Relevance, Diversity, and Progress in the Arts

Posted by Mariët Westermann, Dec 04, 2018 0 comments

About fifteen years ago, when I became director of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, I asked our excellent, long-serving faculty a simple question:

How are we going to be relevant in 20 years?

The Institute was one of be the best—arguably the best—institution of its kind in the world. Renowned art historians. Outstanding teachers. Leading curators and conservators. An unparalleled locational endowment, with two fantastic buildings near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and choice excavations in Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. The most aspiring graduate students from the US and all over the world. It would have been easy to keep doing what we were doing and reassure ourselves we’d still be the best.

But there was a little problem likely to become a big one as the 21st century marched on: our focus was almost entirely on Europe and the ancient Mediterranean. Eastern Europe was mostly absent from our curriculum, let alone Africa, the Americas, and most of Asia. With just a handful of professors with expertise in the arts of Islam, China, and modern Latin America, our prestige was ultimately founded on centuries-old biases of art history and archaeology. It was clear that for the Institute to attract the next generation of aspiring scholars, curators, and conservators of art, we had to expand what we researched and taught. But as quite a few of our professors were facing retirement, they worried about the Institute losing their fields as we sought to broaden our scope.

To get faculty on board for intellectual change, it is important to show that bringing in new voices and perspectives need not compromise academic excellence as defined by their fields. So with a new development team and the great partnership of NYU’s president, John Sexton, we raised resources to be able to hire five new faculty ahead of pending retirements.

Rather than proceed hire-by-hire with this great opportunity, I asked one of our youngest faculty members, who represented a non-European field, to lead a Futures Committee to plot the way forward. The group took its time and consulted broadly. The effort was worth it: they gained consensus to decenter the Institute’s view of the world without weakening our core and important strengths. With that strategic goal the faculty devised a common plan—never easy in the academy!—by which we would recruit the sharpest minds, energetic teachers, and most diverse group of scholars to the Institute.

And we did. We brought additional historians of the arts of the Middle East, Latin America, China, and the contemporary world (which is inevitably global) into our midst. We tried hard to recruit a Japanist and an Africanist but failed; those losses came early, but those searches were nevertheless important for our evolving understanding of our institution. The process focused us on the need to bring more visiting faculty from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art to expand our offerings in those areas.

Both the fruitful and unsuccessful searches changed the way we re-imagined our institution as a globally connected multicultural institution that would study, represent, and teach art in its full human diversity.

It became evident that along with changing what our faculty taught, we had to change who, in aggregate, our faculty were. Students led the way, asking why it was that our professors skewed so white and so male, and why anyone was surprised the student body did not reflect the growing demographic diversity of other graduate programs. Research in other sectors, such as American football leadership, had told me that one way to change the demographics of any sector is to insist on diverse candidate pools. Our faculty embraced the idea. They agreed not to resort to the usual academic rankings of excellence that, when pressed closely, look like mere preferences bred of familiarity. They stepped up, and developed broader pools of scholars for any position we advertised.

It is fair to say that when I came to the Institute, I did not think much about the fact that I was the first woman to lead it. But through the faculty renewal process I came to see just how limited the opportunities had been for women to join the Institute faculty, even though at any one time 70 to 80 percent of our students were women. I realized I had been unusually blessed to have received extraordinary mentoring and support from faculty advisors and senior colleagues, and stepped up my own efforts at mentoring female students and junior colleagues.

When you fast forward to today and look at the arts sector more broadly, it is clear women have gradually come into more leadership positions. Although art history departments and museums were male-dominated for centuries, recent data show that we’re finally turning a corner.

We know because in 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where I now work, along with the Association of Art Museum Directors and American Alliance of Museums, asked a few simple questions:

What is the composition of staff members in art museums across the country? How well does that breakdown reflect our changing America? How well are these institutions we love doing by women and people from various ethnic communities?

We launched a first-of-its-kind survey that would provide baseline data to help the art museum sector understand where it stood—and where it might need to get. Here’s what we found.

Women now comprise 60 percent of museum staff, and hold a preponderance of the curatorial, conservation, and education jobs. Broadened access to higher education in the arts over the past decades and the amazing efforts of first-wave feminists have meant that women now form the majority of staff in the very roles that provide pathways to CEO positions in museums and other arts organizations.

We’re seeing women taking leadership roles in museums like never before.

Nevertheless, there is a stubborn gender imbalance at the helms of the largest museums. According to the AAMD’s 2017 Gender Gap Report, while women are assuming more prominent positions and more museum directorships, they tend to run institutions with smaller budgets than their male counterparts.

Barriers for women of color—or men of color for that matter—are even higher. Overall, the 28 percent of museum staff members who come from historically underrepresented groups are concentrated in security, facilities, finance, and human resources jobs—not those focused on curation or museum leadership. Our survey found that among museum curators, conservators, educators, and leaders, just four percent of the sector is African American and just three percent Hispanic/Latino. A disproportionately small fraction of those groups are women.

What we can extrapolate from the data is that the state of gender and ethnic diversity in art museums is, in many ways, a barometer of social progress across America.

Having seen as much change in my field as I have since 2000, I am both heartened and worried. As a society we have made progress on the recognition and remediation of gender inequality, and the persistence of racism as a driver of inequality has come into clearer view. In philanthropy we are becoming better at rewarding leadership in these arenas—often belatedly. But we also see that social progress can engender apathy and even resistance. There is far more to do for the arts and museum sector to become truly representative, equitable, and inclusive, and thus the most excellent it can be for our country. For all of us in the practice, study, and philanthropy of the arts, this is a great calling.

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