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.”