Art Market

Meet the Chief Diversity Officer Overhauling the Phillips Collection

Julia Fiore
Oct 2, 2019 9:45PM

In one of the first roles of its kind at an American museum, Makeba Clay, the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is tasked with overhauling a nearly 100-year-old institution. It is a gargantuan effort to bring equitable transformation to every aspect of the Phillips or to drive what Clay calls “inclusive excellence” in the capital of a too-often puritanical, socially conservative nation.

Increasing diversity in a museum extends far beyond the artworks featured in exhibitions. Clay’s purview runs from the bottom—rethinking hiring procedures in the HR department and opportunities for interns—to the top—strategizing new acquisitions and refashioning the makeup of the board.

Makeba Clay considers her schedule while the stuffed elephant on her desk, Gertrude, stands in for the many “elephants in the room” that crop up in Clay’s work.


In the last few decades, a broader understanding of how museums wield power has led to calls for transparency and accountability in their operations. Recent debates about the role of museums in public life—and the ethical responsibilities of their stakeholders, from curators to board members—reflect an open-ended culture war. We continue to grapple with the role and influence of our institutions and their hand in shaping how we experience or think about culture. We continue to question who they are for and why.

“I’ve been in spaces where people think ‘Chief Diversity Officer’ means somebody who’s going to make us talk about race and all that uncomfortable stuff.”

Some of the old guard has difficulty seeing the art museum as a socially engaged place or one where political discourse has a home. The Phillips Collection’s initiation of a Chief Diversity Officer—a role made possible through funding from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation—shows a willingness from the inside to examine oneself and to be better. If she’s successful, Clay could change what it means for art museums to serve their communities. This type of leadership could set an example to inspire other museums in D.C. and beyond to follow suit.

With more than one year on the job behind her, I checked in with Clay to learn about the challenges she has faced and the strategic importance of promoting diversity in the museum. She’s been busy during this time. The Friday in August that I met her in Washington, I saw the multifaceted and frenzied demands of her job firsthand.

The Phillips Collection House. Photo by Robert Lautman. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Before and after our interview, Clay zipped to an HR meeting about a new recruitment strategy; connected with a local artist; planned a public program; and jumped on a call with a partner from Senegal to discuss a trip exploring West African art for donors and collectors. Even when the workday is over, Clay’s often running to an opening or panel. “I spend a lot of time going to artists’ studios or galleries,” she said, “putting a different face on the Phillips.”

Transparency is paramount

In her first few weeks, Clay began a “listening tour,” meeting with various teams across the museum to learn more about her colleagues’ day-to-day responsibilities and overarching passions. “Transparency is always important,” Clay explained, “because people are suspicious of things they don’t know.”

Elephant figurines and other, mostly African, artworks from Clay’s personal collection decorate her office.


She also asked about their understanding of her job. “There’s a lot of demystifying you have to do in a role that has not traditionally been in an art museum,” she said. “People don’t come out and say, ‘race lady,’ but I’ve been in spaces where people think ‘Chief Diversity Officer’ means somebody who’s going to make us talk about race and all that uncomfortable stuff.”

Uncomfortable conversations undoubtedly fall within the purview of Clay’s responsibilities to drive a significant culture shift. She gestured to a small stuffed elephant propped on a low shelf in her office. “This is Gertrude,” she said. Gertrude is an avatar for Clay’s trials and ambitions. She brings Gertrude to meetings, a token offered around the room to signify permission for staff members “to tell their truth about what they see as the elephant in the room.” It might seem quaint, but “the work that I do has a lot of elephants in the room,” Clay said.

Get everyone on the same page

Clay is pushing the museum to rethink how to sustain itself in the coming years. “Leading in a space like this right now is really important,” she said, referring to the rapidly changing demographics in the museum’s surrounding neighborhoods of DuPont Circle, Anacostia, and Wards 7 and 8. Currently, Clay says only about 9 percent of museumgoers represent the diversity of those populations, even though the institution has created satellite programs like Phillips@THEARC in Southeast Washington. Clay is looking at how to remove barriers to access the museum—both financial and physical. She and her colleagues are rethinking the museum’s hours of operation, the layout of its galleries, and even the design of the website.

Glenn Ligon’s neon work, Double America, 2012; Clay before Frank Bowling, Mother’s House on South America, 1968; Selections from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” 1940–41, seem to narrate miniature shack sculptures by Beverly Buchanan.

She sees plenty of opportunities to engage Washington D.C. residents who don’t typically visit local arts and culture institutions. “It’s not just the moral thing to do or our social responsibility,” Clay reflected, “but it’s also about the bottom line. How can we remain relevant if we don’t partner with large segments of our communities?” The ethical and fiscal aspects of these issues permeate every function of the institution. Clay admits that “we’re at the beginning,” trying to get everyone on the same page, to explain how her work might intersect with their own.

