The CMA Addresses Need for Greater Inclusiveness in American Art Museum Leadership; Hosts Inaugural Convening of DAMLI Recipients

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Museums are caretakers of objects and of the stories that go along with them. Museums are also teaching institutions and culture machines as well as civic spaces. The way that collections and objects have been historically categorized, collected, and researched has both expanded and restricted the ways we understand them. How do we go about changing the lens, considering our audiences as participating in a dialogue, as experts in their own life experience and world view, as researchers and creators of meaning in the broadest sense?

To begin answering these questions, the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this year received national recognition when it announced its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan, outlining a comprehensive and concrete series of initiatives to strengthen its commitment to all audiences. As part of that commitment, the CMA was among a select group of institutions to receive a grant from the Ford and Walton Family Foundations’ Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI), to support the development of a pipeline of emerging art museum professionals from high school through graduate school. The Cleveland Foundation has also taken a leadership role in supporting these efforts at the CMA.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

On November 6–7, 2018, the CMA, in cooperation with the Cleveland Foundation, held a convening to honor and celebrate participants in the DAMLI program. DAMLI was founded in response to research revealing the discrepancy between the changing demographics of the United States and the leadership and board demographics of the nation’s art museums. For example, a 2015 Mellon Foundation study reported that while 38 percent of American people identify as Asian, black, Hispanic, or multiracial, only 16 percent of art museum leadership positions were held by people of those backgrounds. Also, art museum staff and leadership do not always reflect other forms of inclusion; racial representation is not the only measure of inclusivity. Therefore, barriers to entry into executive-level museum positions must be addressed as well. This includes socioeconomic disparities that don’t allow economically disadvantaged students the ability to take on things like unpaid internships, a very typical entry point into museum careers. Efforts must also address disparities in access based upon gender, sexuality, and disability.

As stated in the Walton Foundation’s introduction to the DAMLI initiative, “The future health of art museums and their ability to contribute to the vibrancy of their communities depends, in part, on their being relevant and appealing to the broadest cross-section of community residents. This requires that staff and boards of art museums change to better reflect the demographics of their community.”

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

The meeting at the CMA was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Walton Foundation with a matching grant from the Cleveland Foundation. It was organized through a collaboration between Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the staff of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Guests and presenters included Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation; Alice Walton, trustee of the Walton Family Foundation; Mariët Westermann, executive vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Jami Powell, associate curator of native art at the Hood Museum of Art; Angelique Power, president of the Field Foundation of Illinois and co-founder of Enrich Chicago; and Ken Gonzales-Day, artist and professor of art at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.

The stated goals of the convening included:

  • contextualizing the importance of diversifying art museum leadership in broader conversations about social and cultural change;
  • highlighting inspirational leaders in the fields of arts, culture, equity, and social justice;
  • deepening participant understanding about achieving diversity and equity through both increasing representation and shifting power within institutions, communities, cities, and the museum field;
  • building a cohort of peers and allies among staff at DAMLI grantee institutions to serve as resources for each other through the duration of the grant and beyond; and
  • strategizing about what we can accomplish collectively that we can’t accomplish alone.

The day opened with the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, a winner of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Jess read from a work inspired by Edmonia Lewis’s sculpture Indian Combat, from the CMA’s permanent collection. Born about 1842 and of African American and Native American descent, Lewis was the first African American sculptor to achieve international acclaim. Jess, along with the CMA’s deputy director and head of public and academic engagement, Cyra Levenson, helped to frame the conference for participants.

Indian Combat, 1868. Edmonia Lewis (American, c. 1844–1907). Marble, Overall: 76.2 x 48.3 x 36.5 cm. American Painting and Sculpture Sundry Purchase Fund and Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2011.110

Other participants hailed from the twenty museums of varying size and scope that received DAMLI funding, those implementing new programs, and/or those whose positions are supported by the grant. The group participated in three morning panels of foundation heads, curators, and artists followed by a series of topical roundtable discussions. The goal of each roundtable was to identify best practices and name any field-wide questions raised that need further discussion, research, resources, or leadership. There were more informal but focused conversations that drew out ideas from all participants, across job title or rank, type of museum they work in, geography, and background/identity.

(L-R): Jovonna Jones, Nanette Yannuzzi, Edi Dai, Claire Schwartz, Key Jo Lee, Oana Sanziana Marian, and Kenturah Davis view works in the Donna and James Reid Gallery. Photo by McKinley Wiley, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Elizabeth Bolander, director of audience insights and services at the CMA, led a roundtable discussion entitled “Best Practices in Evaluation and Assessment with an Equity Lens.” She said, “It was heartening to engage in dialogue with so many museum professionals committed to improving the field. It was also useful to discuss ways of measuring what we know and what we hope will come from this initiative, finding ways we can all collectively learn from our experiences.”

The CMA recognizes that diversity within its staff, collections and visitors is fundamental to its success, added Cyra Levenson, deputy director and head of public and academic engagement.

“The future of museums depends on the relationships we develop with our audiences,” Levenson said. “Art museums in particular can provide an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to connect to times and places beyond one’s own experience. This initiative is a key step in making these broader connections.”

“The future of museums depends on the relationships we develop with our audiences. Art museums in particular can provide an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to connect to times and places beyond one’s own experience. This initiative is a key step in making these broader connections.” — Cyra Levenson, Deputy Director and Head of Public and Academic Engagement

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