The Tucson Museum of Art is seeking institutional change through its IDEA plan.
This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2021 issue of Museum magazine, a benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.
In 2024, the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block (TMA) in Arizona will celebrate its centennial anniversary. From its humble beginnings as a community gallery and lecture space to the museum’s formation in 1975, TMA has served Southern Arizona through engaging exhibitions and educational opportunities.
In preparing for this important milestone, TMA is affirming its commitment to relevance and equity by fostering connections to its audiences and local communities. In envisioning the next 100 years through the lens of a global pandemic and calls for racial equity, TMA is confronting urgent, existential questions: How can we sustain and enhance services to our audiences? How can the museum more proactively and fervently support community partnerships? How can we facilitate community-driven initiatives? How can TMA reimagine its structure and practices to achieve equity and inclusion and foster sustainable and systemic change?
Along with the region’s diverse demographics, including Latinx, immigrant, refugee, and Indigenous communities, TMA is situated on the original territories of the O’odham and an hour’s drive north of the US-Mexico border. This unique context pushes the museum to build access creatively and collaboratively for its communities, which it is doing through the institution-wide Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Plan.
A Timeline of Change
TMA’s focus on inclusion, diversity, equity, and access didn’t start with the creation of the IDEA Plan, however. First, the museum assessed its community engagement history. Beginning in 2016, after leadership changes, it evaluated its outreach to traditionally underserved communities; identified disparities in exhibition development and artworks in the collection; and addressed internal challenges, such as diversifying the museum’s board.
In 2017, the museum created a Department of Community Engagement to integrate a broad range of community stakeholders within TMA’s collections, exhibitions, and programs through bidirectional collaborations and community partnerships. One example, “Museum as Sanctuary,” founded in 2010, works with organizations serving immigrants and refugees to highlight the benefits of creative expression and language acquisition through art-making and in-gallery activities. “Museum as Sanctuary” participants have authored labels, exhibited artwork, participated in focus groups about the future of the museum, and supported program development and expansion.
“In order to represent, activate, and advocate for all Southern Arizona communities, the IDEA process requires ongoing reflection, training, and discussion.”
Challenging traditional internal power dichotomies, the department has had a profound impact on curatorial practices while reinforcing the principles of IDEA decision-making in programmatic endeavors and community-based practices. The department has leveraged partnerships and conducted facilitated conversations and convenings that have led to prioritizing interpretation and exhibition development that is reflective and inclusive of our local community.
Simultaneously, the CEO worked with the board’s committee on trustees to expand its criteria and rationale to include the important role trustees play in helping the museum become inclusive, diverse, and community-centered. To avoid the historical challenges of “tokenism” on museum boards, TMA established new committees, including the community initiatives committee, which serves as a bridge between the institution and local Indigenous tribes, Latinx, and communities of color.
Beginning in early 2018, TMA drafted a new three-year strategic plan, which was adopted in December 2019. The Strategic Plan commits to IDEA across all its strategic priorities, including economic stability, programmatic focus, audience experience, and messaging.
Although TMA was focusing on programs and exhibitions that were culturally relevant and rooted in equitable access, it was clear that in order to realize systemic change, TMA needed to ensure a shared baseline understanding of and framework for IDEA, including definitions, principles, strategies, and metrics. So in the fall of 2019, TMA began creating an IDEA Plan, with help from the board’s community initiatives committee and community representatives recommended by the curator of community engagement. TMA’s board of trustees approved the IDEA Plan in July 2020. (See the “A Trustee’s Perspective” sidebar at left for more on the board’s role.)
Developing and Implementing the Plan
In order to represent, activate, and advocate for all Southern Arizona communities, the IDEA process requires ongoing reflection, training, and discussion. To achieve the plan’s principles of relevancy, community, respect, and multivocality, they had to be instilled within the museum’s collection, exhibitions, programs, and people, including the board of trustees, staff, and volunteer groups. The plan also had to be uniquely tailored to address both the internal and external challenges we faced. Internal challenges included a lack of cultural competencies across the institution; a lack of diversity in the museum workforce, volunteers, and trustees; and a history of interdepartmental silos. Externally, TMA sought to become more relevant to audiences and bridge the historical disconnect between the museum and its communities.
The IDEA Plan defines the four foundational principles as follows:
We stand for RELEVANCY
All individuals have the right to access art and the museum, including its collection, programs, and exhibitions, in a relevant and meaningful way.
We stand for COMMUNITY
The museum will listen and respond to the needs of the communities it serves and strive to be an asset to them, existing as a vital community anchor. As a space for civic dialogue and social and cultural participation, TMA aims to improve the well-being of its audiences.
We stand for RESPECT
The museum will be a source of lifelong learning by ensuring that all visitors have access to a relevant, engaging experience that connects them to the artwork in ways that are respectful of the visitor’s expertise, references, and experiences.
We stand for MULTIVOCALITY
Programs and interpretation will honor and amplify the inherent value of multiple points of view, and the museum will encourage open-ended experiences and inquiry-based dialogue.
These principles guide TMA in representing regional identity, building collaborations with communities, increasing cultural competencies, and broadening access so that all visitors can connect art to their lives. Additionally, they provided museum staff with IDEA philosophies to drive decision-making and reinforce an inclusive and equitable work culture.
