Editors’ note: NPQ keeps track of what is going on in the operating environment of nonprofits largely through its daily newswire. A team of volunteer writers and staff produces around seven newswire stories and one feature a day—and these track, over time, developments in practice, policy, philanthropy, and movements. The newswires are informed by those that have come before, as well as by research and the practice experiences of the writers. With this process, NPQ keeps readers up to date on emerging ideas and forms of action. This article traces our coverage over five years of the evolution of a field in flux: museums. The newswire stories within highlight the role of museums in supporting status-quo narratives and provide a sense of how ideas about and accountability in museum curation, repatriation of art and artifacts, and leadership and influence have developed over this relatively short period.
Readers will find other related articles on narrative from the winter 2018 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly below this article.
Museums, as repositories of historical artifacts, contain interpretations of culture, history, and the natural world, traditionally through the lens of the monied class. In this way, dominant narratives and cultural perceptions are reinforced to the visiting public with “authority” and “gravitas.”
Recently, activists have begun to apply increasing pressure on a number of leverage points in museum systems: leadership and curatorial staff, financial backers, and the institutions’ narrative habits, as well as the provenance of institutional holdings. The question becomes, “Whose knowledge is it?”—and, by extension, “Whose world?”
WHAT DOES A NEW PRACTICE ENTAIL?
Questions about the colonialist tendencies of museums are very active in that world and have been for a number of decades; but recently, the volume and persistence of questions has increased, and calls for a process of cultural decolonization have taken center stage. A recent article in the Journal of Museum Education is called “Inclusion Requires Fracturing.”1 It discusses the fact that the process of decolonizing museums—and in this case, the author, Swarupa Anila, is discussing art museums—requires more than merely additions to exhibits or special exhibit spaces:
Polyvocal representation, participatory and co-creative community-engaged interpretive practices can be powerful tools toward inclusive, reparative work in art museums. However, these tools can only ever be partially liberatory because they merely disrupt and fracture known museum practice. What becomes possible if the tools become strategies that are integrated into all aspects of museum practice? Within broader museum systems, similar work must infuse collection, curating, operations, hiring, staffing, and echo throughout all functions of the museum. There is great opportunity in new collecting practices to release artistic expression and cultural representation from long-held taxonomies; we can seek and create different ways of seeing and thinking to unfix what seemed fixed. Interpretive planning, as a relatively young field in art museums, and the work of educators in interpretive development can be vulnerable within institutions where stable ground is sought and practices become institutionalized as foundational. But in that yet-unformed space may lie the strongest opportunity to push for and achieve next practices in equitable cultural representation, identity formation, and critical reflection. These activities do not merely redress past wrongs but exploit the power of the art museum to design more generative, engaged, luminous, and joyful futures.2
WHO OWNS OUR STORY? THE PROBLEM WITH MUSEUM-BASED NARRATIVE
Many larger cultural institutions in the United States are, at least in significant part, supported by an elite class of donor members of which many share a dominant worldview, and this may cause a narrowness of approach to the exhibition of art and history. Some public, private, and individual funders have begun to push accountability regarding the inclusiveness of the arts. One large initiative NPQ reported on in 2017 was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s, which links all of the city’s cultural funding to the diversity of employees and board members of those institutions. This followed the release of a report, funded by the Ford Foundation: CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers.3
This, explained Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times, “puts pressure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History and other preeminent institutions that are led largely by white male executives and power brokers from Wall Street, real estate and other industries.”4
New York City spends more on arts and culture than any other city in the United States—and more than any single state. The budget of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs exceeds that of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The city has been funding the arts since the nineteenth century, but until now, City Hall has never embarked on a comprehensive review of where all that money goes and what it does.
Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president and a major proponent both of the arts and racial equity, has said, “Some part of this is going to be disruptive. That is a good thing, if it produces a fairer system.”5 But pressure is not only coming from institutional supporters of the arts. A year later, a high-dollar donor couple made their contribution to the Metropolitan Museum dependent on a less colonialist approach to the exhibition of the art of Native American people—and they made that gift conditional on the placement of the art in the American wing rather than the galleries for Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, so it would be seen as part of this country’s narrative.6 But depending on enlightened individual donors to make these points leaves the ownership of narrative in their hands, and sometimes those hands have an interest in controlling the narrative. Corporate sponsorship of museum exhibits is eliciting numerous environmental protests across Europe. A newswire report by NPQ in 2013 addressed Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis exhibit, at the Natural History Museum in London:7
“These photographs document environments that have great scientific importance as well as aesthetic appeal,” says museum director Dr. Michael Dixon. “They show the inspiring diversity of our planet, a natural wealth for which we are all responsible.”8
But the sponsor who made the whole thing possible was Vale, a Brazilian mining company that had been called out in 2012 by The Public Eye, an annual competition held by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration, as the corporation having the greatest “contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world.9 [In “Sebastião Salgado and Cultural Capital,”10] Lewis Bush writes: “Hans Haacke, whose art and writing have long critiqued the relationship between cultural institutions and large corporations, argues that sponsorship is rarely about altruism and always about exchange. It is ‘an exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored.’ According to Haacke, symbolic capital represents or results in public good will, corporate recognition, and a favourable political atmosphere for the activities of the sponsor. He also notes that the tax-deductible nature of cultural donations means that paying museum visitors are often in effect subsidizing tax breaks for the corporations who donate.”11
Similarly, recent research has also uncovered the way in which the billionaire class appears to marry its cultural and political influence. Chelsea Reichert reported on this in her newswire story “Philanthropy, Democracy, and the Weird Civic Playground of Nonprofit Museums,”12 in which she covered Andrea Fraser’s book 2016: in Museums, Money, and Politics:13
Fraser…states, “Social scientists and other observers of politics…conclude that our system of government is no longer a democracy—government by the people through elected representatives. Instead, the United States has become a plutocracy—government by the wealthy.”14 As elected officials increasingly prioritize the acquisition of wealth, nonprofit institutions follow. And as the wealthy find increased power and influence in political contributions, they find the same in philanthropic donations. Just as Donald Trump assembled “the wealthiest cabinet in U.S. history,”15 nonprofits have assembled some of the wealthiest, and most politically influential, boards in history.
