Three years ago, we set out with partners Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors to look at an issue of increasing concern in the arts community: the lack of representative diversity in professional museum roles. Our work found that people of color are underrepresented in the museum community, and that there are structural barriers to entry for these positions.
As museum leaders reassess what barriers may be present in their own organizations, we want to highlight solutions and successes as well as challenges. We partnered with Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors to highlight eight museums that have been successful in this area. Our case studies will be released in the coming months and we will be sharing our topline findings. We previously wrote about the Studio Museum in Harlem; here we explore the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) case study.
LACMA: Reflecting Los Angeles, Decentralized and Global
LACMA, the largest art museum in the West, sits in the middle of Los Angeles, one of the largest and most diverse cities in the United States. Spread out geographically, deeply segregated, and a majority-minority city for decades, Los Angeles has grown rapidly, expanding from less than 6,000 people in 1870 to nearly 4,000,000 today.
LACMA hasn’t always reflected the growth and diversity of its city. In the 1980s, LACMA ran an exhibit entitled Seventeen Artists of the 60s that only featured white men. Partially as a result of grassroots movements inside and outside the museum driving for change, LACMA became a leader in representing African American art in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, LACMA is a leader in highlighting diverse artists and presenting art in an innovative and cultural context. However, even as the work it featured grew more diverse, LACMA wasn’t engaging with new audiences.
Breaking Down Barriers and Changing the Face of LACMA
Under the leadership of director Michael Govan, LACMA has supercharged its efforts to engage with more diverse communities. LACMA itself is relatively diverse; 50 percent of the staff are people of color. Govan didn’t hit that goal by working on quotas, instead, he worked to instill values across the organization. He admits that this is riskier, since without a set goal it’s much harder to hold yourself and your team accountable. However, he believes it will ultimately lead to better long-term results, as well as a better understanding of the intersectional nature of diversity.
Diversity has also come from engaging new audiences and taking art outside of the museum. LACMA has launched a youth program, currently serving over 200,000 young adults, which allows attendees under the age of 17 and an accompanying adult to enter for free. LACMA also invested heavily in public art, establishing two major exhibits that are open 24 hours a day outside the museum proper. These exhibits have made LACMA the fourth-most Instagrammed museum in the world. These programs represent a good return on a risky bet.
The leadership and staff at LACMA have worked to break down barriers between departmental silos. LACMA increased collaboration between the curators and museum educators, with both groups having a mutual respect for one another and a desire to work collaboratively to find the best ways to make art more approachable.
The collaboration between education and curation is also evident in how LACMA has used the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship (MCUF) to increase diversity. Many of the Fellowship candidates’ initial exposure to the museum is through the education department, where mentors and teachers help guide students and provide them with opportunities to get more involved. Students who first got involved via LACMA’s education program have used the Fellowship to develop careers in the museum space.
LACMA’s future plans focus on radically breaking down barriers even more, this time rethinking what a museum can mean to a city. This plan includes a redesign of LACMA’s physical location, making the museum a more transparent and open space. It also includes a radical plan to start hosting more exhibits in communities around Los Angeles, turning LACMA into the repository for a decentralized, citywide art museum.
Partly because of the leadership of Michael Govan, and partly because of the work of activists inside and outside the museum, LACMA has embraced diversity in a way many other museums haven’t yet. This includes an intersectional look at what communities the museum is serving, as well as efforts to break down internal barriers.