Donations from the museum should not go to the new wings. They should help increase

By LISA M. STRONG 5 minutes Read

The gift was the largest donation the museum has ever received and led the couple to rank 22nd among the top 50 U.S. donors of 2021, according to the Chronicle of philanthropy. The donors did not impose any formal requirements on how the money should be used, but expressed support for the Met’s plan to spend it in a new space that will exhibit works by artists from a wide range of countries and backgrounds.

Like a specialist in museum studies, I would like a more inclusive view of the Met’s collection in a state-of-the-art gallery. However, I believe the institution would improve its inclusiveness by taking steps to increase the diversity of its staff from top to bottom, especially at the entry level.

30 years of seeking more equity in art museums

Calls for greater social justice in museums began to be heard three decades ago.

The American Alliance of Museums, the largest professional organization of museums, has published a report in 1992 that highlighted this issue and called on museums to “become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences” and to “reflect the pluralism of our society in all aspects of their operations and programs.”

Since then, museums have recognized their need to increase the diversity of their collections and exhibitions by reducing the overrepresentation of white and straight male artists.

Finally, this expanded effort to include a wide range of equity issues, as well as access for people with disabilities and various types of inclusion. In 2020, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, this the movement has gained momentum at the Met and other museums.

the most recent comprehensive demographic survey of art museums, which the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation conducted in 2018, found that only 28% of all museum staff were people of color. He also determined that only 16% of conservatives and 12% of senior executives were non-white.

Although there is no data yet regarding the number of people of color hired in museums since 2020, early reports suggest gradual increases and a sense of isolation among curators hired into high-level positions in museums.

How could museums do better? There are many options, such as awarding grants for making progress towards a more diverse workforce or participating in diversity training. One solution that I rarely hear mentioned is to pay higher salaries to junior staff.

An assistant curator of a large metropolitan art museum can as low as $36,000 to begin with, whereas a senior curator of an institution of the same size may earn four or five times as much.

This pay gap might have made sense in the past, when these jobs didn’t require college degrees. Today, however, most new recruits have earned a masters dear.

Even earning this degree doesn’t always help launch a career in the arts. Alumni of the program I run often tell me that they left coveted positions for better-paying work in another field. People of color typically enter the workforce with less generational wealth than their white peers, so it stands to reason that they are more likely to leave the profession due to low pay, if they enter it.

A meaningful gift

In August 2020, Adrienne Archta banker and artistic philanthropist who previously strengthened the finances of the Miami Center for the Performing Artspledged $5 million for the Met to fully fund paid internships for 120 graduate and undergraduate students per year.

Students unable to afford an unpaid internship would now participate in the Met’s valuable mentorship and training programs, “increasing opportunity and supporting equity in the arts”. Arsht promised. In an interview, she said that the applications increased by 300% once internship positions have become paid.

I see Arsht’s gift as a possible model for other wealthy donors who want to make long-term contributions to museum diversity, equity, and inclusion. A few similar examples have emerged, including one Grant of $462,000 from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which supports long-term paid internships at the National Gallery of Art for students attending Howard University, a historically black school.

Overturn conventional wisdom

If the Met wants to present a more holistic and inclusive view of modern and contemporary art, it doesn’t need to revamp its Modern and Contemporary wing. He could hang more diverse art on the walls he already owns and use new donor funds to compensate his staff differently, so early-career hires of color have more incentive to stay.

But, as I’ve seen for a long time, museum managers and fundraisers generally assume that big donors don’t want to help cover day-to-day expenses, such as salaries.

Instead, conventional wisdom holds that big philanthropists prefer to make donations that are used to build new spaces and will give them the opportunity to see theirs name splashed on these new walls.

The Met’s internship program, which is currently running bears the name of Arsht, is evidence that some donors are willing to fund unglamorous expenses, such as the salaries of young professionals and students. If more philanthropists were willing to do this, it would surely help increase the diversity of museum staff in the long run.

Lisa M.Strong is Director of the MA in Art and Museum Studies program and Professor of Practice, Georgetown University.

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