In the book’s study of 5,458 individual board members, over 42.5 percent made political contributions over $200 (the threshold for reporting). These individuals made over 36,000 political contributions. For perspective, less than 1 percent of the adult American population gives more than $200 to political campaigns. The same individuals, as nonprofit board members, are often called upon to donate to their respective nonprofits or cultivate donations from affluent friends and colleagues. As the wealthy doubled their wealth between 1984 and 2016, donations to cultural institutions grew from $3.85 billion to $18.21 billion. The same people influencing political policy tend to be the same people influencing the decisions of major cultural institutions, and they don’t represent the common American.16
In fact, U.S. museum leadership and curatorial staff have traditionally been so white that the institutions they guide have helped to marginalize entire cultures into subsidiaries of a main dominant and largely colonialist narrative. This has been well documented in studies done by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).17
It should be said that the field is one of the few that have undertaken such studies on a consistent basis. Still, the 2017 AAM study offered pretty stark statistics as far as diversity and inclusion are concerned18—worse than the sector overall, if we compare these numbers to the nonprofits surveyed by BoardSource’s most recent Leading with Intent study.19 For instance, the demographic profile of museum board members in the United States reveals considerable ethnic and racial homogeneity, along with minimal age diversity. Board composition is tipped to white, older males—more so than at other nonprofit organizations. Forty-six percent of museum boards are all white, compared to 30 percent of nonprofit boards.20
Additionally, the study’s findings revealed that 93 percent of museum directors are white, as are 92.6 percent of board chairs and 89.3 percent of board members.21 But even though “museum directors and board chairs believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions,”22 they have failed to prioritize action steps to advance these goals. Despite this, museum board chairs identified fundraising as the most important area for board improvement.
Also, at that time, the survey found no sign of a leadership pipeline for museum staff from historically underrepresented minorities among the 181 art museums responding. Among those highly paid positions of curators, conservators, educators, and leaders, 4 percent are African American, 3 percent are Latinx, and Asians account for 6 percent. Whites hold 84 percent of these high-level jobs.23 Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, suggested at the time that two specific results point to pathways for diversifying museum leadership and the positions that shape museums as venues of research and lifelong education:
First, progress is likely to be swifter and easier on gender equality than on minority representation. As museum staff has become 60 percent female over the past decade or so, there is now also a preponderance of women in the curatorial, conservation, and educational roles that constitute the pipeline for leadership positions such as museum director, chief curator, and head of conservation or education. With close attention to equitable promotion and hiring practices for senior positions, art museums should be able to achieve greater gender equality in their leadership cohorts within the foreseeable future.
Second, there is no comparable “youth bulge” of staff from historically underrepresented minorities in curatorial, education, or conservation departments. The percentages of staff from underrepresented communities in such positions are basically level at 27.5 percent across the different age cohorts born from the 1960s to 1990s. Therefore, even promotion protocols that are maximally intentional about the organizational benefits of diversity are not going to make museum leadership cohorts notably more diverse if there is no simultaneous increase in the presence of historically underrepresented minorities on museum staff altogether, and particularly in the professions that drive the museum’s programs in collection development, research, exhibitions, and education. This finding suggests that diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures. It also indicates that the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions.24
And in fact, more and more often, permanent and temporary museums are bringing untold narratives to communities where museums won’t, and this may be helping to push institutionally based museums to act more responsibly. The following newswire reports illuminate how museums can help to deepen and legitimate underrepresented narratives.
CENTERING AND HONORING MARGINALIZED HISTORIES
In a newswire story by Anne Eigeman, “Museums, Neighborhoods, and Gentrification: Lessons from the Nation’s Capital,”40 she discusses an exhibit called A Right to the City:
Examining six city neighborhoods—three in the city’s northwest quadrant (Adams Morgan, Chinatown, and Shaw) and three from the city’s three other quadrants (Brookland in Northeast, Southwest, and Anacostia in Southeast)—the exhibition takes a close look at how ordinary Washingtonians have helped to “shape and reshape their neighborhoods.”41
The exhibit focuses on the period from the 1940s to the 1970s. The 1970s, as Washingtonians know well, was the period when limited “home rule”—including a directly elected city council and mayor—came to the nation’s capital. The rise of home rule was linked closely to the Black Power movement of its time. By 1970, the city’s population itself was more than two-thirds Black. In 1975, the funk group Parliament released a song that famously labeled Washington “Chocolate City.”
Last month, at a day-long symposium sponsored by the museum, the rise of Chocolate City was contrasted with the city’s more recent gentrification. In 2011, the percentage of Black residents in Washington fell below 50 percent for the first time in over half a century. Howard Gillette, professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, observed that in many respects the District of Columbia has become “ground zero for gentrification and social justice issues that are going on nationally.”42
Introducing the symposium, Samir Meghelli, senior curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, explained that it was no mistake that the museum’s founding director, John Kinard, also the first Black director of a Smithsonian museum at age 31, had previously been a community organizer. “Museums, he believed, had to reimagine their roles, to connect and strengthen communities and to ignite change.”43
Stakeholders have become more activist in holding up their concerns about the ways in which museum exhibits are mishandled and reflective of dominant narratives. This can be traced back to the identities of curatorial staff, as Chelsea Dennis describes below.44
But habits of cultural appropriation die hard, as the report below describes.55