TMA’s IDEA Plan was developed by the museum’s community initiatives committee, led by John-Peter Wilhite, trustee and committee chair; and Marianna Pegno, curator of community engagement, with guidance and recommendations from Jeremy Mikolajczak, the Jon and Linda Ender Director and chief executive officer; Robert Alpaugh, strategic planning consultant; and Patricia Lannes, diversity and inclusion consultant, as well as TMA staff recommendations.
Moving Toward Community-Based Exhibition Development
To break the traditional cycle of exhibition development and instead become a responsive and collaborative institution, we needed to incorporate IDEA philosophies into curatorial practices and, more broadly, the permanent collection. Staff strengthened long-term systemic and systematic community engagement approaches in which stakeholders identify relatable issues, which then inform the museum’s approach to its programs, exhibitions, and collections. These include strategies to connect or bridge the museum more intentionally to its local communities/audiences and reinforce the museum’s commitment to IDEA through community-based programs, multivocal approaches to exhibition development and interpretation, and regular and sustained conversations beyond the institutional walls.
With the support of a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, TMA is exploring innovative approaches to exhibition development that are rooted in local communities and that amplify the complex and unique cultural diversity of Southern Arizona. For example, the development of the Kasser Family Wing of Latin American Art, which connects contemporary and ancient visual traditions from over 3,000 years of Latin American history, involved sustained conversations with community members who offered feedback on themes, wrote exhibit labels, and supported outreach.
And we are expanding this approach in an exhibition of the museum’s Indigenous Arts collection by involving community expertise from inception to implementation and beyond. Together, curators, cultural liaisons, and tribal representatives from across the region are selecting artworks, identifying themes, and developing multivocal approaches to recontextualize the Indigenous Arts collection.
The Future of IDEA at TMA
The next phase of implementation will focus on the application of IDEA principles and strategies in developing department-specific action items—ensuring that each department has ownership and agency in the implementation process. Additional short-term projects, to be accomplished over the next six to 12 months, include:
- Developing a collection plan that reflects, integrates, and upholds IDEA while defining core collecting areas and affirming a commitment to regionally significant works.
- Conducting trainings, discussions, and presentations for support organizations and volunteers that build cultural competencies and expand beyond the Euro-American canon of art history.
- Increasing Spanish-language communications, including launching a bilingual website.
We believe a commitment to IDEA will enable TMA to build internal capacities, create financial sustainability, and set the foundation for an institution that can meet its own, and the community’s, needs for the next 100 years.
Real systemic change means proactively addressing reactionary situations, setbacks, and evolving needs. The work is tough and never-ending, and it will entail no shortage of difficult conversations and decisions. However, now more than ever museums must be nimble, responsive, and inclusive to meet the needs of our local communities, address injustice and inequality, and build a more relevant future.
A Trustee’s Perspective
John-Peter Wilhite, a Tucson Museum of Art (TMA) trustee, shares why he saw IDEA as an institutional priority.
When I became a TMA trustee in 2018, it was due to the changes I saw happening at TMA. I knew the board was predominately white and I’d be the only Black member, but I saw it as an opportunity; I wanted to support the museum in becoming more inclusive of communities in Southern Arizona. Once I was officially on the board, I listened to how programs were developed in the past while simultaneously seeing where the board was in terms of understanding inclusion and equity.
The process of working with the IDEA strategic planning team, comprised of board members and staff, was tough at times. We had difficult conversations about the importance of the IDEA concepts being woven through all aspects of the plan, and some on the team did not understand why that was important. We leaned into those conversations and made it happen. Using my skills in communication, we found common language and built a collective understanding in order to commit to these practices holistically. Next, a small team of us (the community initiatives committee) had to create the actual IDEA work plan, which detailed the ways we were going to implement the concepts from the strategic plan and begin creating change in the programming and makeup of staff and board.
Finally, with the strategic plan approved by the board of trustees in December 2019 and the IDEA work plan completed, we put the final IDEA Plan before the board for approval in July 2020. I was concerned there would be some pushback, but to my surprise, the full board unanimously agreed to the document.
Now we have the hard work to do—we have to constantly check in and continuously assess ourselves. If we just have the plan but aren’t doing the work to move forward, then we aren’t truly committed to prioritizing IDEA.
What We Learned
- Focus on your community. Determine principles and strategies that are rooted in your local community.
- Balance internal and external stakeholders in development and execution. Listen to and honor multiple perspectives to develop a plan that is relevant and achievable.
- Work top-down and bottom-up. Involve all levels of stakeholders, from trustees to c-suite to volunteers, to ensure ownership and agency in plan development and implementation.
- Lean into difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Be responsive, not reactive, in addressing the most pressing issues and topics.
- Understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Outcomes will evolve as the development process and implementation occur.
- Consider success in relation to trust and impact, not just numbers.
Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, AAM, 2018 aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/AAM-DEAI-Working-Group-Full-Report-2018.pdf
CCLI National Landscape Study: The State of DEAI Practices in Museums, Cecilia Garibay and Jeanne Marie Olson, Cultural Competence Learning Institute, 2020 community.astc.org/ccli/about-us/landscape-study
Tucson Museum of Art IDEA Plan, 2020 tucsonmuseumofart.org/inclusion-diversity-equity-access/
Tucson Museum of Art 2020-2023 Strategic Plan, 2019 tucsonmuseumofart.org/strategic-planning/
Marianna Pegno, PhD, is the curator of community engagement and Jeremy Mikolajczak is the Jon and Linda Ender Director and chief executive officer at the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block in Arizona.