Art Market

Museums Are Becoming More Diverse, but There’s Still Work to Do

Benjamin Sutton
Feb 8, 2019 9:36PM

Museum staffs in the United States are becoming more diverse, according to two reports released last month. Both show that progress is being made, but museum staffs remain more homogenous than the U.S. population at large, especially when it comes to the most powerful positions.

For many museum leaders, the drive to be more diverse and equitable is not a public relations issue, but an essential part of making museums welcoming cultural and social spaces. It’s also a way of treating museums as models for more inclusive, pluralistic communities, at a time when U.S. political and social culture is defined by division.

“You can no longer have this be a cosmetic and discrete marketing arm of your museum; that was multiculturalism in the 1990s, and it got us here, so in a way, we’re talking about the evolution of multiculturalism into diversity, equity, and access,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). “While you may have walked into a museum as an individual, if the museum has done its job, you will walk out with a sense of yourself as a part of a larger whole.”

The reports, released by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Americans for the Arts, reflect a growing awareness among museums and arts organizations that the cultural sector remains less diverse than the whole of American society—which is on track to become “minority white” in 2045.

The Mellon Foundation report—conducted in partnership with the AAMD, American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and research firm Ithaka S+R—drew in part on a comparison with a similar 2015 study. It found that among all museum hires between 2014 and 2018, 88% of people hired for executive and conservation roles were white, even though just 60.7% of the U.S. population identifies as white, non-Hispanic or Latino. On the brighter side, it showed a significant uptick in the hiring of people of color across the industry, including in curatorial roles, as well as an increase in the number of museums with women in leadership roles.

According to the Mellon Foundation report, art museum employees in 2018 were 61% female overall—up 2% from 2015—and the percentage of women in museum leadership roles rose even more, from 57% in 2015 to 62% in 2018 (the U.S. population is 50.8% female). Meanwhile, 35% of new hires at U.S. museums last year were people of color, compared with 26% in 2015, bringing the figure more closely in line with nationwide demographics (according to the Brookings Institution, 39.5% of the U.S. population identifies as non-white).

“Those improvements are, number one, overdue; number two, slow; and number three, positive,” said Grynsztejn. “There’s a lot of work still to be done, and in particular, since 2015, there’s been very little change with regards to race and ethnicity in the highest museum leadership positions in the most fiscally large museums.”

Grynsztejn added that those top-level changes will take systemic and sustained industry-wide efforts.

“It needs to be a very aggressive and proactive commitment to diversifying the professional pipeline,” she said. “It needs to be a very aggressive and proactive sensitization to unconscious bias in how you post your job descriptions, where you post your job descriptions, and to commit yourself to mentoring and cultivating brilliant people who might not have the absolute standard resume at that moment.”

MCA Chicago front steps. Photo by Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.


In tandem with its museum staff diversity reports, the Mellon Foundation conducted case studies looking at eight museums fostering greater diversity not only among staff, but also in their programs and in the communities they serve. They range from a study of the work done by the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art to diversify the employment pipeline for the curatorial field, to looking at how large institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum, MCA Chicago, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) are pursuing diversity in ways that make sense for their specific communities.

LACMA, for instance, is one of the participants in the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship (MCUF) pilot program to support students from historically underrepresented backgrounds working in museums. Mariët Westermann, the Mellon Foundation’s executive vice president for programs and research, said LACMA’s leaders have fostered collaboration between typically siloed departments, and as a result, the education department has become an entrypoint for students from diverse backgrounds to pursue curatorial careers.

“Many of the Fellowship candidates’ initial exposure to the museum is through the education department, where mentors and teachers help guide students and provide them with opportunities to get more involved,” Westermann said.

For Westermann and Grynsztejn, promoting greater diversity among museum staff is just one facet of what must be a holistic approach for each museum to respond to the needs of its communities. For the MCA Chicago, that has manifested in part as a commitment to ensuring greater diversity in the contemporary art canon by elevating African-American artists. The museum recently staged landmark Kerry James Marshall and Howardena Pindell exhibitions, and has Christina Quarles and Virgil Abloh shows in the pipeline.

Grynsztejn said the MCA’s efforts towards “course-correcting the canon with regards to African-American art history” stem, in part, from the museum’s location. “We’re in Chicago, and Chicago is the flashpoint and flashlight for so many issues around race, prejudice, and particularly within and against the black community,” she said.

The changes happening at major museums are mirrored by efforts at arts organizations more broadly. A report by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts last month found that leaders at local arts agencies remain disproportionately homogeneous with respect to race, ethnicity, and other factors. It also reported that the staff of local arts agencies are 14% more white than the general U.S. population—a number that goes up to 21% for executive directors and CEOs—while members of their boards and commissions are 12% whiter, 16 years older on average, and “more than three times as many identify as Democrats than the general population.”

And yet the Americans for the Arts study also highlighted the fact that a growing number of local arts agencies in the U.S. are prioritizing inclusion and diversity. Half of them (up 21% from 2015) have publicized that pledge by adopting equity and diversity policies. Typically, such policies are public-facing documents that outline a set of priorities around making an organization more welcoming and equitable, and a set of steps and guiding principles to help realize those priorities.

“You can’t just hire a person of color—the institution must have a focus on diverse audiences,” said Belinda Tate, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) and a member of AAMD’s board of trustees. This fall, the KIA will devote all of its nearly 11,000 square feet of gallery space to work by African-American artists, including highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem’s collection and a showcase of black artists from the Midwest.

“We’re using diversity as a way of creating deeper meaning and creating more relevance for our audiences,” Tate said. “We’re always working to get people to connect with what’s on view and to give us an opportunity to share information that may be relevant to their lives.”

Benjamin Sutton