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Study Finds Art Museums Are Slowly Becoming More Diverse, but Progress Is ‘Uneven’

While more people of color are being hired at museums, there has been little change in diversity among senior leadership, especially

The new survey follows up on findings from 2015. (iStock/mmac72)
smithsonian.com

A comprehensive survey of art museums in the United States has found that institutions are hiring more diverse employees—though progress is, among some departments, incremental.

The survey was undertaken by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums and the research firm Ithaka S+R. The report is a follow-up to a 2015 survey that found a striking homogeneity among museum staff; 84 percent of the curators, educators, conservators and “museum leadership” within the institutions studied were revealed to be white non-Hispanic.

“It clearly was a wake-up call for the field,” Mariët Westermann, executive vice president of the Mellon Foundation, tells Sara Aridi of the New York Times.

To gauge whether progress is being made, researchers looked at 2018 data from 332 art museums and more than 30,000 employees. They found that people of color now make up 35 percent of museum hires, compared to 26 percent in 2015. Much of this change was observed in curatorial and education departments. In 2018, 16 percent of curators and 26 percent of education workers were people of color, compared to 12 and 20 percent in 2015.

But in other departments, changes in diversity have been negligible. Eleven percent of conservation roles were filled by people of color in 2018, a meager increase of one from 10 percent in 2015. Similarly, the proportion of museum leadership roles, which includes executive positions, rose from 11 percent in 2015 to 12 percent in 2018. The study says that the discrepancy between different museums departments is due, in part, to variations in turn-over rates: Conservation and museum leadership roles are less diverse because “there was less new hiring and more longevity in employees of these departments,” the researchers write.

The survey also looked at gender diversity among museum staff, and found that women continue to be well-represented in the field. In 2015, they made up 59 percent of art museum employees; in 2018, 61 percent of museum workers were women. In fact, women constitute the majority of all “intellectual leadership positions,” which includes conservation, curatorial and education and leadership roles. But a majority of museum directorships continue to be held by men, as are curatorial roles with management responsibilities.

This data suggests that progress is “uneven,” and that the most senior leadership positions are especially lacking in diversity, Westermann writes in a foreword to the new study. But efforts are underway to level the playing field. The Association of Art Museum Directors, for instance, recently announced a paid internship program for minority college students. And the Mellon Foundation has established a $4 million grant to support diversity among museum boards.

According to Westermann, the survey’s findings represent a positive indication that change is happening—even if it has, to date, been “slow.”

“These results show that diverse hiring is entirely possible,” she writes, “and encourage all of us to do more to realize that potential.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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