Wake-Up Call: The Gender Gap at Large Museums is Irrefutable. How Will Donors Respond?

A new report surfacing persistent gender disparities across the curatorial space may compel funders to revisit their grantmaking priorities. 

A study by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that women run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the United States and Canada, and they earn about a third less than their male counterparts. And just five of the 33 most prominent art museums—those with budgets greater than $20 million—are helmed by women.

Contrast this with the state of affairs at small to mid-size museums. At institutions with budgets under $15 million, women have achieved parity, holding nearly half of the directorships and earning the same salaries.

An obvious question arises: Why does this gulf exist? 

Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership doesn't mince words. "With boards full of men and search committees gravitating to men," she said, "it’s not going to get better.”

Now, consider the theory posed by Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum in New York, who initiated the idea for the study: "Is it that women are not being offered those jobs, or they’re choosing not to take those jobs?" (Given the difficulties in running such large and unwieldy institutions, who can blame them?)

To Phillips' point, it's worth noting that the smaller institutions that have achieved gender parity are often university or contemporary art museums. Are they inherently more progressive due to their smaller sizes, lighter institutional baggage, and receptivity toward alumni concerns? It's possible.

Which brings me to yet another potential culprit: Foundations' inability to appreciate the scope and complexity of the problem.

Funders now want their grantmaking priorities to be buttressed by solid data illustrating the breadth and nuances of a given issue. Case in point: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's recently commissioned case studies charged with helping museums improve "diversity and inclusivity in their staffing practices," which builds on baseline data from its "2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey."

A lack of robust and actionable data into gender disparities at museums may explain a relative lack of donor focus in this area.

Notice I said a "relative" lack of focus. Programs like the Getty Leadership Institute and Easton's Center for Curatorial Leadership, which has helped nine women become curators and has received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Ford Foundation, are certainly doing their part.

This new report provides much-needed momentum in the form of actionable data. Funders can pull from a deeper body of quantitative research and act accordingly.