Los Angeles County Museum of Art


HISTORICALLY, THE U.S. MUSEUM FIELD has lacked diversity, with African Americans significantly underrepresented. A 2015 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found 84 percent of art museum curators, educators, conservators, and leadership was white. People of color (blacks/African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and those who identify with two or more races) accounted for a fraction of personnel in these key areas that guide the intellectual direction, programming, and management of museums. African Americans held just four percent of the positions, according to Mellon.

Over the past four years, Culture Type and other art and news outlets reporting on museum diversity and inclusion have referenced the Mellon findings as a benchmark for analyzing the issue. Only recently, since the foundation issued its report, has the longstanding problem been addressed in a concerted fashion through a series of initiatives supported by major museums and foundations.

In order to gauge progress, Mellon undertook a new survey in 2018 and published the results earlier this week. The report shows more racial and ethnic diversity on museum staffs. Notable progress was cited across nearly all art museum staff ranks, with increased representation for African Americans, rising to 11 percent in the category that includes intellectual staffing. While marked improvements were recorded in curatorial and education, increases were negligible in conservation and leadership.

Describing the overall change as “overdue” and “slow,” Mariët Westermann, executive vice president for programs and research at Mellon, summed up the findings in the introduction to the new report.

“At a high level, the study has found some meaningful progress in the representation of people of color in a number of different museum functions, including the curatorial. We also found an increase in the number of women in museum leadership positions from 2015 to 2018,” Westermann wrote. “Nevertheless, the data also shows that progress has been uneven. While trends in recent hiring are encouraging, certain parts of the museum appear not as quick to change, especially the most senior leadership positions.”

“At a high level, the study has found some meaningful progress in the representation of people of color in a number of different museum functions, including the curatorial. …While trends in recent hiring are encouraging, certain parts of the museum appear not as quick to change, especially the most senior leadership positions.”
— Mariët Westermann, Mellon Foundation

Source: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018, Mellon Foundation


THE MELLON FOUNDATION conducted both the 2015 and 2018 surveys in collaboration with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Alliance of American Museums (AAM), and Ithaka S+R, a strategic consulting and research firm that “helps academic and cultural communities serve the public good and navigate economic, technological, and demographic change.”

The new survey was completed by 332 museums (the majority belonging to AAMD) that provided demographic and staffing data on more than 30,000 employees.

According to Mellon, across all departments, from security and human resources to curatorial and leadership, representation for people of color rose by four percent, from 24 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2018.

These figures reflect annual increases in hiring for people of color. In 2015, 26 percent of new hires were people of color. In each subsequent year the rates have improved: 2016 (29 percent), 2017 (30 percent), and 2018 (35 percent).

In terms of curatorial, education, conservation, and leadership, representation among people of color has increased five percent, from 15 percent (2015) to 20 percent (2018).

Most of the improvement occurred in curatorial and education departments, with increases of four percent (from 12 percent to 16 percent) and six percent (from 20 percent to 26 percent), respectively. By comparison, representation in conservation (from 10 percent to 11 percent) and leadership (from 11 percent to 12 percent), already relatively low, rose just one percent.

The survey emphasized additional findings:

  • Very few men of color are in museum leadership positions in 2018
  • African American educators increased by one and a half times, as did educators who identify as two or more races
  • African American curators in the sample doubled from 2015 to 2018

The increasing ranks of African American curators are reflected in the listings Culture Type published charting new appointments in 2016, 2017, and 2018.


Source: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018, Mellon Foundation


A NUMBER OF PROGRAMS are creating a pipeline for a new generation of museum professionals to enter the field. The Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellowship was established in 1992 at the St. Louis Art Museum. It is one of the few longstanding programs whose aim is to “build a pool of talented young under-represented professionals to work in art-related fields in museums, galleries, non-profit organizations and universities.”

In 2013, Mellon gave a $2.07 million grant to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to launch an undergraduate fellowship program at LACMA and four other major museums— Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The pilot program “was designed to open up the museum as a potential workplace to students from historically underrepresented minorities and other undergraduates who are committed to diversifying our cultural organizations. At a time of unprecedented rates of demographic change in the United States, the program was intended as an experiment in what may need to be a concerted effort, supported by many organizations, to make the country’s art museums more representative of the growing diversity of the American people.”

After Mellon conducted its first survey in 2015, additional efforts to address the lack of diversity in the museum field were initiated. The Studio Museum in Harlem and Museum of Modern Art developed a Museum Fellowship Collaboration in 2015, a paid, two-year opportunity for culturally diverse candidates to spend time working at each institution.


Source: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018, Mellon Foundation


COLLABORATIONS AMONG FOUNDATIONS, universities, and museums also sprung up, funding internships and fellowships to develop the next generation of curators of color and address access issues with paid training opportunities and mentorship programs to provide students with connections, guidance, and support.

Over the past year or so, at least four major initiatives have been announced—institutional collaborations and multimillion dollar foundation commitments:

“For many decades Spelman alumnae have thrived as curators, museum educators, administrators, and directors,” Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, said in a statment when school’s grant was recently announced. “The Walton Family Foundation grant is transformative and coupled with our collaborations with current and future partners, aids us in extending experiential learning opportunities and supports our commitment to leading the critical charge to create pathways for the next generation of museum professionals.”

These kinds of efforts and the awareness the survey results are spreading throughout the museum sector have undoubtedly had some influence on bridging the opportunity gap and increasing diversity as reflected in the foundation’s latest findings.

“We need things to start changing now,” Michael Govan, chief executive and director of LACMA, told the New York Times. “Addressing it directly and speaking loudly sends a strong signal.” CT


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of CHRIS BURDEN, “Urban Light,” 2008 (202 restored cast iron antique street lamps), Los Angeles County Museum of Art. | © Chris Burden/licensed by The Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA


FIND MORE about museum diversity in the 2018 and 2015 surveys by the Mellon Foundation

FIND MORE about a new effort to address museum board diversity


Spelman College is helming an effort to develop Atlanta University Center (Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Spelman) into an incubator for art historians, curators, and museum leaders. Shown, Spelman College campus with Giles Hall in the background. | Photo by Chris Shinn, Spelman College


Co-edited by Johnetta B. Cole, “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums” was just published by American Alliance of Museums. “Making a Museum in the 21st Century” offers invaluable insights from museum leaders, curators, architects and artists about the most pressing issues facing museums given changing demographics and expectations and the challenges of engaging new audiences.


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