Her priority was establishing an institution-wide strategy, applying a shared set of goals across departments under the rubric of DEAI—Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. She has introduced the DEAI rubric to each branch of the museum. Creating meaningful change demands “everybody at the table on the same team, asking the same question,” she said. “And then having the courage to do something about it.”

Aliza Nisenbaum, MOIA’s NYC Women’s Cabinet , 2016, in “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Clay recently returned from a full-day retreat she organized for managers and the executive team. It was her first time putting on such an event at the Phillips, and Clay marveled at its success in implementing a critical cultural shift within the museum. The retreat offered training in recognizing unconscious bias, microaggressions in the workplace, and strategies for how to build and sustain an inclusive environment for visitors and staff. “It was so powerful,” Clay said, “because it wasn’t just about the objects but us.”

Be the example you wish to see

Clay has striven to make the Phillips an employer of choice. Internships and post-doctoral research positions are fully funded. She and her colleagues are examining how to recruit for positions that have primarily been occupied by white elites with Ph.Ds to build equity and pathways for the next generation of art historians.

Cheerful postcards pinned to a small pinboard above Clay’s desk feature positive affirmations: “Be the change you wish to see…,” “Grant me the serenity….”

The task requires thinking outside of the box, reaching out to historically black colleges and universities and community colleges, and refining job descriptions to distinguish between necessary skills versus those that can be learned on the job.

At the top levels of the organization, Clay is working to cultivate greater diversity on the board. Due to the powerful, high-profile status of its 32 members, redefining the makeup of the trustees could perhaps be the trickiest aspect of her role. The Phillips does not track demographic statistics of its staff but based on findings from the Mellon Foundation’s 2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey it probably does not reflect the diversity of the population in the United States.

Creating meaningful culture change demands “everybody at the table on the same team, asking the same question,” Clay said. “And then having the courage to do something about it.”

I noticed the cheerful postcards pinned to a small pinboard above her desk displaying positive affirmations (“Be the change you wish to see…,” “Grant me the serenity…”). I asked her if the trustees expressed nervousness about her plans to shake things up. She took a deep breath and shot me a pointed look. “Change is difficult for everybody, including me,” she reflected. “Everybody says, ‘We want to change. This is where we’re trying to go, can you help us get there?’” A few months later, she continued, “the honeymoon is over when they wake up and realize what that looks like because it means that we can no longer continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

Why the Phillips Collection?

The Phillips Collection sometimes feels dwarfed by the behemoth museums that line the National Mall in Washington, yet its impact on art in America is undeniably profound. Founder Duncan Phillips, a wealthy collector and critic, often receives credit for introducing modern art to American audiences. His institution, born from grief over the deaths of his father and brother, was originally called the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. It features important Impressionist and modern American artworks collected by Phillips and his wife, Marjorie Acker. Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mark Rothko, Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe, Honoré Daumier, and Jacob Lawrence are the kinds of artists who form the basis of the permanent collection.

Since its inception in 1921, the Phillips has enjoyed a local reputation for being an inclusive refuge. Trustee emeritus David Driskell, an artist and scholar, frequently visited the Phillips during segregation. It was a haven, he explained to Clay, for many artists of color. Duncan Phillips was an early patron to Lawrence. He purchased the young artist’s “Migration Series” (1940–41) with the belief that the historical and racial content of the epic series, which follows the exodus of over a million African Americans from the brutal South to states in the North, was relevant and significant enough to anchor his collection. It’s a challenge to think of another American museum that showed such support for living artists of color—and their sociopolitical views—in our oppressive mid-century history.

When she was considering the position of Chief Diversity Officer, which was spearheaded by CEO Dorothy Kosinski, Clay felt encouraged by the lasting impact of the Phillips Collection’s founding mission and progressive principles. “It was all about empathy,” she explained, “using our space for reflection, contemplation, and healing” for the community.

She saw the museum as rooted in these beliefs. Although the role was new, “there were some things in place already”—like the museum’s history of socially conscious exhibitions, K–12 and teacher training programs, and academic partnership with the University of Maryland—“that signaled to me that it wasn’t starting completely from scratch,” she said.

Marjorie and Duncan Phillips in front of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party , 1880–81, ca. 1954. Photo by Naomi Savage. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

“I felt like they really mean business,” Clay recalled. “It wasn’t an add-on, which is one of the frustrations some of the people who do this work feel.” Clay recognized a unique opportunity to marry her passion for arts and culture with her expertise in organizational change in a critical time in our history.

