The Characteristics, Roles, and Experiences of Black Trustees
The Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums (BTA) was established in 2021 to transform art museums into more equitable spaces of cultural engagement by harnessing the power of Black trustees.
With a community of nearly 300 members and followers, BTA is helping Black trustees lead the institutions they steward toward an inclusive future that reflects the best of the world of art and culture in its entirety. BTA is committed to dismantling barriers that block the entry and advancement of Black staff and leadership in the cultural field; to changing the underrepresentation of Black narratives in exhibitions, collections, and programming; and to increasing the patronage of minority-owned service providers by cultural organizations. BTA’s approach to helping art museum trustees address these issues is multifold, prioritizing the commissioning of original research and supporting affiliates’ research to develop data-driven tools that enable our members to be more effective in leading the transformation of their institutions. One of our first major initiatives was conducting this study of the individuals who have been advocating for that change to date: Black trustees.
BTA’s inaugural Art Museum Trustee Survey Report is the first to capture the unique position of a Black trustee. While one can more easily observe the low numbers of Black museum trustees, the extent of the racial disparity at the board level has not yet been clearly articulated or documented otherwise. In 2017, the American Alliance of Museums published a report that included one of the few existing data points illustrating how much work needed to be done. It found that nearly 50 percent of museum boards lacked even one person of color. In addition to increasing the representation and participation of Black trustees, one of our goals is to help our members become more effective advocates for change; therefore it is critical for us to keenly understand their day-to-day experiences. We can then use those findings to generate research, resources, and tools dedicated to building and strengthening the community even further.
With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we partnered with Ithaka S+R and hired our first research and data fellow to collect and record demographic information by fielding a survey to art museum trustees across the country; a call to which more than 900 responded. Following this initial survey, our research team conducted in-depth interviews with 20 Black trustees about their experiences serving on art museum boards. From that group, we have highlighted three trustee perspectives in this report, zeroing in on institutions that have proactively addressed issues of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion among their board, staff, and visitors. Close reading of these accounts helps demonstrate what’s possible when museum leaders make a genuine and concerted effort to put equity concerns at the forefront of their institutional mission. Our hope is that these insights can be applied to other institutions advancing strategies to do the same.
The Art Museum Trustee Survey produced many valuable insights, sentiments, and takeaways. One insight in particular helps explain why so few Black people become museum trustees: they simply aren’t approached to join. Museum directors or trustees invite individuals they already know to join their boards. This finding confirms what we have noticed anecdotally: museums seek out new members through familiar—and racially stratified—social and professional networks. Unless we create broader and more accessible pipelines for Black trusteeship, our boards will remain as predominantly White as they are today. Equipped with Ithaka S+R’s research results, we offer Ten Evidence-based Strategies for Cultivating DEAI Values in the Boardroom as we work to transform the systems that have contributed to the racial homogeneity of our art museum boards.
Looking ahead, we understand the importance of establishing a benchmark from which we can measure changes in the field. Creating an equitable institution takes time. And while our overall objective is clear, the way to get there is not—and rightfully so, since no two institutions operate the same way. It is essential that we bring diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion into museums. We hope that institutions view this study as a key reference as they strategically map their journey toward justice. Following the publication of this inaugural report, we will continue to provide Black trustees with resources to help their respective institutions create a viable path towards greater diversity. Now is the time to bring about the change we want to see.
– Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums