UNMASK THE TOP: A Call for Museum Transparency & Diversity

Matthew J. Donovan
Nov 12, 2020 · 14 min read

In UNMASK THE TOP: A Call for Museum Transparency & Diversity

“Who are the patrons of art, the museum board members, the collectors? Who is the audience for high culture? Who is allowed to interpret culture? Who is asked to make fundamental policy decisions? Who sets the priorities?” Maurice Berger, Are Art Museums Racist?

Looking at whether art institutions in Los Angeles are racist could be answered by way of acquiring the simple awareness that only a few leadership positions are occupied by people of color. Curate LA and The Future Left approached this question by first looking at the historical research on the subject and then honing in on where Los Angeles art institutions currently reside within that context. Most research on the subject was limited to small publications and newsletters until the 1980’s, but the majority of the investigations were focused on community engagement through a predominantly institutional lens, not through the self-critical lens we are presenting. In more recent research focused primarily on visitors and artists, it has been clear that the art institution as a category has hugely neglected diversity efforts, especially given the small amount of diversity existing in leadership positions — which is what lead to our project to focus on unmasking who is at the top of the major art institutions in Los Angeles.

Thinking more broadly, the art institution plays an important role in influencing culture, since it is one of the most sought-after leisure activities [1] for a wide variety of demographics. While trust in public institutions is at an all time low, art institutions are viewed as more trustworthy than local newspapers, nonprofit and academic researchers, as well as the U.S. government [2]. This important fact demonstrates the crucial role museums could play in restoring public trust in institutions and in the future of America, which relies upon it. Since museums represent an important role in the pillars of wider societal progress, institutions embodying anti-racist practices emboddy a form of insitutional justice. However, many see issues that may beguile the public interest that should be brought to the forefront of who exactly is curating, managing, and overseeing governance through the institutional boards.

In a landmark 1990 essay, curator and critic Maurice Berger indicated that the most pressing issue in art institutions is racism [4]. He points out that, for example, most visitors, curators, artists, publishers of art magazines and books, and board members are both white and male [1][5]. Berger goes on to explain how the art world’s earliest attempts to uplift previously underrepresented voices relinquished no significant structural power. At the institutional level, museums focusing on the heritage and history of people of color had a harder time receiving accreditation, belonging to another category of cultural repression.

Another landmark moment came from Fred Wilson’s work Mining The Museum shortly after in 1992: a scathing critique “effectively unmaking the familiar museological narrative as a narrow ideological project” or in plain talk, he was undoing the master narrative of the white and male European art world within the United States. One of the symbolic aspects of Wilson’s work was the placement of a Ku Klux Klan robe in a baby carriage, an item donated to the historical society. The folded robe representing eras of white supremacy was placed in a baby stroller and as Kerr points out, “the robe proved to be an especially haunting detail, as it suggested that racism is learned, inculcated, or even nurtured”. Such a powerful symbol is rare to come by, but this was a powerful show that resulted in the museum director at the Maryland Historical Society being fired for the lack of ‘self-critical museum practices’ and should be a lesson for museums of the future.

Have things changed since Berger’s challenge of art museums to feature more artists of color or Wilson’s provocation of the epistemological violence practiced by museums? It’s believed by some that these moments in the 1980’s and 90’s were part of a museological turn, according to Lisa Corrin, who states “[museums in this time period] performed a public purge of its past, owning up to the social inequities it reinforced through its un-self-critical practices.” One of the largest problems during this time was the lack of research with some mention of a newsletter in Berger’s essay, although researchers we encountered held that there was little research on leadership within institutions and there was only information on artists and visitors. Recent findings, such as from students in CUNY’s Guttman College 2016 fall class, analyzed the demographics of 1,300 artists represented by the city’s top 45 commercial galleries, finding that 80% were white and 70% male. [9] Additionally, we have reviewed studies such as the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) found that 72% of staff are white [6]. Interestingly, we did find that a greater amount of museum staff were women (60%), however the more important issue remained that few leadership positions were occupied by women (43%) [7].

