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Diversity Diversion: Plumbing Museums’ “Pipeline” Problem in Hiring Minorities

It’s easy to say that art museums ought to be hiring more minority candidates, and it’s also easy to get museums to agree that they should do so. Nevertheless, NYC’s cultural institutions have been slow to fulfill those good intentions, according to the NY Times‘ pesky assessment by Sarah BahrIs New York’s Arts Diversity Plan Working? It’s Hard to Tell.

Bahr examines the progress (or lack thereof) in meeting the goals set in “CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for New Yorkers”—a 180-page city government report from 2017 that her article repeatedly references but never links to in the Times’ online version of her piece.

Here’s that report. (You’re welcome.)

Detail from cover of “CreateNYC,” New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

While this persistent problem is arguably a manifestation of museums’ systemic racism, it must also be understood as a “pipeline problem”—the relative scarcity of well trained minority candidates for curatorships and executive positions and major visual arts institutions. But if a museum official were to be so bold as to state this publicly, his or her analysis would likely be dismissed as a cop-out.

Nevertheless, Daniel Weiss, president of the the Metropolitan Museum, dared to utter the “p” word in his recent wide-ranging conversation with Pauline Willis, director of the American Federation of Arts:

One of the fundamental challenges in art museums is that the pipeline of talented people [emphasis added] who want to work in museums is not as diverse or representative of the larger society as it needs to be if we’re truly to be an institution that reflects the world around us. There needs to be a stronger, more robust level of interest across our society….

We all are taking a great deal of criticism, some of it deserved, a lot of it not deserved. I don’t take it personally, because I know me and that isn’t me. I know that is not a fair criticism, but I understand where it’s coming from, and that it’s really not about me. It’s about the problem of institutions like the Met and the problem of people like me who have these jobs, so I’ve learned to look for the good in those questions.

Daniel Weiss talking to Pauline Willis via Zoom Webinar from his Met office
Painting behind him: Andreas Achenbach, “Sunset after a Storm on the Coast of Sicily,” 1853

Some recent critics—most notably Darren Walker, president of the deep-pocketed Ford Foundation—have become more of a hindrance than a help, publicly making impossible demands and then denouncing those who fail to promptly comply with their edicts.

In a recent article about the uprising among current and former staffers at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the NY TimesGraham Bowley described Walker’s belief that director Salvador Salort-Pons needed “to overhaul the museum to better reflect Detroit.”

Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation
Photo: Ford Foundation

Walker, who was recently elected to the board of the National Gallery of Art, took upon himself the task of preempting the judgment of the DIA’s trustees.

He told Bowley this:

He [Salort-Pons] can only do this job if he is willing the shake the very foundations of that museum. If he does not have the courage to do that, he should not be the director [emphasis added].

That out-of-bounds comment oversteps Walker’s professional role: Grantmakers from private foundations may decline to fund organizations that don’t meet their standards, but their proper function is to assist their grantees in their fulfilling their goals, not to interfere in how they are run or in decisions about who runs them.

As I reported on Aug. 6, Salort-Pons sought to address (in a Director’s Letter, posted online), the issues that he had correctly guessed (from Bowley’s questions) would be a negative report from the Times writer, “based on the premise, heard from former employees, that we are no longer taking a visitor-centered approach to our work and that this has caused poor outreach to Black communities in Detroit.”

Salvador Salort-Pons
Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts

In his Aug. 24 article, Bowley failed to mention Salort-Pons’ letter, in which the director detailed the ways in which the DIA strives to serve African-American communities, adding that “we have much more to do, and we need to do it with more urgency while listening to all points of view”—a standard museum mea culpa, in the post-George Floyd era.

A crucial challenge for all museums is bolstering the “pipeline,” via training programs and internships, preparing those who might not otherwise apply for employment. To this end, the Met recently promulgated a 13-point plan for fostering “Anti-Racism, Diversity, and a Stronger Community.”

“These are things we identified that we could do, either right now or very soon,” Weiss told Willis. “If we execute them, we will absolutely be moving the institution in the right direction.”

