Museum diversity a challenge – Minority members sparse on boards

CHICAGO — Virtually every museum in the U.S. is struggling to boost diversity on executive boards and in collections, but many are under attack for failing to make enough progress, The Chicago Tribune reports.

Desiree Rogers, vice president for communications at Peoples Energy in Chicago and one of five minority women resigning as trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art, told the Tribune that diversity is a business issue as well as an ethical one.

“Museums need to diversify because they need minority populations to survive,” she told the Tribune. “These days, you can’t live on just traditional art aficionados.”

Toni Smith, a senior director at Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm specializing in museums, said museums find it hard to make the institutional change because they historically have focused on wealthy constituents whose members are potential donors.

“And art collecting of the sort that goes into museums has traditionally been a white world,” she said, “not unlike tennis or golf.”

Almost a decade ago, the American Association of Museums issued a report describing the demographic racial shifts important to America’s museums.

The 1992 report, “Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums,” called for museums to increase the number of minorities not just in exhibitions but also behind the scenes as curators and trustees.

Institutions have tried various approaches. Some targeted programs, such as featuring black artists during Black History Month.

Others gave away free passes to schoolchildren so they could return with their families.

Nick Rabkin, senior program officer with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, known for making diversity in race, gender and class an important consideration in its grant initiatives, said that museums have had to find new ways of reaching minority populations to find executive staff and donors.

“You can’t just do the same stuff and advertise in the Defender,” he said. “Suddenly, you have additional questions about staff, board, approaches and strategies.”

Robert Fitzpatrick, executive director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, told the Tribune that the museum hasn’t achieved the desired progress on diversity initiatives but is doing more than ever before to diversify and now must face the challenge of finding interested candidates.

“Diversity on the board is very important,” he said, “but am I going to go out tomorrow and stop the first two people of color I see? Absolutely not. I want people who care, who are going to help the museum grow.”

Rogers, who would not discuss her reasons for resigning from the board, said that the number of minorities on museum boards can be small. She still serves on five other cultural organization boards, including the Smithsonian and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

“You tend to see some of the same faces over and over,” she said.

At the Museum of Science and Industry, 10 percent of the 60-member board and about 25 percent of management staff are racial or cultural


In Los Angeles, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, assistant curator Alma Ruiz said the 32-member board has one black and one Korean-American but no Latinos.

The Art Institute of Chicago, though, reported more success. It used a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation to help it identify ways to reach broader audiences. The museum reports that Black membership at the museum jumped from 2,000 to 5,200 in the last four years.

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