When we are looking at contemporary museum culture, as mentioned earlier, one unprecedented study from the Public Library of Science journal, Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums, found that 85.4% of the works in the collections of all 18 of the major US museums belong to white artists and at the same time 87.4% were by men. Black artists have the lowest amount of works on display, 1.2%, while Asian artists total at 9%, and Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists. [5]

We additionally found that the inclusion of visitors as a category prompts museums to think about how they can create greater accessibility, engagement, educational programming, and outreach for the communities who have historically been neglected by the art world. When it came to who was in the audience of these cultural institutions, we looked at study from LaPlaza Cohen (LC) who surveyed 124,000 people and found most of the audience consisted of whiter, wealthier, more educated demographics. In LC’s report from April they found that they identified an inclusion problem for art museums audiences since 85% are White, 5% are Hispanic, 3% are Black, 4% are Asian or Pacific Islander, 2% are Native, and <1% are two or more races [1]. Some solution-oriented thinking around the issue from AAMD found that a huge piece of the puzzle neglected previously was the question where these museums were located geographically.

When looking at the research we found significant informational holes regarding board positions within the United States, thereby leading us to look at such positions within Los Angeles, since we are an activist group local to the city. Research from a 2018 study mentioned earlier showed a significant lack in representation in leadership at art museums, with a major issue being the absence of non-white and non-male representation across the board. The early research Curate LA brought together, looked at demographics of board members based on publicly identifiable information from race, ethnicity, gender, and the history of affiliations and political donations. What became clear from our own research on the subject, and as we had assumed from observing how these institutions influence the city, is that we haven’t progressed that far from 1990 through the present.

Given these findings, we teamed up with Curate LA to compile data and action focusing specifically on the leadership positions within Los Angeles art institutions.

Repost from Curate LA:

In support of the global movement towards equity and justice — as unionization movements proliferate around the world, and after a nationwide summer of unrest for Black lives and social justice — The Future Left and Curate LA looked to our hometown arts institutions to assess the arrangements of power and influence at the very top of their operations.

UNMASK THE TOP is a report on the directive makeup of 12 Los Angeles organizations: The Broad, Craft Contemporary, J. Paul Getty Trust, Hammer Museum, Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (ICA LA), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Lucas Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA), Norton Simon Museum, and REDCAT. In the collaboration between the political research organization The Future Left and Curate LA, transparency, diversity, and accountability were investigated on the basis of information that had been made public on the organizations’ respective websites.

In the first stage of our research, UNMASK THE TOP collected the race, sex, affiliations, and political contributions by their board members and trustees. We have shared our findings below; we want more information to be made public about the decision-makers and senior staff in order to inform visitors about the experience, transactions, and often endorsement of spaces through attendance or shared online content. At present, too few arts institutions achieve transparency, and diversifying a workforce alone is no longer sufficient to drive positive change at the systemic level of influence. Although institutions that meet our minimum standards have a “passing” score, we urge all organizations to take concrete steps toward equity and justice.

Out of the organizations investigated in our report, only some met our accessibility and transparency requirements: CAAM, J. Paul Getty Trust, Hammer Museum, ICA LA, LACMA, Lucas Museum, MOCA, and Norton Simon Museum. The Broad, Craft Contemporary, Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, and REDCAT must publish detailed roles about their board members and trustees publicly on their websites.

L.A.’s status as an international capital for art and culture is nothing without its thriving, cultural ecosystem. Curate LA has documented the city’s positive trajectory towards recognition as an international capital for art and culture since 2014, invested in the vitality of L.A.’s cultural ecosystem at all levels, and continue to be committed to further the diversity and economic development of our city, and best serve our artists, institutions, and community alike. Curate LA teamed up with the research and education based activist group, The Future Left, who has impacted the city through research on municipal elections and candidates, police accountability, and systemic issues, to further this cultural research project alongside putting our information into action.

The J. Paul Getty Trust and L.A.’s newest Lucas Museum account for a considerable percentage of the racially diverse boards of Black and other nonwhite members, while Black board members account for an overwhelming majority at the California African American Museum (CAAM).

