In 2014, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation set out with partners the Association of Art Museum Directors and Ithaka S+R to look at an issue of increasing concern to the arts community: the lack of representative diversity in museum professions. This field-wide demographic study 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 to staff diversity may be present in their respective organizations, the Mellon Foundation is highlighting solutions as well as challenges throughout the field. We partnered again with Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors, this time to examine how some art museums have been successful in these areas, hoping that this would allow others to learn from peers and adopt practices that would reduce their own structural barriers not only with respect to staffing but towards achieving equity more broadly.
We have summarized case study findings for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Studio Museum in Harlem. The latest in this series features the Andy Warhol Museum, which considers engaging nontraditional staff and audiences as an extension of its mission.
The Andy Warhol Museum
The Andy Warhol Museum is located in the artist’s home town of Pittsburgh, PA. It’s the largest single-artist museum in the country, located near one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods. While the city has struggled economically, it has a legacy of strong support for the arts.
The Warhol stands out because of its strategy to diversify the pipeline of professional roles, by thinking expansively about its curatorial practice, and actively working to strengthen community ties.
The fact that the Warhol has higher diversity than most museums isn’t an accident. Its education department has been working on creating a pipeline of more diverse applicants for years. The museum offers a suite of culturally specific youth programs. While some of these programs are decidedly local, others make the museum a regional destination. For example, their annual LGBTQ+ Youth Prom draws residents from Pittsburgh as well as the surrounding Western Pennsylvania counties. For many LGBTQ+ youth, the Warhol provides a valuable safe space in a region that can feel hostile to their identities. Culturally specific programs like this provide an entry point into the museum—and to the arts more broadly—for people who might not otherwise have one. Community members who enjoy the Warhol’s programming have gone on to secure internships, participate in citywide initiatives offering paid opportunities for students, and even acquire full-time jobs at the museum. The Warhol’s next challenge will be formalizing what has until now been an informal process for creating an employment pipeline.
The Warhol Museum is recognized for its sensory-friendly events, universally designed exhibitions featuring tactile reproductions or signature artworks, an award-winning inclusive audio guide, and an accessible website. But behind the scenes, one of its signature achievements is the way it has placed accessibility issues at the center of its institutional mission.
Expanding Its Mission
It would be relatively easy for the Warhol to remain stuck in time. Its huge collection of the artist’s work, could enable the museum to survive on history alone. Instead, the museum pushes boundaries by using its rotating gallery space to feature contemporary artists who have been influenced by Warhol. This choice has given the museum an opportunity to showcase voices from underserved communities around the world in exhibitions that confront the complexities of America’s international identity.
Recently, the Warhol turned a crisis into an opportunity for deeper engagement with their community. In 2014, the museum displayed a series of ads around the city that were designed to poke fun at fine arts patrons by taking photos of wealthy white people and overlaying them with lyrics from local Pittsburgh rappers. Local African American activists and artists took offense to the ads, saying that they ignored the real issues rappers were trying to highlight with their music.
Rather than going on the defensive, the Warhol met with the activists to share their vision for the ads, as well as listen to the activists’ stories and concerns. The result was a multiyear collaboration that has used murals to highlight issues of importance to the community.
The museum’s leadership acknowledges that when it comes to staff diversity and its impact on the local community, it still has a long way to go. Although the Warhol’s staff is among the move diverse in the sector, its employees are more than three-quarters white—a reflection of the significant barriers to diversity that museums across the country must address. Against this backdrop, the Warhol is committed to finding ways to increase diversity and community engagement while staying true to its mission and the iconoclast it represents.