This September, the art world was rocked when four major museums — the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Tate Modern in London; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — postponed a planned retrospective of the art of the modernist painter Philip Guston. The reason? They worried their audiences might blanch at his paintings of Klansmen.
The exhibit, which included two dozen of Guston’s depictions of the Ku Klux Klan, had already been postponed once because of the pandemic. In delaying the show until 2024, the museums said in a joint statement, “We think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
Art world onlookers were furious. Guston, who was Jewish, always wrote clearly that he saw his KKK motif as an exploration of evil. Within days, more than 100 of the biggest names in the art world — including Adrian Piper, Martin Puryear, Matthew Barney, Coco Fusco, Benjamin Buchloh, and Zoe Leonard — had signed an open letter denouncing the decision.
“Rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability than in these powerful men and women’s apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work,” it read. Instead, it argued, the postponement served to illustrate that the museum leaders had failed to prepare themselves for America’s reinvigorated racial justice movement.
The letter went on to critique not just these particular museum leaders, but also the institution of the museum itself. Because these particular museum leaders must realize, it said, that “to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves — about their class and racial foundations.”
The Guston firestorm was the culmination of a summer of discontent in which museum insiders had already begun to loudly ask these uncomfortable questions. In June, an Instagram account called Change the Museum began publishing accounts of racism from anonymous employees at major American institutions, including the Met and the MoMA, garnering tens of thousands of followers.
Staffers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Akron Art Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Guggenheim, among hundreds of others, also published open letters decrying what they described as cultures of racism at their institutions. A crowdsourced salary spreadsheet that circulated among workers showed enormous pay disparities affecting lower-level staffers — disproportionately likely to be people of color — across museums nationally.
Museums have for decades luxuriated in a public image as the last great bastions of liberal cosmopolitanism. But increasingly, they are facing critiques from inside their own walls. Museum workers, artists, and critics are saying that museums need to change. Not just when it comes to what’s on their walls, but also how they collect, whom they hire, and how they cater to their audiences.
The alarm-ringing began in earnest after major museums began to lay off staff members amid the pandemic, with critics arguing that the layoffs disproportionately affected workers of color while leaving massive executive salaries relatively untouched. But some aspects of the conversation have simmered under the surface for decades and are only now beginning to make their way into the public eye. And so museums are trying desperately, in the midst of a pandemic and its accompanying economic crisis, to figure out how to respond. Meanwhile, critics argue that museums are only paying lip service to the idea of diversity without making necessary structural changes.
And at the center of their tense exchanges is one major question: What does it really mean to make a museum diverse?
According to a 2015 Mellon Foundation/Association of Art Museum Directors demographic report of art museum staffers, 72 percent of art museum staffers that year were non-Hispanic white, while only 28 percent belonged to historically underrepresented groups. And in departments including curation, education, conservation, and leadership — the most glamorous and respected jobs in the field — the numbers were worse: 84 percent of those staffers were white. Many museum staff members of color were disproportionately likely to be working in security or on the janitorial staff.
“Museums need to have people of color working within those institutions, and working in positions where they actually have power to change and shape them,” says Victoria Rogers, a co-chair of the newly founded Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums. Rogers, who serves on the board of trustees for the Brooklyn Museum, says the alliance is working to create strategic initiatives to push museums to make more diverse hires.
But systemic issues, starting with the pipeline to employment, help keep museum staffs white.
To get a job working in a museum in curation or education, an arts degree, and often a graduate degree, is usually required. And the rewards for graduates are often precarious: temporary positions with low salaries, typically starting around $30,000, and a move every few years to the next temporary position that opens up.
Emma Turner-Trujillo majored in Ancient American art history in college, using scholarships to help her afford her arts education, because she wanted to work in museums. After graduating in 2014, she was hired by LA’s Getty Museum for a limited-term job, the traditional next step for anyone who wants to work in museums.
But, says Turner-Trujillo, who is Mexican American, “an operative word in a lot of these positions is ‘limited-term.’ They do not keep people on. A lot of the time, these initiatives are meant to diversify the pipeline. But because they’re so limited-term, there’s not a lot of opportunity for these more diverse voices to actually stay on.”
