“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”
This article which appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Museum magazine, a benefit of AAM membership, is adapted from the 2021 edition of the Alliance’s annual forecasting report. Download your free copy of TrendsWatch: Navigating the Disrupted Future for extended content, including a framework for museum action on this important issue.
How can museums redress systemic inequalities of wealth and power?
Wealth inequality has been increasing in the US for the past 50 years, built on structures that restrict access to assets and power and inflict the costs of our economic systems on marginalized communities. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to widen that gap while wreaking disproportionate damage on people already disadvantaged by society’s core systems.
Museums, as prestigious public institutions, are being called to account for their role in profiting from and perpetuating these inequalities. But museums often struggle to respond appropriately to these legitimate demands. Many are unsure where to begin, while others are castigated for taking well-intentioned steps that seem inappropriate or out of touch.
Despite the challenges posed by the current crisis, this is an opportunity for museums to act as leaders in society, demonstrating how organizations can transform themselves by applying social justice values to their own work, and by using their influence to increase the power and authority of others.
Wealth inequality is one of the most daunting challenges facing the United States today. One percent of the population now holds well over a third of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 90 percent holds less than a quarter. This gap is the result of a pernicious feedback loop of inequity in education, housing, our legal system, job opportunities, health care, and political power—to name a few. In addition to being a social justice issue in and of itself, economists, historians, and policy experts warn that escalating inequality can lead to social and economic instability, and some feel it poses a significant threat to our democratic system.
And this wealth gap is profoundly skewed by race. In 2019, the average wealth of white families was eight times greater than that of Black families. If current trends persist, it would take Black families 228 years to reach the level of average wealth held by white families in 2013. This gap was seeded by 246 years of chattel slavery and perpetuated by social, economic, and political systems that hobble the ability of Black Americans to create and accumulate wealth.
The resulting inequity also leaves communities of color more vulnerable to disaster and disruption. Black and Indigenous Americans have experienced the highest death tolls from COVID-19 and are suffering disproportionately in wage and job losses. The median decline in the net worth of Black families during the 2008 financial crisis was twice that of white families, and it seems likely the COVID-19 financial collapse will increase the racial wealth gap as well.
How Museums Are Responding
Museums, collectively, have abundant resources, and many museums have significant assets of their own. All museums have the power to influence public opinion through their status as trusted sources of information. This being so, there are several ways that museums can take action to redress inequities of wealth and power—both internally, in how they manage their own operations, and externally, in how they interact with the world.
Some museums begin their equity and inclusion work with training for the staff and board on unconscious bias and cultural competence. However, if you consider that the turnover rate in the nonprofit field as a whole is 19 percent, and boards commonly impose term limits, it becomes clear that diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) training can’t be a one-time fix—it has to be part of the ongoing process of staff onboarding and development. And in any case, you can’t simply train your way out of 450 years of racism. The lessons from that training must be embedded into the very fabric of museums’ operations, policies, and culture.
These operations and policies range from how museums structure and hire for positions to their compensation, working conditions, and the overall internal culture with respect to power and authority. Unquestioned assumptions about the qualifications needed for a given job (particularly jobs of higher status and pay) disadvantage applicants with less access to traditional systems of training and credentialing. Assumptions about wealth may result in systems that exclude people who can’t afford to take unpaid internships, float debt for museum purchases on personal credit cards, or pay for their own professional development. Attempts to achieve more diversity in staff by simply hiring more people of color often fail when these employees are expected to behave exactly like (white) colleagues in order to fit in. For this reason, just doing “pipeline” diversity work is a proven way to fail at achieving real progress in racial equity.
The challenge for museums to address DEAI in their own operations has become even more fraught due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even museums deeply committed to DEAI may struggle to continue this work while trying to survive the financial stress created by closure and loss of income from fundraisers, rentals, and events.
As Andrew Plumley, AAM’s director of inclusion, has pointed out, “When we take into account the massive racial leadership gap within the museum field, and the well-known fact that people of color are overrepresented in the lowest-wage work within the field (and most likely to be without insurance and paid sick leave), it becomes apparent that letting equity and inclusion ‘slip’ now … will have devastating effects on our most vulnerable populations.”
The museum sector often thinks about equity in terms of access to exhibits and educational programs and, increasingly, to digital assets like documentation and images of collections as well. But museums also control immensely powerful intangible assets: notably, reputation, reach, and networks of influence. Museums can use these assets to help build individual and community wealth in ways that redress historic inequities. For example, they can use their space, knowledge, authority, and reputation to:
- Help individuals build their educational credentials through training and certification.
- Equalize access to political and regulatory power.
- Create an accessible infrastructure of economic exchange for artists, craftspeople, and other creators.
