Museum Leadership and DEI: A Process or an End Game?

Mark Strozier from Macon, GA, USA – WeekEnd, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98548400

Last week’s post generated some buzz. It also prompted me to continue thinking about race and workplace equity, so here goes:

My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th-century. A generation later she might have been a professor or a politician, but as a young woman who finished college before WWI, her rebelliousness ended when she married. When I was little, she frequently spoke in quotes, most of which sailed past me. A frequent flyer was “Do as you would be done by, ” a sentence that seemed so riddled with verbs and prepositions that it was unintelligible. But decades later, it has more resonance.

Many of our organizations either have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices or aspire to have them. They are there to help us right centuries of wrong doing, to re-center our overwhelming White world views, and to provide staff safety and security in knowing everyone, not just the powerful and well compensated, is treated equitably. In retrospect, what strikes me about the Chicago Art Institute’s decision to dissolve its docent program in favor of paid, BIPOC, front-facing staff, is not the decision itself, but about the museum world’s reaction to it. Equity isn’t equity unless it applies to everyone, even the people whose political views, values, and personal choices you don’t share. In other words, to quote my grandmother, “Do as you would be done by.”

It strikes me that this is likely one of the most challenging parts of 21st-century leadership. As a leader, you need to be fair or equitable, always. Not just because it makes your organizational optics better, not just because you’re trying to appease a particular group or board member, and not just because in your heart you’re more allied with one point of view than another. To be truly equitable, your bag of biases must be kept off-stage otherwise you’re liable to privilege one individual or group over another. Why? Because they appear to share your values? Maybe outside of work they’re your friends? Maybe they remind you of a family member? Who knows? But when push comes to shove, they stir your sympathies, and cause you to lean in ways others do not, and unless you acknowledge that behavior and interrogate it, your decision making will be flawed, and you will likely make inequitable decisions.

One of the symptoms of post-Trump, post-COVID America is people seem free to speak their minds whether one-on-one, on social media or through protest. That can be healthy–like when staff collaborates for better salaries and benefits perhaps through union membership–or unhealthy–when a museum visitor berates a staff member. It also means when decisions are made, it’s likely there will be a reaction, which is all the more reason today’s museum leaders need to understand their own value systems, to align them with those of their organization, and to make sure the two mirror one another.

Last week some readers pointed out that we don’t really know how the Art Institute communicated with its docents, whether it chose to speak with them face-to-face or ended the volunteer program via email. Fair enough. But it’s easy to applaud the dissolution of one program without knowing anything about what will replace it. Would it help if we knew the Art Institute had also revamped its hiring practices so candidates are assessed with a minimum of bias? Would it help is we knew the Art Institute had prioritized BIPOC hiring, onboarding and mentoring?

Workplace equity is critical for everyone. And at the same time, we don’t leave our values, our beliefs, our friendships and our families behind when we enter the workplace each morning. That means museum leaders, whether at the top of the organizational food chain or department heads, need to be endlessly empathetic, and constantly engage in self-reflection, working to ensure individual success along with the collective whole. They need to make challenging the status quo the the beginning, not the end game. In short, systemic change means there are no quick solutions. And they need to understand White people’s antiracist work can leave Black colleagues exhausted. Why? Because somehow it becomes a White thing, necessitating congratulations, acknowledgement, and once again making White staff the focus of the narrative.

Change begins when an all-White volunteer program becomes BIPOC and paid, but it can’t end there. Is it enough that a predominantly White museum feels less bad because it changes the color of its front-facing staff without knowing whether they are safe, seen, and supported? Does a different staff who still bears the burden of a racist museum culture make for a different museum? In a perfect world, antiracist work is a process that hopefully deconstructs the ways White ideologies are prioritized in a museum, linking staff changes to larger internal organizational changes designed to create safe, equitable museum workplaces.

Be well and do good work.

Joan Baldwin



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