Turner-Trujillo went back to school for a graduate degree in museums and exhibition studies. She graduated this spring into a museum landscape that had been flattened by the pandemic.
“We’re so saturated with candidates, right?” says Rose Cannon, who plans to work in museum education but says the current job market is prohibitive. “It’s just really, really difficult to stand out.” Cannon currently works as a preschool teacher.
“You have to go through eight to 10 years of very expensive, intensive schooling to get your PhD. And even then, if you’re a PhD in a very specific kind of art, there’s only so many museums in the United States that you can work at,” says Turner-Trujillo. “And if they don’t have a curatorial position that’s open, you’re stuck doing freelance work until you’re in your late 40s, early 50s, and it is tireless — most insultingly, I would say, for Indigenous people. Their Indigenous knowledge as Indigenous people isn’t taken seriously until they get a PhD in their own culture, to have the chance to curate their historical objects and contemporary objects.”
Some people of color who make it through these barriers to longer-term positions in museums say they’re met with hostile working spaces. This summer, the Instagram account Change the Museum began collecting some of their stories.
One poster wrote that their museum’s all-white marketing team scheduled photo shoots for the museum’s Free Thursday to give the impression of a more diverse patronage than they had on a typical day. Another described trying to host a Black Lives Matter program, only to be blocked by a white director who believed “all lives matter.” A third noted that the combined salaries of the 80 staff members laid off at one museum came to a total “far less” than that of the museum’s director.
Increasingly, it’s those layoffs that museum staffers consider to be a major source of indignation. They overwhelmingly target lower-level staffers, while the mostly white executives at top levels keep their jobs intact.
Turner-Trujillo works at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and says, “They let people go really viciously. People who had been there for 20 years, making very little money already, working for the museum that they so loved, were let go.”
June Ahn, who works at the Field Museum with Turner-Trujillo, cited a comment from Richard Lariviere, who retired from his role as the museum’s director in August. “In a meeting, someone asked him if he would be willing to take a pay cut,” says Ahn. “He said that while it was a nice gesture, it wouldn’t contribute to anything meaningful and that it was not worth doing.”
“Meanwhile, he kept his $600,000 salary,” says Turner-Trujillo, “and the rest of us took a 10 percent pay cut across the board.”
In a statement, the Field Museum disputed Turner-Trujillo’s claims, saying that the majority of its staff, including Lariviere and the rest of the executive leadership team, took a 10 percent pay cut over the summer. It said that as museum revenue returns, the pay cut applies now only to the highest earners on staff.
Traditionally, museum collections have focused on the work we have historically considered to be important: works by straight white men. A 2019 study of 18 major US art museums found that 85 percent of the artists in their collections were white and 87 percent were male. Moving away from that collection model has required concerted effort.
When work began on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2005, Lonnie Bunch, the current secretary of the Smithsonian, recalls that he found the challenge of curating physical collections so daunting that he briefly considered keeping the museum’s focus on digital exhibits.
But Bunch says he knew the museum wouldn’t be the success he wanted if he didn’t have real artifacts that people would want to plan a family vacation around. “At the Smithsonian, if you don’t have the Wright Flyer or the ruby slippers, you fail,” he says. “So I remember thinking, ‘How do we find these collections?’ And then I woke up one day and turned on the TV, and there was Antiques Roadshow.”
Inspired by PBS’s traveling antique appraisal show, Bunch traveled from town to town, asking communities to go into their basements and bring out family heirlooms and bric-a-brac to be looked at by a curator. But what they would come away with was an understanding of the items’ historical value, not monetary worth.
“All of the 20th century and so much of the 19th century was still in basements, attics, and trunks in people’s homes,” Bunch says. “And by helping people preserve things, everybody got excited about the Smithsonian. They began to say, ‘Wait, I have this,’ or, ‘I have that.’”
By the time the museum opened in 2016, Bunch and his curators had collected more than 40,000 objects — civil rights paraphernalia, broadsheets on fugitive enslaved people, banners from 19th-century Black social clubs — an estimated 70 percent of which came from people’s homes.
