Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey


In June 2013, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation made a $2.07 million grant to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to enable the museum and four other major metropolitan museums in the United States (Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) to launch a pilot program of undergraduate curatorial fellowships.[1]  The initiative 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.  In each of its five sites, the program met with enthusiastic responses, but also with questions. Why was such a program needed?  How did the art museums and the Mellon Foundation know that demographic homogeneity was a problem in art museums?

Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey

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To people familiar with the professional profiles of American art museums or with the graduate programs that prepare students for jobs at the intellectual heart of museums, the questions may seem naïve.  Both the relative underrepresentation of people of color on art museum staff and the preponderance of men in museum leadership positions are well known phenomena, subject to regular discussion in the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC), and Center for Curatorial Leadership. Nevertheless, the questions focused the Foundation’s attention on the absence of reliable data about the demographic makeup of art museum staff across the country.  Aware of AAMD’s recent finding of a pronounced gender gap in museum directorships,[2] the Mellon Foundation proposed partnering with AAMD to conduct a demographic survey of art museum staff and boards. In the fall of 2014, the Foundation commissioned Ithaka S+R to design and implement a survey with the assistance of an advisory committee of AAMD staff and member museum leaders.  AAM supported the effort by enabling distribution of the survey to art museums that are not AAMD members.  In the winter of 2015, 77% of AAMD institutions and 15% of the additional AAM cohort completed the staff survey.  AAMD and AAM response rates for board diversity were considerably lower (38% and 4%, respectively), and too unrepresentative for inclusion in this report.  While the report below is generally limited to the AAMD respondents, the findings for the smaller AAM group are not substantively different from those for AAMD museums.  More than 90% of respondents were in the United States; there are a few institutions from Canada and Mexico in the sample.

The results summarized by Ithaka S+R below lead to a range of conclusions, many of which are perhaps best addressed by museums on the local level, as local and regional demographics tend to differ considerably across the continent.  The headline is unsurprising: utilizing the categories employed by the 2000 U.S. Census, 72% of AAMD staff is Non-Hispanic White, and 28% belongs to historically underrepresented minorities.[3]  As the American population is today 62% Non-Hispanic White, the overrepresentation of this group on museum staff may at first not seem as dramatic as one might have expected. Ithaka S+R’s analysis shows, however, that there is significant variation in demographic diversity across different types of museum employment.  Non-Hispanic White staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership (from director and chief curator to head of education or conservation).  In that subset of positions, 84% is Non-Hispanic White, 6% Asian, 4% Black, 3% Hispanic White, and 3% Two or More Races.  With the exception of the Asian demographic category, which makes up 5% of the United States population today, these proportions do not come close to representing the diversity of the American population.

Two specific results point to pathways for diversifying museum leadership and the positions that shape museums as venues of research and lifelong education.  First, progress is likely to be swifter and easier on gender equality than on minority representation.  As museum staff has become 60% female over the past decade or so, there is now also a preponderance of women in the curatorial, conservation, and educational roles that constitute the pipeline for leadership positions such as museum director, chief curator, and head of conservation or education.  With close attention to equitable promotion and hiring practices for senior positions, art museums should be able to achieve greater gender equality in their leadership cohorts within the foreseeable future.

Second, there is no comparable "youth bulge" of staff from historically underrepresented minorities in curatorial, education, or conservation departments. The percentages of staff from underrepresented communities in such positions are basically level at 27.5% across the different age cohorts born from the 1960s to 1990s. Therefore, even promotion protocols that are maximally intentional about the organizational benefits of diversity are not going to make museum leadership cohorts notably more diverse if there is no simultaneous increase in the presence of historically underrepresented minorities on museum staff altogether, and particularly in the professions that drive the museum’s programs in collection development, research, exhibitions, and education.  This finding suggests that diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures.  It also indicates that the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions, such as the AAMD/UNCF diversity initiative and the undergraduate curatorial fellowship program supported by the Mellon Foundation.

While the results of the 2015 art museum staff demographic survey may seem discouraging, they provide baseline data against which future surveys can be measured, and, one hopes, progress tracked.  For their energetic and thoughtful collaboration on the survey, the Mellon Foundation is deeply grateful to AAMD President Susan Taylor and Executive Director Christine Anagnos, former AAM President Ford Bell, Director Elizabeth Merritt of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, and all the directors and HR directors of the art museums who responded to the survey and reacted to an initial presentation of results at the 2015 AAMD annual meeting in Detroit.  Directors of AAMD member institutions lent invaluable advice to the Foundation and to Ithaka S+R; for their time and insights, we thank Gail Andrews, Andrea Barnwell, Johnnetta Cole, Timothy Rub, and Julián Zugazagoitia.  At Ithaka S+R, Deanna Marcum, Roger Schonfeld, and Liam Sweeney were tirelessly persistent and thoughtful in the design, administration, and interpretation of the survey.

As a small beginning, the 2015 art museum staff demographic survey lends support to the resolve of the many institutions that seek to mirror the country’s demographic transformation and become fully inclusive of the interests of their diverse communities.  The case is clear and urgent, and constructive responses to it will be critical to the continued vitality of art museums as public resources for a democratic society.

Mariët Westermann
Vice President
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation


[1]  [Return to text].
[2] Anne-Marie Gan et al., “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” report of the Association of Art Museum Directors and SMU National Center for Arts Research, March 7, 2014; available at  [Return to text].
[3] For the purposes of producing a baseline picture of the demographic composition of art museum staff in North America, the survey employed the widely used racial and ethnic categories introduced in the 2000 U.S. Census. They are the most convenient tool for measuring diversity, but there is a growing and cogent critique that they do not adequately capture the true diversity of the American population. For an introduction to this problematic, see Kenneth Prewitt, “Fix the Census’ Archaic Racial Categories,” New York Times, August 22, 2013; Prewitt was director of the United States Census Bureau from 1998 to 2000. The categorizations are of even more limited value for institutions in Canada and Mexico.  [Return to text].