Art Museums Might Become More Diverse, Thanks to the Mellon Foundation

by Corinna Kirsch on January 6, 2014 · 7 comments Newswire

museum workforce by race

Pie chart courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums

Are art museums far too white? Well, yes. According to the American Alliance of Museums, about 80% of museum workers are white, and 50% are men. Okay, so it’s clear to see there’s not a lot of diversity in the field. In order to help change this situation, the Andrew K. Mellon Foundation has initiated a two-million-dollar diversity fellowship to help students from underprivileged backgrounds receive hands-on curatorial training in major art museums across the United States.

Chicago-based critic Jason Foumberg just published a pretty thorough report on this fellowship in advance of its debut next year at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the High Museum (Atlanta). No New York institutions are involved. Outlining how the program will work, Foumberg writes:

The pilot program establishes a paid fellowship for twenty college undergraduates. That’s four students in each participating city. In addition to the one-on-one mentoring and academic advising with established curators, the students will receive $10,000 each summer, for four summers, to work a museum internship. (Paid museum internships for undergraduates are quite rare; typically, college interns pay tuition for one.) The four-year program guides students through their first year of graduate studies in art history, in preparation for the PhD required to work in most curatorial offices.

This small step (just twenty students overall will end up completing the program) has potential; sometimes it takes just one curator to transform the types of programs and exhibitions a museum produces. Still, it’s disappointing to think that American museums need an outside granting institution to change what’s become an increasingly closed system—Foumberg points out that museums often hire internally.

I’ll take whatever method works (and cross my fingers that museums will change their current hiring processes in the meantime). If not, and we continue to sit still, museums will be well on their way to becoming bastions for the elite. As art critic Ben Davis points out, over the last few years diversity in museum audiences has been dwindling—about 92 percent of frequent museum-goers are white.

  • Anon guy

    Your first paragraph doesn’t make sense – museum workers are 80% white and 50% male. The United States is 75% white and 49% male according to the organization you cite:
    http://aam-us.org/docs/center-for-the-future-of-museums/museum-workforce.pdf?sfvrsn=0

    I’m chalking this up to lazy blog writing as opposed to some weird political statement that overall museum workers should be disproportionately female?

    Either way, these stats are also meaningless as they account for the director of the Met down to the janitor. It is much more important *who* has *what* job, which seems to be the point of this fellowship.

    • http://www.corinnakirsch.com/ Corinna Kirsch

      Lazy blog writing? I am so offended. : (

      • http://www.corinnakirsch.com/ Corinna Kirsch

        Seriously now, I don’t understand your problems. If I go through each paragraph:

        1) The AAM is one of the most reputable organizations for contemporary museum knowledge and I stick to their survey. But as for your finding additional information I didn’t mention in my piece about the U.S. as 75% white, I hate to tell you, but that’s what the census bureau would say, too. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

        2) What’s more important than numbers is common knowledge, like the idea that a major U.S. foundation has taken notice of the problem and is willing to pour two-million into a project to help give representation to previously underrepresented groups in curatorial departments. Does this solve every problem? No. But of course there should be more women in curatorial departments when the majority of Art History, Curatorial, and Arts Administration departments are female. That’s another issue, but it points to just how much hiring practices at museums need to improve—and they’re endemic, from the development departments to accounting to curatorial, etc.

        3) Again, I stand by the stats because they show an endemic problem. And yes, “who has what job” is important for the fellowship. That one we can agree on.

        • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

          I don’t understand how the United States being 75 percent white and 49 percent male is relevant here anyway. The piece is discussing museum workers. I think it’s fair to say that the 50 percent male stat is a confusing inclusion because it shows equal representation, at least by gender. That’s an editing issue though, not “lazy blog writing”.

          That part of Anon’s comment I take issue with, because it operates with the assumption that because a mistake was made, the blog must be lazy or it would never have been made. Why assume that though? People make mistakes all the time, most of them common or trivial. It’s not
          because we’re lazy; it’s because we’re human.

          • Anon guy

            Paddy basically got to my point – the 80% white/50% male stat *is* confusing.

            I totally agree that the art world has giant race and gender issues in employment as well as in exhibitions. However, citing statistics that basically say that museum workers mirror the general population of the US is actually a counter-argument to the point you are trying to make – which is confusing.

            I think these issues are important, so just wish a little more diligence was paid to research that supports the argument. A quick google search came up with:
            http://manyonline.org/sites/default/files/pages/%3Cem%3EEdit%20Basic%20page%3C/em%3E%20Diversity/MANY-diversityboard.pdf

            My ‘lazy’ comment probably has more to due with editing than writing afterall, so apologies to Corinna but looking at you now Paddy :)

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            Got it. This is good feedback and I appreciate it.

          • http://www.corinnakirsch.com/ Corinna Kirsch

            I totally see your point now and it’s a good one. I don’t want to make this comment thread go on forever, but I still stick to my guns with those statistics, even though I should have added that they should be more diverse given that most museums are in cities and that most museum-field related graduates are females.

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