Help Desk

Help Desk: Institutional Bias

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I freelance in a museum in a major metropolitan area with a diverse population, but the racial demographics of the institution’s staffing seem glaringly segregated. The white​-​collar office employees are mostly White, while Black and Brown employees comprise almost all of the security department. Within the exhibitions department, where I work, there are a few people of color in leadership positions, but the rest of the staff and freelancers are almost all white. While I haven’t felt any discrimination, the racial dynamics seem obvious and weird to me. What should I do?

Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel], 1951; latex paint on canvas; 72 x 108 in.

Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel], 1951; latex paint on canvas; 72 x 108 in.

Thanks for your question. February is Black History Month, so it might seem like this issue is especially well timed; however, this is a problem that extends beyond four weeks, and we’d all do well to consider it during the other eleven months of the year. I reached out to some people who are knowledgeable about these situations, and Roberta Uno, Director of Arts in a Changing America, and Monica Montgomery and Stephanie Cunningham of Museum Hue, have generously provided a wealth of resources that will aid you in thinking about creative solutions. Here’s what Ms. Uno wrote:

The situation the reader describes isn’t an anomaly. When I was the Senior Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the Ford Foundation, diversity reporting was a proposal requirement. Sadly, it was common to see little/no diversity in many large-budget arts institutions’ board and professional staff. Diversity, if any, would be clustered in the support staff line—despite the fact that the organization’s city was usually a majority people of color. Arts organizations that ignore the profound demographic shift that is occurring in this country risk being left behind as the U.S. joins a greater global community. Evolution is essential to remain relevant to current audiences and future donors—and to achieve excellence of ideas and perspectives.

Forward-thinking leaders are offering best practice towards that change. Great resources can be found at Grantmakers in the Arts Racial Equity Forum and Helicon. Innovative field leaders like the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture have developed model leadership institutes. Organizations like the Center for Curatorial Leadership have recognized that diversity in the museum field is critical and are trying to hone new approaches. And convenings of national projects like Arts in a Changing America and Citizens’ University are bringing together artists and idea producers who are at the leading edge of the arts and cultural equity practice. Change occurs along a spectrum—if an organization can make a commitment and strategy, they have only the future to gain.

Monica Montgomery and Stephanie Cunningham of Museum Hue—an organization celebrating its one-year anniversary this week—also sent along some great ideas to help you work on this issue. Here’s what they said:

A combination of implicit bias, cultural insensitivity, and exclusionary hiring practices have made this scenario all too common within the humanities, and more specifically, within museums. We believe museum staff should reflect the breadth of diversity of the U.S. population. People of color are more than qualified to lead institutions but frequently overlooked, ignored, undermined, and left out of the conversation and the spheres of influence where hiring decisions are made. The disheartening statistics from a recent Department of Cultural Affairs survey show that little has changed despite the endless platitudes about the urgency of diversity.

Museum Hue is a group of millennial, Black and Brown, socially conscious museum and culture workers who hold space for ourselves and our peers and counter false narratives that we were “hard to find.” We advance the viability and visibility of people of color using arts, culture, and museums as a medium for discussion and creation. We started Museum Hue after realizing we can’t wait—we had to be self-reliant and generate our own solutions, jobs, and economy.

We are currently forging alliances with cultural institutions to increase diversity in operations, governance, and staffing. We created a private Facebook jobs group with a swelling roster of 800 people primarily of diverse backgrounds. Last year we placed twelve people in jobs, and hope to facilitate more employment connections this year. As a result of the goodwill we’ve generated and the strength of our brand, museums and HR managers that are truly seeking diversity look to us to find quality candidates and we are happy to give the gift of employment to those who may have normally been passed over. It is imperative for the future of the field and the sake of your colleagues and aspiring/emerging museum professionals to have dedicated pipelines for POC to enter leadership opportunities and thriving wage employment within museums and creative careers.

Here are some further resources, courtesy of Museum Hue:

The Social Justice & Museums Resources List (initiated by La Tanya S. Autry, @Artstuffmatters, July 2015) 

Fellowships and programs for diversity & leadership:

NY Community Trust – Cultural Advocacy Equity Program

EMC Arts – Arts Leaders As Cultural Innovators Fellowship

Studio Museum in Harlem – Museum Education Practicum 

CCCADI – Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship

Rutgers Newark – The Institute for Ethical Leadership

On Twitter:

#MuseumWorkersSpeak is a monthly tweetchat on the first Wednesday of the month. It advocates for equity, parity, paid internships, diversity, and more. MWS has chapters around the country, with all tweetchats archived on the site using Storify and a robust resources list as well:

There is also a monthly social justice and racial equity tweet-chat led by Aleia Brown & Adrianne Russell: #MuseumRespondtoFerguson

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So what can you do? Start by investigating the resources listed on this page. Engage in the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat if you can—another freelancer in the same situation might be able to give you smart tips on where to begin the conversation at your institution. Find your museum’s mission statement and see where there is space to talk about diversity and hiring practices. Ask if there’s a specific policy or initiative within the institution to address diversity issues. Identify allies within your department and beyond. Communicate with workers in other departments and find out how they might contribute. Start making a team that might be able to draft a proposal and deliver it to the museum’s leadership.

Let me be clear that this is not a problem that only concerns POC; inclusion is an issue that belongs to everyone—that’s the whole point. For allies, here’s an encouraging message from Jamila Woods: “I think white people who want to take positive action should start to asset map. Rather than being frozen in guilt and thinking about what you ‘can’t do’ or how daunting actions may seem, think of all the skills you have and all the communities and spaces you have access to. How can you utilize your assets to create real impact for Black liberation?”

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I want to end this week’s column by saying that love is advocacy and love is justice. Look around and you’ll find a place to begin. Good luck!