Americans Deserve More Diversity At Elite Cultural Institutions

Why increasing diversity at our museums, libraries and other cultural institutions is critical to the humanities.

You may have noticed that change is afoot at some of the country’s most elite cultural institutions. Slowly, in boardrooms typically occupied by the white and wealthy, a small group of more diverse voices has finally emerged — and people are noticing. This summer, The New York Times wrote about a group of “disrupters,” men and women of color influencing some of the city’s top cultural institutions.

That’s welcome and much-needed progress. It’s past time that governing boards of our cultural institutions better reflect the character and composition of the American public. Unfortunately, this dearth of diversity isn’t just at the top. The absence of diversity from the ground floor up remains an even greater challenge with more substantial implications for our society. To disrupt entrenched barriers at cultural institutions, we need to consider the entire composition of staff, from the curators to the educators, from the conservators to the leadership.

The current lack of staff diversity at these institutions is pervasive. Last year, my colleagues at Mellon Foundation released a report showing that ethnic and racial minorities — who make up more than 38 percent of the U.S. population — fill only 28 percent of staff positions at U.S. art museums. And the majority of that 28 percent were in the janitorial, security, facilities, finance, and human resources departments. By contrast, a meager 4 percent of art museum directors, curators, conservators, and educators are African-American, 6 percent are Asian, 3 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent are multi-racial.

Board membership can be perceived as a rich person’s game, and access to wealth — whether financial, intellectual or social — can be challenging for groups that have been historically excluded. Survey data has exposed an additional layer to this challenge that hampers diversity from the ground floor up: people of color lack clear career pathways within these organizations that lead to leadership positions. From both directions — within, at the staffing level, and outside, as board members who provide insight and oversight to these institutions — there is an opportunity to enrich this landscape by adding men and women with requisite backgrounds from more diverse communities.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in commenting on how her background shapes her work on the bench, once said, “whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences … our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.” In the same way, museums, libraries, and other cultural organizations should embrace diverse experiences and backgrounds on their staffs to better reflect and serve their communities.

Take, for instance, an African American or Latino museum director, curator, or educator. Bringing their background to bear, curators might collect and exhibit works of art that someone without their cultural perspective or worldview would otherwise overlook. Museum educators who reflect the community they serve are uniquely equipped to guide and deepen the experience of their visitors. With greater diversity at all levels, artists like Archibald Motley or Alma Thomas might not have been overlooked for decades. Increasing diversity isn’t just good for diversity’s sake — it improves our shared sense of cultural heritage and expands our idea of cultural patrimony.

Since revealing the stark results from our survey last year, organizations are asking what they can do and how to do it. In conferences and meetings across the country, the arts and humanities community has begun a conversation about how to better represent us all. For example, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission has established a task force to help ensure cultural equity. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts received a grant to help diversify its staff through a curatorial fellowship program. Major art museums in Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Kansas City have launched serious training programs for students who aspire to become curators. As museum staff members report, these aspiring talents are helping to change the cultures of their institutions from within.

Everyone — from all social, ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds — deserves the chance to experience the value of the humanities in public life. And what’s more, building durable democracies in the 21st century depends on it. But that rich experience is not always available to all. At the dedication ceremony for the new Whitney Museum of American Art last year in New York, First Lady Michelle Obama said she remembers growing up on the South Side of Chicago thinking museums weren’t there for kids like her. That sense of not belonging she said, “limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.”

Every day, visitors walk into museums, libraries and other cultural institutions to learn, to discover and to expand and challenge their world views. It is time that these cultural centers also expand and challenge themselves at every level by building an inclusive workforce and welcoming environment. We have the power — and the responsibility — to make that change.

Earl Lewis is the President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and co-editor of Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society

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