In Memoriam of the Art World’s Romance With Diversity

A post-coronavirus art world that downsizes and shrinks can not be at the cost of artists and creatives of color.

Laura Aguilar, “Will Work For #4” (1993) from the series Will Work For; Gelatin silver print; sheet, 19 7/8 × 15 15/16 in. (50.5 × 40.5 cm); image, 19 × 12 7/8 in. (48.3 × 32.7 cm) (courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Director’s Discretionary Fund 2019.394. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016)

When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that it had terminated its educators’ contracts and that it would be years before it would resume regular operations to consider hiring them back, the NYC cultural sector shuddered. I know at least two Latinx artists who made their living working at MoMA part-time, but more broadly I wondered why museums were among the first major NYC institutions to publicly lay off and furlough workers. Less than a year ago, the “New MoMA” opened to much fanfare, after its $450 million makeover, and for years now, art has been touted as a sound investment. It simply did not make sense to me that some of the wealthiest institutions in the NYC art world would become this vulnerable so quickly, to the point of obliging such massive layoffs.

I have been writing on matters of cultural equity and diversity for years focusing on Latinx communities, and I fear MoMA’s termination of educators reveals that diversity in the arts and cultural sector may be among the victims of this crisis. Museum education departments tend to be more racially diverse than other departments, and before COVID-19, institutions from museums to corporations appealed to diversity publicly and with vigor. As journalist Pamela Newkirk shows in Diversity Inc., diversity had become a buzzword, an undisputed and uncompromising goal valued and cherished by most institutions (at least publicly) even when racism hampered the gains and diversity goals of most industries.

Recently, diversity had also been a particular concern in the NYC art world, a sector that is overwhelmingly white-dominated. Statistics prove this at the national and local level, from the 2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey demographic survey by the Mellon Foundation showing 72% of US museum staff are white, to local surveys that document that two-thirds of the city’s arts and cultural organizations leadership and boards are white, even though two-third of New Yorkers are people of color. Aware of this, Mayor de Blasio had even proposed linking arts funding to diversity goals, with little success.

Alicia Grullon’s “Pick It!” intervention at El Museo del Barrio 2011 (courtesy the artist)

Latinx art stakeholders, from artists to scholars, have been confronting these dire statistics to create more inclusive art worlds, and before COVID-19, there seemed to be some positive strides in the recognition and incorporation of Latinx artists and creators in NYC’s arts and cultural sectors. Which is why MoMA’s swift termination of museum educators is especially prescient. Some of the Latinx artists I had just interviewed for my upcoming book on Latinx art, worked there as educators or in visitor services, and I immediately wondered what would happen to them. The Art Museum Demographic Survey shows education — along with security, finance, and human resources — show greater racial diversity than curatorial and leadership positions. In the arts sector, was diversity then one of the first casualties of COVID-19? And also, what is a museum without education programs and educators?

Aren’t educators more needed than ever to contextualize collections virtually?  After decades of reinventing themselves to be relevant to newer audiences, it seemed as if all the fanfare about museums’ prioritizing public humanities, education, and diversification was just a publicity spin. All of a sudden the colonial roots of museums are more visible than ever, proving their critics’ worst fears that museums’ primary function has always been about hoarding objects to create value, with little interest in larger society.

In reality, I am not very concerned about MoMA’s finances. I care about what their decision reveals about the workings of an industry in which most arts and cultural institutions in the city operate at a fraction of MoMA’s budget. I fear for the loss of community cultural institutions when they are forced to close doors, and I think about the many creatives who will be forced to leave the city because they have lost jobs and cannot afford to pay rent. Most of our creatives operate as gig workers, lacking health insurance, benefits, and vacations, and COVID-19 has exposed their widespread vulnerability. Artists and creatives of color, however, have always been the most vulnerable; they are the least represented by galleries and museums, and the least likely to have any market for their work. 

A “Songs for Liberation” protest at the Whitney Museum in 2019, which was part of the Nine Weeks of Art and Action (photo by and courtesy of Antonio Andres Rodríguez)

I also worry about the neoliberal logics that are naturalized by institutions’ firing of creative workers whose salaries may be far less than the total value of a single painting in their collection. In sum, a post-coronavirus art world that downsizes and shrinks will be at the cost of artists and creatives of color, because it was always the most vulnerable emerging and smaller community-based institutions that had been most attentive to these artists.  My research shows these are the institutions that have historically played the greatest role in sustaining and providing visibility to Latinx artists, while mainstream museums play catch up, lacking the curatorial expertise to appreciate their work. It is also not an accident that recent layoffs are having a devastating impact on the art workers’ unions that have recently organized to increase art workers’ salaries beyond minimum wage. Will their gains survive a post-coronavirus art world?  Most of all, I worry that there will be less room for experimentation and more emphasis on large institutions and on market-consecrated artists who have proven their profitability, sustainability, and survival. And what a homogeneously boring world this will be.

I can go on imagining all types of doom scenarios, but I prefer to turn to solutions. One potential hope is that everyone is asking for solutions and new imaginations, and that most agree that going back to “normal” is not our best option, certainly not for IBPOC communities. In this regard, I’d like to suggest that the best route forward lies in listening to what many artists and communities have been telling us for years, which in fact, mirrors what many now clamor for every sector of the economy. Mainly, it is obvious that it is time to prioritize the workers, and the everyday people who are the foundation of any industry, but are at the bottom or entirely ignored from most stimulus packages. We must pay equitable wages to all art workers. We must empower artists by recognizing artists’ resale royalty legislation to ensure they can accrue royalties from the sale of their work and stop current practices where collectors and speculators are the only ones who can profit from the sale of their work. The art world could not exist without artists and art, so how is it possible that artists and art workers are the least to benefit from an industry that according to The New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA) contributes more than $114 billion to the state’s economy, and that has also fueled such a global economic bounty.

It is time that we listen to the recommendations of artists and activists, such as the People Cultural Plan and their emphasis on housing, labor equity, and equitable funding. It is time to center housing and health care as fundamental rights of all workers. Museums should spend as much of their income in salaries and benefits for their workers as they do in the conservation of their collections, or in luxurious expansions or the salaries for their leadership. Finally, it is time that we really center diversity in the arts and cultural sector. A society dominated by a few wealthy art institutions with patrons to see them through crises represents not only a blow to diversity, but also to artistic experimentation and renewal. So if diversity succumbs let it be for the sake of equity, because equity is the only thing we ever wanted and what we most need.

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