Classically, Early American art galleries look like “a chronological sort of march through history,” says Rod Bigelow, executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, which has become famous for its diversification effort. Specifically, those galleries look like a march through history of the Great White Man sort: They’re filled with lots of paintings of the kind of people considered worthy of portraits in 17th-century America.
In contrast, Bigelow says, Crystal Bridges wanted to find ways of “talking about the Indigenous people that were here in this space in the past.” So the newly reimagined Early American galleries feature some of the traditional portraiture that you would expect to see — along with contemporary works by Native American artists, providing a pointed counternarrative to the mythos of the Great White Man version of America’s founding story that museums tend to tell.
With a diverse history set in place in the Early American galleries, Crystal Bridges was also free to display the diversity of the present in its contemporary galleries. There, so much art by Black and women artists is on display that one critic wondered if Crystal Bridges wasn’t “the most woke museum in America.”
But once a museum has a collection built to chronicle America’s vast multicultural complexity, it also has to show that collection to its audience. And there, things get even trickier.
The basic outlines of controversies such as the recent Guston postponement have become familiar to the museum world. Variations of it float through the news every few months.
Part of what has made it so controversial is that it suggests that the four museums at its heart aren’t confident in their ability to communicate effectively with the communities they serve. Lisa Melandri, director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, says that particular crisis of confidence is why she has put community relations and staff relations at the center of her work since 2016, when CAM St. Louis put up its own controversial installation.
The piece, by white artist Kelley Walker, included images of Black Americans smeared with toothpaste, chocolate, and milk. Multiple protesters, including some CAM staff, called for the works to be taken down. Some called for a boycott of the museum.
Since then, Melandri says she has come to rely on the museum’s learning and engagement committee, which includes representatives from St. Louis schools, to understand how the community will respond to art that deals with difficult subjects. She points to an exhibit the museum mounted in 2018 of Sanford Biggers’s BAM series, which concerns the police shooting of unarmed Black people.
As part of the exhibit, CAM displayed a video documentary that included scenes of Biggers shooting some of his sculptures. The sound of the gunshot was a pointed part of the exhibit, and it was made to be heard. But the staff had concerns.
“Quite literally, coming into the museum and hearing the sound of a gunshot or pulling the trigger was triggering,” Melandri says.
CAM is roughly 10 miles from the Ferguson suburb where then-police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed Black 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, setting off a national wave of protests. The community, and local schools especially, remained on edge.
After consulting with Biggers, the CAM staff decided to have the video playing on mute, with headphones hanging from the gallery walls, so those who wanted to hear the sounds of the gunshots could, and those who didn’t could pass them by.
In a discussion about the Guston controversy hosted by the Washington Post in October, Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, said she decided to postpone the show in part after seeing the way some white audiences have reacted to other artworks depicting white violence toward people of color. She pointed to the firestorm over the Sam Durant sculpture “Scaffold,” which depicts a series of gallows used for public executions in the US, including the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota.
In 2017, “Scaffold” moved to Minneapolis’s Walker Museum, which erected the piece in a local sculpture garden. It faced immediate protest from area Dakota activists, who called it a “killing machine” — and then counterprotests from angry white people. “There were people driving by the protests and screaming racist things at [protesters], saying things like, ‘That’s our trophy, don’t you touch that,’ and throwing rocks at them,” Durant said in an interview with the LA Times.
Durant, who is white, intended “Scaffold” to be a critique of its subjects, including the American genocide of Native Americans. But after a series of mediated dialogues with Dakota spokespeople, he concluded that he had gotten it wrong. He had made something that only reminded the Dakotas of their trauma while incensing white supremacists to treat it as a victory of war. He took down the piece and signed over its intellectual rights to the Dakota people.
Feldman has said that she’s close friends with the Walker Museum’s director, and has consulted closely with her over her handling of the Guston exhibit. She stressed during her Washington Post conversation that what the Guston museums should be criticized for isn’t that they decided to postpone the exhibit, but rather that they decided to do so late. (After the open letter, the museums set yet another date, pledging to mount it in 2022.) “We should have even realized five years ago that we had a different America” than the one in which Guston painted his art, she said.
