Museums, We Have a Diversity Problem (But It's Not All Bad News)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has always claimed that the curatorial field had a serious diversity challenge. Now it has the data to back it up.

The foundation examined staff demographic surveys from 77 percent of the Association of Art Museum Directors and 15 percent of the American Alliance of Museums' (AAM) 643 member institutions, and also conducted HR and director surveys focused on museum diversity programs. The two major high-level findings are as follows:

  • Women make up 60 percent of museum staff
  • Non-Hispanic whites make up 72 percent of museum staff of specifically AAMD members' staff

The study also breaks down these numbers by job category and decade of birth to reveal additional, far-reaching findings. But before we drill deeper into the data, let's step back and view this study from a broader context.

Needless to say, this study didn't occur in a vacuum. As we've noted in the past, curatorial diversity is a huge issue for Mellon. Back in January, it rolled out a new fellowship to diversify the curatorial field at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the High Museum in Atlanta.

And other funders are getting in on the act. The KeyBank Foundation, for example, announced a $400,000 grant to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio for the establishment of the KeyBank Fellowship Endowment Fund, which will support the creation of a KeyBank Fellowship for minority candidates interested in museum leadership careers.

Which brings us back to the Mellon-commissioned study. A closer look at the data reveals that low-level jobs like security and facility-related ones are pretty evenly split across ethnic lines, but curators, conservators, and those working in publication and registrar are over 80 percent non-Hispanic white. Non-Hispanic whites constitute 84 percent of these positions, while Asians represent 6 percent, Blacks 4 percent, and Hispanics 3 percent.

Mellon Foundation Mariët Westermann notes that while some of these results are "discouraging," they are helpful in providing "baseline data against which future surveys can be measured, and, one hopes, progress tracked."

This is where Mellon and KeyBank's efforts come into play. Each program effectively addresses this disparity at the "ground level" by creating educational and immersive programs to prepare minorities for careers in the curatorial field. And now, thanks to Mellon's survey, progress can be quantitatively tracked.

As Westermann notes, "The case is clear and urgent, and constructive responses to it will be critical to the continued vitality of art museums as public resources for a democratic society."