black folks, art museums & the d-word

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.  –Albert Einstein

Black History Month is one of those celebratory events that perplexes me. Many black people have made remarkable contributions to our communal history, large and small, but it seems that at this time of year all anyone wants to talk about is Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but who wants their history boiled down to just two folks?), and I’d love to know more  little-known black history facts and celebrate them year-round.

Thinking about unsung black Americans led me to the representation of blacks in the museum industry (or lack thereof). I’ve searched for a database that lists the number of blacks working for American museums, but I’m coming up short.   [The graduate student in me says “there’s your next project!” ]

My personal experience in visual art museums tells me that the lower the pay, the more racial diversity you see in terms of employees. It seems that blacks are overrepresented in the maintenance, security and food service areas. As you go higher on the pay and managerial scale, the racial makeup becomes more homogenous (i.e., “white folks.”)  Granted, this is not unique to the museum industry. The more specialized skills and/or training required for a field, the less racially diverse the practitioners.

However, it is telling that in the many trainings, workshops and conferences I have attended related to museum work, I have encountered very few blacks in leadership positions (curator, administrator, manager, etc.) who were employed by an institution that did not focus solely on African or African-American art and culture.  Oddly enough, in those museums, the pendulum swings in the other direction, with blacks seemingly overrepresented, as if the only people qualified to perform this work are ones of like descent.

As a developer of best practices and standards, The American Association of Museums offers some resources on diversity and makes the important point that inclusive efforts should be made not just  in staffing but volunteer and board areas as well. I wholeheartedly support that, but I just have to ask: where are all the other black folks? I know that we are out there, but our voices are not being heard.  [I know, I know, I’m starting the research notes right now.]

For those of you that work or volunteer in museums, what have you observed? Are diversity policies all talk and no action? Do you even have a diversity policy? Who are some of the black people in museum work that you admire?

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6 thoughts on “black folks, art museums & the d-word

  1. Pingback: Gen X Loves Museums. Do Museums Love Us Back? « Gen X Says

  2. Pingback: talent round-up day « Cabinet of Curiosities

  3. In my personal experience, it appears to be a non-issue–which is worse because that means that no one is even talking about it because it has completely fallen off the radar. But in my fledgling research I’m finding that other organizations are making significant strides toward improving their diversity in meaningful ways, not just by paying it lip service.

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  4. nothing to add here, but i’m glad you posted that. gayle’s point is something that interested me as a religious studies student – there were barriers and arguments made against work in a certain area published by a researcher of another background. it was difficult to intellectual surmount, at times.

    over time is the management level diversity issue evolving? or do you think we’ve plateaued?

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  5. *like*

    good question. I wonder if the answer is more socio-economic or racial, which are not always related.

    The question of matching the scholar’s race or cultural background to an “area study” is intriguing. Do people in racial or cultural minorities find themselves pushed into a matching area study? For instance, the Chinese-American Spanish teacher in the tv comedy “Community” constantly defends his choice to teach Spanish rather than Chinese.

    Do people in racial or cultural majorities find themselves rejected from non-matching area studies–a white person studying African-American art or a man studying women’s studies? Do they lose credibility at some level?

    You should talk to Dawn about this. She is following this line of thought with her Native-American Modernist artist. The critics always try to lump her in with the Native-American art, but she is a Modernist working in the 1980s and 1990s. Still critics don’t want to criticize her work. The white-guilt keeps people from really looking at her work.

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    • I am definitely considering the socio-economic factors. Training for certain museum careers is costly and time-consuming. Even with training, it can often be difficult to gain entry into the field and the pay rarely offsets the economic burden.

      I have had several professors of African-American studies who were not of that cultural background and although no one said it in class, there were grumblings of the professor not being able to relate to the subject matter due to their ethnicity. Training and scholarship was not a factor in that assessment.

      It could just be that a person of a certain cultural ethnic group feels a true interest in the subject matter and directs their studies that way, or it could be that those culture areas are the only places where they could secure employment. I am intrigued!

      I plan on discussing this further with Dawn–the fact that the Native-Anerican artist has not been seriously critqued is puzzling and troublesome.

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