The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: A Case Study

A case study examines how the MCA Chicago, an “artist-activated, audience-engaged” institution, has been successful in its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Chicago Case Study.pngPhoto courtesy of The Museum of Conteporary Art Chicago.

Several years ago, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 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. Research 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 seek to increase diversity within the staffs, programs, and collections of their respective organizations, the Mellon Foundation has partnered again with Ithaka S+R and the Association of Art Museum Directors, this time to examine particular museums that have been successful in these areas. The hope if that these case studies will allow others to learn from peers and adopt practices that would reduce their own structural barriers not only with respect to staffing but also towards achieving equity more broadly.  We previously wrote about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Andy Warhol Museum and the Spellman College Art Museum case studies. The latest in this series features the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which envisions itself as an “artist-activated, audience-engaged” institution.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago) occupies a premier location in Chicago’s downtown. In 2017, MCA Chicago celebrated its 50th anniversary with a remodeling of its public spaces and a three-part exhibition drawn from its permanent collection titled We Are Here. A commitment to fostering visual literacy and citizenship connects both artist and audience in a building that lends itself to contemplative, social, and educational experiences. “Here we create citizens, not consumers,” Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn says of the museum. A shift in attention toward the experience of the visitor has created opportunities for connection between artists and broader social issues.

In recent years, the museum has taken active steps to diversify its program, staff, audience, and board, a process essential for MCA Chicago to more closely reflect and understand Chicago’s communities. It has developed a culture of inclusion, accessibility tools that serve the broader field, and unique organizational structures to improve equity for artists, audiences, and staff. But MCA Chicago still faces some barriers to realizing equitable practices internally. It also has further work to do to connect its programs more explicitly with underserved communities. MCA Chicago’s mindful efforts, but also its remaining barriers, make it an important museum to examine as other institutions consider issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Key Findings

The MCA Chicago case study presents several key findings that may be relevant to the broader field.

  • Cultivating Alignment:  At MCA Chicago, staff have made progress toward realizing the values of access, inclusion, and equity across departments and levels of seniority. Rather than achieving this through a hierarchical approach, leadership has empowered grass-roots action through invested staff members across the institution, inviting experimentation within and across departmental contexts. 
  • Breaking down silos:  To bridge gaps between disconnected stakeholders, MCA Chicago has experimented with a new committee model, the creation of a new position to liaise across departments, and the structuring of opportunities for leadership to listen to museum staff across levels of seniority. 
  • Diversifying Collections and Exhibitions:  In its collection development, the museum seeks to embrace global perspectives and also to support Chicago’s legacy in the visual and performing arts. It has taken active steps to diversify its collection. 

Ongoing Challenges

The case study also notes some challenges to increasing inclusion, diversity, and equity in the museum. 

  • Internship program:  Although the museum’s valuable internship program now recruits less from elite institutions and increasingly from more diverse pools, it has been unable to fund the bulk of its internships. Unpaid internships create a barrier to entry for low-income candidates. 
  • Beyond the walls:  In a highly segregated city, partnerships with grass roots arts organizations in underserved neighborhoods have helped MCA Chicago to serve disenfranchised communities. It has not yet been possible for the museum to make the investments necessary to grow and sustain a full set of such partnerships to serve the entire city and region. 


More In This Initiative

Case Studies in Museum Diversity


A series of case studies by Ithaka S+R in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors examines how certain art museums have been successful in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, offering lessons and best practices for others in the field.


Studio Museum in Harlem


The Studio Museum defines itself as the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally, with a staff that is 77% Black or African American.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the largest North American art museum, has supercharged its efforts to engage with more diverse communities. LACMA itself is relatively diverse with 50 percent of the staff including people of color.


The Andy Warhol Museum


The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest single-artist museum in the country.  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.


Spelman College Museum


 A case study examining how Spelman College Museum contributes to diversification of the curatorial pipeline.