The benefits of museum philanthropy that builds staff diversity rather than new wings and galleries

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Lisa M. Strong, Georgetown University

(THE CONVERSATION) Retired financier Oscar Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang, donate $125 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their donation, announced in November 2021, will help pay for a long-planned renovation of the New York Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Wing.

The donation was the largest donation the museum has ever received and led the couple to 22nd among America’s Top 50 Donors of 2021, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The donors did not impose any official requirements on how the money should be used, but expressed support for the Met’s plan to spend it on a new space that will display works by artists from a wide range of countries. and horizons.

As a specialist in museum studies, I would like a more inclusive view of the Met’s collection in a state-of-the-art gallery. However, I believe the institution would further improve its inclusion by taking steps to increase the diversity of its staff from top to bottom, especially at the entry level.

30 years of seeking more equity in art museums

Calls for greater social justice in museums began to be heard three decades ago.

The American Alliance of Museums, the largest professional museum organization, released a report in 1992 that highlighted this problem and called on museums to “become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences” and to “reflect the pluralism of our company in all aspects of their operations and programs.”

Since then, museums have recognized their need to increase the diversity of their collections and exhibits by reducing the overrepresentation of straight white male artists.

Eventually, this effort expanded to include a wide range of equity issues, as well as access for people with disabilities and various types of inclusion. In 2020, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, this movement has gained momentum at the Met and other museums.

A blocked pipeline

Because of historical inequalities, young people of color who embark on a career in an art museum are less likely to have families who can fund their unpaid internships or volunteer work. Done well, these types of early training opportunities help ensure that candidates of color will join the pool of museum professionals.

Lonnie Bunch featured this case in Alliance’s Museum magazine in 2000, long before he became the Smithsonian Institution’s first black secretary. Among his many responsibilities: supervising 21 museums, two of which are planned.

Despite Bunch’s personal rise and the Smithsonian’s recent hiring of Jane Carpenter-Rock, who is also black, as its new deputy director, the museums haven’t made enough progress toward that goal in recent years.

The most recent comprehensive demographic survey of art museums, conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2018, found that only 28% of all museum staff were people of color. He also determined that only 16% of conservatives and 12% of senior executives were non-white.

While there is no data yet regarding the number of people of color hired into museums since 2020, early reports suggest incremental increases and a sense of isolation among curators hired into high-level positions in museums. museums.

How could museums do better? There are many options, such as awarding grants for making progress towards a more diverse workforce or participating in diversity training. One solution that I rarely hear mentioned is to pay higher salaries to junior staff.

An assistant curator at a large metropolitan art museum may earn as little as $36,000 to start, while a senior curator at a similarly sized institution may earn four or five times as much.

This pay gap might have made sense in the past, when these jobs didn’t require college degrees. Today, however, most new recruits have earned an expensive master’s degree.

Even earning this degree doesn’t always help launch a career in the arts. Alumni of the program I run often tell me that they left coveted positions for better-paying work in another field. People of color typically enter the workforce with less generational wealth than their white peers, so it stands to reason that they are more likely to leave the profession due to low pay, if they do enter it.

A meaningful gift

In August 2020, Adrienne Arsht, a banker and arts philanthropist who had previously shored up the finances of the Miami Center for the Performing Arts, pledged $5 million to the Met to fully fund paid internships for 120 graduate and undergraduate students per year. .

Students unable to afford an unpaid internship would now participate in the Met’s valuable mentorship and training programs, “increasing opportunity and supporting equity in the arts”, Arsht promised. . In an interview, she said that applications increased by 300% once internship positions were paid.

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I see Arsht’s gift as a possible model for other wealthy donors who want to make long-term contributions to museum diversity, equity, and inclusion. A few similar examples have emerged, including a $462,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supports long-term paid internships at the National Gallery of Art for students at Howard University, a historically black school.

Overturn conventional wisdom

If the Met wants to present a more holistic and inclusive view of modern and contemporary art, it doesn’t need to revamp its Modern and Contemporary wing. He could hang more diverse art on the walls he already owns and use new donor funds to compensate his staff differently so that early-career hires of color have more incentive to stay.

But, as I’ve seen for a long time, museum managers and fundraisers generally assume that big donors don’t want to help cover day-to-day expenses, such as salaries.

Instead, conventional wisdom holds that great philanthropists prefer to make donations that are used to build new spaces and will give them the opportunity to see their own name splash on those new walls.

The Met’s internship program, now named after Arsht, is proof that some donors are willing to fund unglamorous expenses such as salaries for young professionals and students. If more philanthropists were willing to do this, it would surely help increase the diversity of museum staff in the long run.

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