Museums have significant financial power as well. All museums shape the world in some way through the money they spend on day-to-day operations and can engage in reparative practice through thoughtful attention to how they spread this operational wealth. A museum can choose to give preference to local-, BIPOC-, or women-owned firms for contracting, or design its food service around values of health or environmental impact. It can partner with businesses and community organizations in ways that support their growth and amplify their impact. And because these daily operational impacts are often hyper-local, even a small museum can have a significant influence on its local community.
In addition to their purchasing power, some museums have significant financial capital as well, and that capital can be used as a force for good. Ten years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term “impact investing” to refer to the practice of investing endowments in a way that creates positive social or environmental change. Now impact investing is a $250 billion market. It encompasses socially responsible investing (which screens out investments that do active harm), mission-related investing (which both advances the mission and yields a competitive, reliable financial return), and program-related investing (which foregrounds mission-related impact and can accept a higher level of financial risk).
We are also beginning to see a push for “restorative investing” specifically focused on dismantling existing wealth structures, democratizing capital, strengthening local businesses, and prioritizing racial inclusion and diversity. And for those concerned about the duty of endowment managers to support their museums, note that well-managed impact investing yields financial returns just as robust as traditional investment portfolios.
Finding The Right Approach
There is no one set of actions that is appropriate and realistic for all museums, but waiting for a perfect solution only impedes progress. Focusing on incremental improvement is a valid and effective approach to building equity in the world. A small museum with few staff and limited financial resources may focus on putting itself in the service of its community, with particular attention to groups that have been previously sidelined or silenced. Operating on lean resources to begin with, small organizations can often be more nimble and responsive than their larger brethren.
On the other hand, a large museum with a business model built on the wealth and power of a small group of individuals can’t suddenly transform itself into a community-supported, democratically governed institution. Its business model is—to be candid—built on exclusivity, on trading reputation and access for money. However, there are realistic, practical steps that even a museum reliant on the support of wealthy individuals and corporations can take in the short term, while also advancing incremental, long-term change.
Find Out More
Download the digital edition of this year’s TrendsWatch for an in-depth exploration of this topic, additional resources, and a framework for actions museums can take to build racial equity inside their organizations and in their communities.
A Race-Forward Approach:
The Irony In It All
By Andrew Plumley, Director of Inclusion, American Alliance of Museums
We’ve heard all of the numbers. We’ve done all the research. We know the disparities exist because we read the reports and know the dismal numbers. The racial wealth gap, the disproportionate numbers of BIPOC in the criminal justice system, and the unequal housing, education, and health care opportunities for BIPOC individuals versus their white peers is staggering. When you look at literally every single social indicator in this country, there are vast disparities in outcomes based on race—based on someone’s skin color.
But we actually don’t need the reports to see, understand, and feel this in many respects. Look at the faces on your Zoom calls, walk in your neighborhood, talk to friends, or join your child’s school parent association meetings. We are a segregated society. In many respects, we’re just as segregated now as we were before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing institutionalized segregation in the United States. And segregation in society at large is, inevitably, reflected in our museums as well.
Not that museums don’t think that they are tackling the racial divide. As a practitioner of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion work, I often hear museum leaders say, “We need to make sure we have a race-forward approach to everything we do,” and I often respond, “I whole-heartedly agree, but you already do!” And if you haven’t gotten the irony yet, you will, because with 90 percent of museum directors being white, and 46 percent of museum boards being ALL white, it turns out that the museum field already has a strong, race-forward approach to everything we do—it just preferences everything, and everyone, white.
To fix the inequity we see in our field and in our society, we must have a race-forward approach to our individual and collective work, because “race-neutral” decision-making is, at its very best, a farce. At worst, it’s a framing and understanding of the world that norms whiteness and others everything that doesn’t fit into that, further perpetuating inequity.
Language matters. That’s why we as museum professionals not only need a race-forward approach to our work, but we also need to go further and explicitly name the race(s) we need to put “forward.” Based on the historic and systemic inequity that’s laid out so clearly in this article and in TrendsWatch, the museum field has an obligation to understand the incredible power it holds, especially at the upper echelons of our field with our museum leaders and trustees. We must forge a collective understanding of what a race-forward approach means, and place individuals who identify as BIPOC at the center of our decision-making. Or, better yet, finally put BIPOC into positions of power so they become the decision-makers.
Given the inequities laid out in front of us, is there any question as to what we need to do? The question for you, and for your museum, is what specifically will you do next?
Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group (American Alliance of Museums, 2018) examines the characteristics of effective museum inclusion practices and considers what steps the field can take to promote DEAI.
Racial Equity and Inclusion Plan Primer (American Alliance of Museums, 2020) provides guidance on advancing racial and ethnic diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion on museum boards.