Feldman told the audience that the greatest concerns over Guston’s KKK motif came to her from the museum staff members who interact most often with the audience: security guards.
“Very often when people are surprised, delighted, upset, angry at art that they see, the first person they speak to is a security guard about their experience,” Feldman said. She argues that it’s essential for museums to take the creative concerns of security guards seriously. Which, according to this summer’s protests, many museums don’t — and according to the Mellon report, many museums don’t seem to have staff members of color outside of their security staff, either.
For some critics of museums, all these institutional problems — the holes in the collections, the barriers to a diverse staff — aren’t aberrations from the grand and liberal museum mission of bringing cultural treasures and knowledge to the public. Instead, they are a part of what critics say has always been fundamental to museums, which is the mission of promoting Western domination over the rest of the world.
Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, is the author of the new book The Brutish Museums. The book chronicles the story of the Benin Bronzes, a collection of artwork dating back to the 13th century that was looted in 1897 by British soldiers from what is now Nigeria. It’s now housed in museums across Europe and America.
“They were displayed in Berlin and London and Oxford within weeks of the conflicts,” says Hicks. “It wasn’t some accident. The museum was an entirely contemporary, modern device. It was the technologies of display at a time at which anthropology was involved in fake race science in the operations of empire, and the justifications for empire based on ideas of cultural superiority.”
The displays of the Benin Bronzes, Hicks argues, weren’t a mere byproduct of the attack on the kingdom of Benin. They were used to justify it.
“After the Second World War in the UK, we dismantled the displays of physical anthropology, the types of skulls that told the old lie of there being a difference in the types of human,” says Hicks. “They didn’t realize that the cultural displays were telling the same story — of a cultural superiority.”
Hicks argues that museums are still necessary, but that they need to be fundamentally reimagined. Small reforms and lip service, he says, won’t do the trick.
“I’m really wary of decolonization of museums,” he says. “I think it can often just be a virtue signal. The British Museum coming out after the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer with a statement is seen as so hollow by so many people because there wasn’t any positive action involved. It was just saying, ‘We’re going to tell the history better.’ But that’s what these museums were built to do all along: to tell these atrocious histories. That’s how the violence is made to persist.”
Hicks argues that museums have two central duties going forward. “One is to share the knowledge,” he says. “The other is to listen to the demands of the victims of past violence. It’s as simple as that.”
The Smithsonian’s Bunch agrees that rhetoric about decolonizing museums can often be empty. “I do not believe all the museums have the will to make the changes they need to,” he says. We know that museums can change, he argues, because they have done it before: “Look at how the museum profession pivoted to deal with looted Nazi art, or how it changed to make sure that education was at the heart of these institutions, or even, 35 years ago, making sure that scholarship was really at the heart of these institutions.”
Bunch says that when he decided he needed to make sure the National Museum of African American History and Culture had a diverse staff, he had to go looking outside of the established museum hiring pipelines. “So it was not easy,” he says. “But the reality is, it’s about the will. It’s about not settling for the easy answer.”
The Field Museum’s Turner-Trujillo and Ahn, along with Cannon, attended the same graduate program, and all found themselves experiencing the same growing frustration with the museum world. When they graduated into a museum landscape decimated by the pandemic, they decided to funnel their energies into a conference program dedicated to radically imagining museums, who they were for, and what they were capable of. They had the perfect name for it: Death to Museums.
Museums, says Ahn, “really needed to fundamentally look at what was happening and to rectify those problems. It wasn’t just about hiring a fellow or creating a diversity initiative. It was so much deeper than that. It goes in all parts of the museum, like how objects are curated, how things are displayed, like who works at the museum. There really needs to be an upheaval of museum labor. A lot of our ideas, both short term and long term, look like giving voice back to workers.”
The group’s tagline — “Death to Museums. Long live the museum” — acknowledges that to address everything wrong with museums would require dismantling everything that museums are, says Turner-Trujillo. “It’s at the root. The root is corrupted.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the focus of Emma Turner-Trujillo’s degree. She studied ancient American art history.