The past month has been a period of reckoning for museums and art institutions across the United States and beyond, as a deluge of open letters was released, calling on museums big and small to confront their pervasive cultures of racism. From Dismantle NOMA’s demands
to undo “the plantation-like culture” at the New Orleans Museum of Art
, to Decolonize Latinx’s call
for Latinx art institutions “to name anti-Black racism and begin the work of establishing new practices that resist and reject white supremacy”—and related efforts by current and former staff at SFMOMA
, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
, the Art Institute of Chicago
, the Guggenheim Museum
, and elsewhere—the drive to address and act against the ills and racial disparities in the art world is rightfully gaining momentum. Now the question is: How will museums respond to these resounding calls for change?
In this watershed moment—spurred by the massive uprisings and protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and too many others—we have seen institutions responding to these demands with some urgency. On June 21st, after years of ongoing protests from activist groups such as Decolonize this Place and the Monument Removal Brigade, the American Museum of Natural History in New York finally decided to remove
the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the museum’s front steps. For many, the monument symbolized white violence perpetrated against Black and Indigenous bodies. Earlier last month, across the pond, the statue of 18th-century slave trader Robert Milligan was removed outside the Museum of London Docklands in response to community outcry. Days before, protesters tore down
a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
While these actions are surely steps in the right direction, they only scratch at the surface of the long-standing problems of racism and inequality that have historically plagued cultural institutions. Many are asking for more enduring and structural changes that address issues of racial equity and diversity, as opposed to cosmetic gestures of performative allyship and virtue signaling.
Last week, in response to a series of internal demands, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
released a list of 13 commitments
the museum plans to implement immediately to create “a more open, welcoming, and equitable institution.” The Met’s plan addresses many of the demands in an open letter penned by For the Culture 2020,
a group of New York City museum workers committed to an anti-racist agenda across all museums. Included in the Met’s plan are commitments to hire a chief diversity officer (CDO); require anti-racist and anti-bias training for trustees, employees, and volunteers in the next year, and every year thereafter for employees and volunteers; hire Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) candidates to department head and senior leadership roles; and implement a pipeline of BIPOC individuals, specifically from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), for internships, fellowships, and permanent positions, just to name a few. Not listed, however, is a commitment to support the movement to defund the police by ending all the museum’s contracts with the NYPD, as outlined in For the Culture 2020’s open letter (and as some
other museums have done
The Met’s plan is not perfect, but for now at least it sets a solid benchmark for what cultural institutions can do to meet the moment. It also raises an extremely important and related issue: how to keep these institutions accountable for their words. Many, like the members of the Collective Action Working Group—a cohort of Met employees who wrote an open letter that served as the catalyst for the museum’s response and action plan—have been down this road before. According to Artnet News
, the group stated that its members “personally experienced dismissal, silencing, or erasure by speaking up about structural racism and/or individual racial, accessibility, gender, and sexual bias,” even though the museum had implemented a diversity and inclusion strategy in 2017.