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Museums & Employment: Casting a Wider Net

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Diversifying the museum workforce is going to involve all players in the labor market rethinking traditional assumptions. In her January guest post (“One Graduate’s Job Search Story”) Sophie Stein encourages recent graduates to looking beyond the traditional field for employment opportunities. Today Stephanie Cunningham, co-founder of Museum Hue and audience engagement specialist at the Brooklyn Museum, examines the other side of that equation, encouraging museums to look beyond the traditional applicant pool to recruit staff that reflect the organization’s community and needs. (You can find Stephanie on Twitter @stephacunning. Museum Hue advances the viability and visibility of people of color using arts, culture and museums, as a medium for discussion, creation, and solutions. You can follow them @MuseumHue).

“It seems important that the museum be involved not simply in presenting or preserving but, opening up a space for dialogue—about art, about culture, about humanity.” –Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Director and Chief Curator

Museums play a fundamental role in creating national values and reproducing social relationships through their narrative practice. They are regarded for housing cultural representation and upholding the standard of what is considered art. Far too often however, the narrative excludes the voices of a large portion of the population, presenting a very white middle class perspective. Recent studies conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs show what many people already know, museums are not diverse. Museum staff in New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, is over 60% white when 2/3 of the population identify as non-white. More than 78% of leaders and board members at cultural organizations are also white.
There are many ways that museums can begin to change this: I believe it begins with hiring practices. The average museum workers are not only white, a majority have advance degrees in art history, fine arts, and museum studies. While some may argue that qualifications, not race, determine who gets hired, the fact that these degrees have traditionally attracted white students perpetuates homogeneity. (Note: Even when people of color have these qualifications they still have great difficulty landing opportunities in museums because of racial discrimination). Museums must begin recruiting from outside the traditional fields for individuals who can assist in breaking down the disconnect between museums and the larger society. This is of particular importance in the communities they look to serve. Museums must foster the inclusion of ideas drawn from a variety of subject areas. An interdisciplinary dialogue in museums will both draw from, and contribute to the framework that characterizes museums. Museums should not privilege one type of interest and experience over another. Museum-related experience is not necessarily more important than unrelated work experience, when launching into a museums-related career. All paths can lead to meaningful work.
While there is much work to be done in this regard it is not totally hopeless as some museums are working to change. I recently led an Internship Information Session and Application Workshop for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that encouraged students of color from various disciplines (outside the traditional fields associated with museum employment) to apply for the Met’s paid Museum Seminar (Muse) Internship Program. A list was provided for students to identify their interests, skills, goals, and learning objectives to find the right department/project area. We also discussed how their experience could transfer into a permanent museum position. Many students that attended shared that their majors were not art related, yet they had an interest in the arts. And, before coming to the information session they never thought they would have an opportunity to work in museums.
This is where the issue lies. Many people dont know or are not given the opportunity to work in museums. Sandra Jackson-Dumont, newly appointed Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education, is working on how the Met can better engage people across sectors and increase audience diversity. Many internships at the Met develop into career opportunities at the museum. This isn’t something unfamiliar to our larger field; many start their professional career as interns and/or volunteers. However, institutions like the Met are open to change and other models are emerging in the field. Jason Yoon, Director of Education at the Queens Museum shared with me that when hiring they look at fields like: community/cultural organizing, art therapy, and social services. For the entry level Visitor Experience Agent position they are liberal about what fields they look at for potential candidates. For example, individuals who have experience in retail, customer service, education, human service/social services, and language abilities are considered highly competitive applicants. They have also hired alums from their Queens Teens program and New New Yorkers program, which offers language and skill-based classes.

The existential question museums should consider is how can they bridge the gap between people who have access to museums and those that do not? Diverse interdisciplinary discourse: cultural institutions must be committed to change their framework and look beyond traditional fields in order to bring in different understanding and interpretation of their collections for a broader target audience. Museum Hue is doing exactly the kind of work that is needed in the museum world. We help people of color with various backgrounds break-into the field. We offer tours and workshops that introduce multiple aspects of museum work and provide information about the skills needed to be successful museum professionals. We also engage in a variety of strategies involving the re-thinking of museums and its audience. Public Allies are also a great source for diverse emerging professionals. They identify emerging leaders from underrepresented groups and assist with career development. If museums are to remain vital and viable in the 21st century they must equip themselves with individuals that can form content that will counter the absence of diversity.

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome post on creating more diverse spaces and centers within museum culture. I have also been interested in how black modern art may be able to find permanent staples in museums around the city. Currently the Studio museum showcases this genre on a revolving basis rather than one that is permanent. I find myself in unknown warehouses around the city where many of the brilliant black modern artists around NYC congregate. The art is incredible but only seen by a small group of people. How can that change?

    Keep the conversation going! Your role in so very important.

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