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The Diversity Problem at American Museums Gets a Report

White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Museum (all screenshots via Mellon Foundation)
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Museum (all screenshots via Mellon Foundation)

Last year, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) examined the gender gap in art museum directorships, observing that women hold less than half of those positions and those that do are paid significantly less than male directors. A new report released by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation takes a broader look at staff diversity in American art museums; while the data suggests that more women are poised to take on future leadership positions, that is unlikely to be the case for minorities, with trends indicating that such job cohorts will not witness notable increases in diversity soon.

The study draws its conclusions from staff demographic surveys completed in February and March by 77% of AAMD’s 235 museums and 15% of American Alliance of Museums‘ (AAM) 643 member institutions. It also conducted HR surveys focused on museum diversity programs — with similar response rates — and director surveys on board diversity (not considered due to low levels of response). The data received reveals that women make up 60% of museum staff while non-Hispanic whites make up 72% of specifically AAMD members’ staff (in comparison, the US population is 62% non-Hispanic white; the study also notes that some museums that are 100% white are located in areas that may have relatively low minority residents). The study then breaks down these numbers by job category and decade of birth to reveal that the future holds rather different outlooks for gender than race/ethnicity when considering diversity of leadership positions.

White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Job Category
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Job Category

In terms of the gender makeup of museum job categories, many roles tend to be gender-specific: men dominate jobs such as art handling, IT work, and security; women, meanwhile, are increasingly taking on positions in curatorial, conservation, and educational fields — which makes them strong candidates for future leadership roles, from museum directors to chief curators. (Notably, the Brooklyn Museum currently boasts an all-female leadership team.) About 70% of curators from the surveyed cohort, for example, are women, while education and membership sectors have around a 80% female majority. Furthermore, this dominance is likely to continue: looking at the age demographic within the curators, conservators, and educators, the percent of males born in the 1930s through the 1990s has consistently hovered around 35–40%.

These pipelines for managing positions, however, are not as established when one looks at the figures for the museum roles held by minorities. Just as certain jobs were heavily weighted to one gender, some are heavily specific to non-Hispanic whites. Low-level jobs like security and facility-related ones are pretty evenly split, but curators, conservators, and those working in publication and registrar are over 80% non-Hispanic white. Digging into the demographics of near-top-tier positions, non-Hispanic whites constitute a whopping 84% while Asians represent 6%, Blacks 4%, and Hispanics 3%. As Vice President of the Foundation Mariët Westermann notes in an introduction, “With the exception of the Asian demographic category, which makes up 5% of the United States population today, these proportions do not come close to representing the diversity of the American population.”

Younger cohorts are more ethnically diverse, which suggests an increase in diversity of overall museum hires: minorities represent about 20% of those born in the 1930s, a figure that grows to just over 30% for those born in the ’90s. However, zooming in on the ethnic makeup of more advanced positions reveals that such career cohorts will likely not witness a notable increase in diversity in the coming years. From the 1940s through the 1990s, the percent of minorities working in curatorial, conservation, and education departments has remained unchanged around 27.5%. This lack of “youth bulge,” as the study puts it, from “historically underrepresented minorities,” is crippling to any museum aiming to diversify its staff.

Westermann admits that some of these results are “discouraging,” but they are helpful in providing “baseline data against which future surveys can be measured, and, one hopes, progress tracked.” One step that may be taken to foster progress in the right direction is the creation of more educational programs that prep minorities for careers in cultural institutions around the nation. The Mellon Foundation itself recently launched a curatorial fellowship program connecting college students from marginalized backgrounds with curators at five major US museums; in January, New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs announced its own initiatives to measure and promote diversity across the city’s cultural institutions. Last month, the department received $150,000 from a number of private foundations to propel those efforts.

As Westermann wrote, “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.”

Race and Ethnicity (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
Race and Ethnicity (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Decade of Birth
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Decade of Birth
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Decade Born (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
White Non-Hispanics and Under-Represented Minorities, By Decade Born (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
Gender, by Museum
Gender, by Museum
Gender, by Job Category
Gender, by Job Category
Gender, by Decade Born
Gender, by Decade Born
Gender, By Decade Born (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
Gender, By Decade Born (Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership Only)
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