Although her background is not in the arts, Clay has spent two decades in higher education followed by several years consulting for various organizations, including some arts institutions. She has a passion for education, and firmly sees museums as places of learning, “places to be inspired, share ideas, and wrestle with complex social issues.”

Frame diversity in personal terms

The Phillips Collection’s dedication to inclusivity is seen and felt in its most recent exhibition: “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” The exhibition gathers 75 historical and contemporary artists from around the world to ask “urgent questions around the experiences and perceptions of migration and the current global refugee crisis,” according to the press release. It presents installations, videos, paintings, and documentary materials from figures as diverse as Alighiero Boetti, Aliza Nisenbaum, Dorothea Lange, and Glenn Ligon.

Installation view of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” with embroidered maps by Alighiero Boetti against the back wall; Kader Attia’s Le Mer Morte ( The Dead Sea ), 2015; and a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans, titled The State We’re In , 2015. Photo by Lee Stalsworth. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” has been one of the most critically-praised shows in the museum’s recent memory. “This D.C. exhibition should be seen by everyone concerned about the migrant crisis,” read the headline in Sebastian Smee’s review in The Washington Post. In the New York Times, Jason Farago used the “poignant, solemn and utterly shaming exhibition” to muse on the state of refugees in the world and their reputation in the art world.

The exhibition was curated by New York–based curators Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell of the New Museum, rather than members of the Phillips’s staff. Because the museum does not collect demographic data on its visitors or staff, it’s impossible to say if the exhibition has drawn traditionally underrepresented visitors of color to the museum. Still, it has positioned the Phillips as a central actor in urgent national conversations. The museum has seen an uptick in attention from nonprofit organizations, like the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and Refugees International, that are interested in using the exhibition to train their teams.

For Clay, this interest confirms that the material is “what’s on people’s minds, what they’re thinking about, what they’re interested in seeing, learning, hearing, and talking about.” To “bring the subject matter closer” and to build “our cultural competency” at the museum, Clay organized a series of guest speakers, including a refugee and survivor of the Rwandan genocide, an anthropologist working with displaced people, and a lawyer working on migration policy, for the staff. More informally, she started a book club for employees to discuss critical issues.

Make the museum accessible in every way

It’s been a year and a half since Clay became Chief Diversity Officer in April 2018. The numbers aren’t out to quantify the success of her initiatives, but it’s helpful to explore the relevant data with which she’s been working. In the Phillips’s 2018 report, the museum recorded 137,276 visitors, down from 159,529 in 2017. Special exhibitions in 2018 included showings of Renoir and Paul Klee, as well as Aboriginal women artists from Australia. There were no solo shows for women artists in 2017. In 2018, one woman and one man, both white, were added to the board. Three male board members joined in 2017, including Driskell, who was the only new board member of color.

Clay poses before one of her favorite works in the galleries, El Anatsui, Dzesi, 2012; Clay helped curate the gift-shop merchandise for “The Warmth of Other Suns” including children’s books about migration, woven African baskets, and packs of 734C fair trade coffee, whose proceeds help train and educate refugees; Prints of Jacob Lawrence's “Migration Series,” 1940–41, and other personal artworks decorate Clay's office.

Under Clay’s stewardship, the highlight of this year’s acquisitions is a set of five Gee’s Bend quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Other recent purchases include works by Angela Bulloch, Amy Cutler, John Edmonds, Sam Gilliam, Helen Lundeberg, Nara Park, Ellington Robinson, Bosco Sodi, and Regina Pilawuk Wilson. That said, the Phillips’s upcoming exhibitions seem conceptually lackluster compared with “The Warmth of Other Suns.” A survey of Nabis works will open in October and will be followed by a solo show for the Canadian abstract painter Moira Dryer.

Clay is most proud of successfully establishing new HR policies and a board diversity advisory group, initiatives that she is hopeful will yield tangible results by 2021, the museum’s centenary anniversary. What accomplishments would make Clay feel as if her job is done? Optimistically, the museum would be accessible in every way, from the website to the physical and economic access for visitors. Most importantly, the staff would have the tools to continue driving inclusivity. “The ideal world would be to work myself out of a job,” she mused, “where everybody else is doing it on their own.”

Julia Fiore

Full width video courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Clay initiated an audit of staff salaries compared to the market. She did not set up an audit, but she did help in making internships and fellowships fully funded. Additionally, it was not Clay’s first time organizing a retreat for managers and the executive team; it was her first time organizing such an event at the Phillips.

Clarification: The trip Clay is organizing to Senegal is not solely acquisitions focused, but is more broadly a trip for collectors and donors to experience West African art.