LOWEST TO HIGHEST IN DIVERSITY

(BLACK/NONWHITE vs. WHITE):

10.2% (8:58) — LACMA

11.6% (2:15) — ICA LA

16.6% (2:10) — Norton Simon Museum

16.6% (7:35) — Hammer Museum

17.8% (7:32) — MOCA

22% (2:7) — Lucas Museum

23% (5:10) — J. Paul Getty Trust

100% — CAAM

Alongside The Future Left’s research concerned with the lack of racial and gender representation at leadership levels within the industry at large, we have drafted a letter of demands to the group of art institutions in the pursuit of transformative equity and inclusivity that could set the bar for existing and future organizations in our city and beyond.

A graph of Board gender representation at L.A. Art Institutions. Findings below.

Gender representation in these 12 art institutions:

LACMA: 11.5%F — 88.5%M

Huntington: 13.6%F — 86.4%M

Lucas Museum: 22.3%F — 77.7%M

Craft Contemporary: 28%F — 72%M

Norton Simon Museum: 33.3%F — 66.7%M

The Broad: 33.4%F — 66.6%M

ICA LA: 54.5%F — 45.5%M

CAAM: 50%F — 50%M

Hammer Museum: 50%F — 50%M

REDCAT: 50%F — 50%M

MOCA: 77.2%F — 22.8%M

J. Paul Getty Trust: 87.5%F — 12.5%M

Our report extends to directorship and curatorial levels where the landscape is predominantly white. Only some organizations publish detailed information of their senior staff on their websites (LACMA and Norton Simon do not). Positions held by Black and other POC are present at only out of featured organizations: CAAM, ICA LA, Lucas Museum, and REDCAT. *No institutions have clearly identified non-binary representation in their leadership, along multiple identity lines. We hope this will help to increase their visibility as well.

The letter to the 12 arts institutions is published below. Please consider joining us to make our demands heard: show your support and sign here. Download and share the infographics here.

. . .

To the directors and board members of The Broad, Craft

Contemporary, J. Paul Getty Trust, Hammer Museum, Huntington

Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, Institute of

Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), Los Angeles County

Museum of Art (LACMA), Lucas Museum, Museum of

Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), Norton Simon Museum,

and REDCAT:

The Los Angeles arts community, and those who rely on it, is facing its most challenging time. Through this unprecedented uncertainty, it is the steps taken and actions going forward that will dictate the direction of L.A.’s cultural ecosystem in the critical months ahead: an ecosystem that our thriving creative community have collectively progressed to

build upon over several years, earning recognition as an international capital for art and culture. As a platform that has documented this positive trajectory since 2014 — from its artists to its institutions — Curate LA continues to be committed to issues of accessibility and transparency to further the diverse, economic, and cultural development of our city. We have read about your support for Black Lives, racial justice, and gender equity, and we have observed your organizational pledges and pivots in your marketing campaigns. Artists, art workers, and citizens alike have increasingly challenged the prevailing directives of art organizations around the globe. L.A. is rife with such challenges. The systemic root of equity begins with those who hold the power to make structural decisions, which is why we bring attention to your places of leadership, where we have not seen the changes that we want to see. We want your commitments and messages of solidarity to materialize at the very top of your operations. Information about your senior leadership is opaque. It should not require an investigative team to gather intelligence about the decision makers at our local organizations, yet that is what we have had to do.

For Stage 1 of our campaign, Curate LA, in collaboration with The Future Left, investigated the directive makeup of twelve organizations. Unmask The Top includes the race, sex, affiliations, and political contributions by your board members and trustees respectively, with the goal of informing the public about the names listed on your websites, who ultimately represent and inform our experience with each space, in person or virtually. Out of the twelve organizations featured in our report, eight met our accessibility and transparency requirements; of these eight, two account for over 20% of a racially diverse board (the J. Paul Getty Trust and Lucas Museum at approximately 23% and 22% respectively), and a majority representation of women board members are structured at only the J. Paul Getty Trust, ICA LA, and MOCA. As the guiding forces of culture, we rely on you to be at the very forefront of accountability, transparency, and diversification. As our report shows, it is possible to actively operate in this way.

