Museums and Investing in Social Responsibility

Not Neutral

Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt,  I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.

Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.

A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.

This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.

Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea.  Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad.  Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.

Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”

We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week.  Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”

She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.

We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?

Tell us what you think.

Joan Baldwin


3 Comments on “Museums and Investing in Social Responsibility”

  1. Evelyn Fidler says:

    The problem I have with museums taking a stand is how do we decide which stand to take? As individuals, everyone has different opinions on different issues and we are free to take a stand on whichever side of an issue we want based on our own moral outlook. Museums are made up of many different people all with different moral backgrounds and political affiliations, we aren’t all cookie cutter alike. It is for that reason I believe museums should stay neutral when taking a public stand. Yes present the facts and maybe the many different sides of an issue so the public can make up their own minds. We have a public responsibility to educate, provoke thought but not to take a stand on one side or the other. Personally I would be one of the ones refusing to attend the MOMA knowing they took the stand they did. Sure exhibit artwork from artists from banned countries ALONG with the Picassos and Monets. Why should one be held more valuable than the other?

  2. artstuffmatters says:

    It’s good to see the idea of museum neutrality being discussed in public forums. However, the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral initiative that I co-founded with my colleague Mike Murawski (although we are not cited in this article) spotlights the reality. It is not a case of “Should museums be neutral?” Museums are not neutral.
    As there is abundant evidence available on this fact, I will only mention a few points here. From their very inception museums have been places of power. They originate from colonist enterprise. In the U.S. over 80% of museum leadership roles are occupied by white people. Exclusion – racism, sexism, and class discrimination – has been and remains a dominant force in our museums.
    There is nothing neutral about the lack of equity in our museums. We would like our museum colleagues and visitors to acknowledge that the claim of neutrality is a myth. We need institutions to engage with social and political realities. That includes the issues outside the museum doors and those that permeate our museums in terms of collections, exhibitions, interpretation, staffing, missions, and more.

    Both Mike and I have written about our campaign:
    – “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral,” by La Tanya S. Autry, Artstuffmatters blog, October 15, 2017,
    – “Museums Are Not Neutral” by Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching blog, August 31, 2017,

    Here are just a few excellent articles and books about this topic –
    – “The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did It Come From,” by Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons blog, June 26, 2017,
    – “What is Curatorial Activism,” by Maura Reilly, Art News, 11/7/2017,
    – From Storefront to Museum: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea A. Burns, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 2013
    – Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 2011
    – Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2016

    La Tanya S. Autry
    #MuseumsAreNotNeutral co-founder

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