As museums face racial and economic problems, smaller institutions are showing progress

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many people are looking at how cultural institutions — theaters, orchestras, and museums — may have helped further racial inequality. In her recent LA Times column, Carolina Miranda directly asks whether art museums are racist.

Untangling that question is complicated, she tells KCRW. “You can't address racial equity without addressing economic equity. You can't address any of that without looking at the financial state that the pandemic has put museums in. … How are museums going to deal with these issues of equity at a time when they're also facing a vast financial crater because of the pandemic?”

On the face of it, stats show that white people make up most museum curators, board members, and attendees. 

“You do have these very liberal minded institutions that I think like to think of themselves as progressive and forward thinking. But when you look at the numbers, not so much,” Miranda says. 

She notes that people of color make up 10% of museum board members and hold 12% of museum leadership positions. And at places like the Getty, not a single person of color is in a senior leadership position. 

She says the Getty — and other institutions — have been rethinking diversity efforts pre-pandemic. Staff meetings have addressed racial and economic equity, and there’s now a 12-page draft plan. 

“That's going to mean more intensive recruiting. It's going to mean maybe a stronger exit interview process. Why don't people of color stay at the institution? That's a question that needs to be asked. ... Is there a way to rethink the curatorial program so that it's a little bit more diverse?”

What about other big museums in LA? 

Miranda says The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which has been financially hit hard by the pandemic, has a small curatorial staff and decent representation. “Out of the six members of the curatorial staff at MOCA, two are people of color, which represents about a third.”

She notes that a lot of places still have Latino underrepresentation among staff, boards, and programs. “LACMA in that regard has been one of the institutions that most consistently represents Latino artists and has prominent Latino curators like Rita Gonzalez on its staff. But at the board level and in terms of issues of pay equity, they are still contending with some of the issues that museums across the country are dealing with.”

Miranda says all big museums are facing these issues, but small museums are more flexible and can experiment with new ideas more easily than the older institutions. 

“At places like the Autry hiring the curator Joe D. Horse Capture, who is known for doing a curatorial process that engages his audience. … Or at the California African American Museum, new deputy director, Cameron Shaw, who comes from a nonprofit background that is about working collectively and collaboratively. So it's less top down and a little bit more of a setting in which everyone gets a voice.” 

Is this actually a moment where museums will make substantive change? Miranda says some will and others may not, but there’s a critical mass of people questioning these institutions in a way that puts pressure on them.  

“I think the key will be keeping that pressure on them, and then also dealing with the financial aspect of the pandemic. … This is now being talked about at levels that perhaps it wasn't reaching before. But they're going to have to make it out of this financial crunch … to put some of those moves into play,” she says. 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Rebecca Mooney