Maybe so. But it’s not like the Met hasn’t been down this rocky road before: In December 1974, when I was editor of Art Letter (a monthly newsletter then published under the auspices of Art in America magazine), I wrote an item (not available online) titled: “Met Scored on Hiring Practices.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The Metropolitan Museum bills itself as an “equal opportunity employer,” but an as yet unreleased study of the museum’s hiring practices, conducted by NYC’s Human Rights Commission, has cast that claim in some doubt. The report reveals that of the Met’s 165 professional staff members (curators, conservators, educators, librarians), only 14 were black, oriental [1970s-speak for Asian] or Spanish surnamed.

Met personnel manager John Conger, who released this figure after Art Letter got wind of the report, said it would be “premature” for him to discuss the commission’s findings in greater detail. The museum, he said, is now concluding negotiations with the commission to set up “goals” or “guidelines” (he dislikes “quotas”) for hiring. The three-year agreement…will be based on anticipated turnover in various job categories. An effort will be made to fill vacancies with qualified minority group members and women.

“In the past, we have been unable to attract minority applicants,” said Conger in an Art Letter interview. “They haven’t replied to our ads in the same proportion as non-minorities. Many of our specialized fields have not been gone into by blacks historically, such as the museum education and curatorial fields.”…

Fast forward to my lead story in Art Letter (a precursor of CultureGrrl) for April 1977—“Affirmative Action and Museums: Much Talk, Little Progress”:

Everyone knows that minority group members are under-represented on the professional staffs of museums, and many museums have tried to do something about it. To be sure, there are still some institutions where such efforts are minimal or nonexistent. David Warren, associate director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, reported that all the curators there are white and added, “We don’t beat the bushes to try to balance the scale. We hire entirely on merit.” [Today, he’d likely be forced to eat those words.]

Most museum officials contacted recently by Art Letter reported that they had made serious attempts at minority hiring in the last few years….Yet, despite these efforts, Art Letter interviews indicate that there has probably been little change since 1972, when data gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Museums U.S.A” survey revealed that 88% of the professional employees in art museums were white….

In other words, the more things change, the more they remain the same…at least up until this possibly transformative moment.

On a more positive note, let me introduce you to someone who broke the art-museum color barrier early on—Lowery Sims, who was recently featured in a video from Met Stories—one of the Metropolitan Museum’s 150th-anniversary initiatives:

Lowery Sims as she appeared in a “Met Stories” video
Screenshot at 5:07

I was born the same year as Lowery and have known her professionally since the early days of her 27-year Met career. (That’s not me in the screenshot below.)

Lowery Sims in the same “Met Stories” video
Screenshot at 5:09

After leaving the Met (where she had been curator of modern and contemporary art), she became executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and then curator (later, chief curator, until 2015) at NYC’s Museum of Arts and Design:

Lowery Sims at the Museum of Arts and Design
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now an independent curator, Sims was filmed for a segment in the Met’s Breaking Down Barriers video, in which she was perusing the recent “Epic Abstraction” exhibition (which I reviewed here).

Her segment in the video starts at 5:01. Below is an excerpt from her remarks:

At the time [when Sims worked there], the Met’s view of contemporary art was very conservative. My interest was in having a much more diverse representation by bringing in works from artists of color to disrupt that narrative.

Every time I introduced a work by a woman or a person of color, somebody always asked the dimension. And no matter what dimensions I gave, they’d go: “I’m afraid that’s a little too big.” So I’d go: “Hmmm…”

In the mid ’90s, the artworld itself was changing, so the museum decided to (sort of) deal with issues of diversity. We were trying to represent the totality of human endeavor. From my point of view, it was a sea-change from when I started….

Institutions are so used to being a “unilateral authority.”

Captioned screenshot from the “Met Stories” video

But if institutions are inviting people in, they have to be ready for dialogue. My work in community programs [at the beginning of her career] really set a model and trajectory for my curatorial work. I was constantly having dialogues with community members about how they felt about the Met….I always ask and listen and go on from there.

I haven’t seen Sims in several years and I have no idea if a return to her former professional home would interest her. But it seems to me that with her deep insights, rich experience and long institutional memory (not to mention her lively wit), she’d be an asset to the Met at this watershed moment, as it considers what to do about modern and contemporary art (post-Met Breuer), at a time when (in Weiss’ above-quoted words) the museum is not “as diverse or representative of the larger society as it needs to be if we’re truly to be an institution that reflects the world around us.”

Even the Met’s new generation of critics, both internal and external, might value Lowery as a sympathetic listener who “always asks and listens and goes on from there.”

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