity. Donors need to support artists and academics of every background; the people entrusted with analyzing and exhibiting the American story ought to reflect the future, or risk not being a part of it.

Fortunately, there are signs of progress. A 2018 Mellon Foundation survey found that educational and curatorial departments have grown more racially diverse since 2014. More than a quarter of museum education positions are now held by people of color. {snip}

One of the most successful traveling exhibitions of the past year, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” generated critical acclaim and enormous attendance, demonstrating the hunger for such programming. {snip}

Many organizations that support art institutions are demanding more. New York City, for instance, now requires diversity reporting from the cultural institutions it subsidizes. {snip}

Major arts foundations — from Annenberg to Walton — are emphasizing diversity and inclusion in their grant-making. {snip}

And yet, everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board. So, boards need to include members from more diverse perspectives and backgrounds. {snip}

To engage diverse leaders, museums should redefine the terms of trusteeship. {snip} And so boards need to stop seeing diversity as subtracting from their annual revenue, but rather as adding strength. Diversity helps them attract new visitors, artists, communities and constituencies.

In other words, museum boards must move from tokenism to transformation — the kind of transformation that only meaningful inclusion can bring.

Transformation will take hold only if it happens at every level of the museum. That’s why boards have a responsibility to support and hire a diverse staff and to compensate them responsibly. {snip}

Static, monolithic history must be supplanted with histories, plural — even as museums continue to safeguard the past in the objects they conserve and display. {snip}