The California African American Museum (CAAM) is the only organization whose senior leadership reflects diversity, inclusivity, and affiliations across the board, as well as prove gender equality at both board and senior staff levels. We are discouraged that few organizations come close to these expectations. Focusing on diversifying your workforce is no longer sufficient. The public, your audiences, and the L.A. arts community at large deserve to have more information about the individuals sitting on your boards; who is influencing the decisions that are made about who and what are supported by your institutions, and why; what transactions we are committing to when we visit and participate in your institutions; who we are endorsing when we share your content. As the global call for change has initiated a landscape in which we cannot go back to the way things were, you now have an opportunity to set new standards and be an example for the rest of the art community, and so we demand the following:

  • Diversity, inclusivity, and equity be reflected across all levels of your organizations, especially at the leadership and board levels.
  • Greater transparency by publishing detailed profiles about your board members publicly on your websites.
  • Radical reevaluation by your Advancement divisions of the integrity of existing board members and to rethink and democratize the process by which prospective nominations are sought and elected.
  • No relations with anyone who furthers discriminations with their contributions or political ties by way of private and public gifts and donations.
  • Invest in the protection, wellbeing, and insurance of its staff and contractors, above the protection, wellbeing, and insurance of an artwork.
  • Give workers and community leaders a seat at the table so their interests can be represented and their needs met.

This prioritization of creating a just space needs to extend through all levels of your workforce. Gender pay gaps, wage disparity, employment benefits, and healthcare are some issues outlined in the 2020 Los Angeles Artist Census that continue to affect workers in our ecosystem. The growing unionization movement at cultural institutions across the country shows that workers would like to see institutions become significantly more equitable and inclusive through collective organizing, rather than through exploitative, top-down decision making.

We make these demands along with our supporters in the pursuit of transformative equity and inclusivity that could set the bar for other institutions in our city and beyond.

Sincerely,

Curate LA & The Future Left

Co-signed in Support by:

Patrisse Cullors, Crenshaw Dairy Mart / Black Lives Matter Global

Network

Shelley Holcomb, Curate LA Co-founder & CEO

Joshua Oduga

Elizabeth Pickens

Ceci Moss, Gas Gallery

Adam Feldmeth, Southland Institute

Luke Fischbeck, Human Resources LA

Julie Weitz, Artist

Nina Sarnelle, Artist

Shana Lutker, Project X Foundation for Art and Criticism

Austyn Weiner, Artist

. . .

Please consider joining Curate LA and The Future Left to make our demands heard: show your support and sign here. Thank you.

Credits:

Project led by Jonathan Velardi

Research by Farah Namvar and Matthew Donovan

Graphics by Brooke Olsen

A very special thank you to Paige Emery, Matthew Donovan, Jaden Adams, Amanda Vincelli, and Olivia Leiter of The Future Left.

Sources:

  1. LaPlaca Cohen, 2020, pp. 5–5, Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis. Link: https://culturetrack.com/research/reports/
  2. Wood, Catherine M. “Visitor Trust When Museums Are Not Neutral.” University of Washington, Seattle, 2018.
  3. “Museum Facts & Data.” American Alliance of Museums, 10 Aug. 2020, www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/museum-facts-data/.
  4. Berger, Maurice. “Are Art Museums Racist?” Art in America, 1990. Online link: https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/maurice-berger-are-art-museums-racist-1202682524/2/
  5. Topaz, Chad, et al. “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums.” Public Library of Science One, vol. 14, no. 3, 20 Mar. 2019, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212852.
  6. Schonfeld R, Westermann M. Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey; 2015. Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Retrieved from: https://mellon.org/programs/arts-and-cultural-heritage/art-history-conservation-museums/demographic-survey
  7. Gan AM, Voss ZG, Phillips L, Anagnos C, Wade AD. The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships; 2014. Association of Art Museum Directors and the National Center for Arts Research. Retrieved from: https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/The%20Gender%20Gap%20in%20Art%20Museum%20Directorships_0.pdf.
  8. Association of Art Museum Directors. Mapping the Reach of Art Museums; 2016. Retrieved from: https://aamd.org/advocacy/key-issues/mapping-the-reach-of-art-museums.
  9. Neuendorf, Henri. “It’s Official, 80% of the Artists in NYC’s Top Galleries Are White.” Artnet, news.artnet.com/art-world/new-york-galleries-study-979049.
  10. Kerr, Houston. “How Mining the Museum Changed the Art World.” BmoreArt, 3 May 2017, bmoreart.com/2017/05/how-mining-the-museum-changed-the-art-world.html.

The Future Left aims to accelerate the collective cultural…